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Tips for Packing Affordable School Lunches (Eat Well, Spend Less)

Snacky Lunch

The blogosphere has practically exploded with cute and utterly adorable lunch ideas. Who knew that sandwiches could be cut into so many interesting and fascinating shapes?

Cute as these lunches may be, they aren’t the best thing since sliced bread if your kid won’t eat them — or worse, they break the bank. I’m all about making meals appealing to the eye, but pretty is as pretty does. Lunchtime needs to fit the bill!

How can we make lunchtime, nutritious, fun, and affordable?

There are a number of ways where you can curb costs when it comes to packing lunches for school or work. Techniques as varied as savvy coupon shopping and baking your own granola bars can definitely play a part in keeping costs down while maintaining the fun factor.

Let’s look at your options:

1. Make your own convenience items.

One can easily roam the aisles of the grocery store and find all kinds of packaged goods in individual-sized servings that will pull together into a great lunch. Recently, I found these perfectly shaped cracker cuts of cheese packed in little plastic boxes. The cheddar cost $4/pound, more than I like to pay. So, instead I took my big block of cheese ($3/pound) and cut cheese sticks and cracker cuts myself. Stored in a plastic box in the refrigerator, these convenient cheeses made for easy lunch packing without extra expense.

You can do the same with cooked, sliced meats, trail mix, yogurt, and applesauce. Take a larger, less expensive package or a homemade version and divide it into reusable containers. Do this at the start of the week and you’ve made lunch packing easier for the coming days.

(Download this handy-dandy meal prep checklist to make things even easier.)

2. Bake someone happy.

Browsing the baked goods aisle, I’ve noticed that boxed crackers, granola bars, and cookies cost a minimum of $3 a package in my neck of the woods. Surely, you can find these items for a lower price if you watch for coupons and good sales. However, if you’ve got a food allergy like we do, or are looking toward reducing processed foods, or just don’t have time to troll the sales, it’s just as easy — and sometimes cheaper — to make your own.

Some of my favorite (and freezer friendly) recipes are these:

3. Veg Out.

Don’t forget to fill your lunches with enough fruit and veg. Buy what’s in season and on sale and make the most of it. I stock up when I see a great price and then try to be creative with it.

Carrot and celery sticks, cucumber slices, broccoli florets, and red pepper spears all go well with Homemade Ranch or Hummus Dip. Salads are easy to pack, especially if the dressing is on the side. Check out Aimee’s homemade dressings.

Fruits that kids love? Try berries, applesauce, apple slices, pink grapefruit, pineapple spears, and grape clusters. Make things as appealing and as easy to eat as possible: remove the berry stems, treat the apple slices with lemon juice to prevent browning, section the grapefruit, cut fresh pineapple, and cut the grapes into small clusters.

4. Chill.

Food spoilage is not your friend. No good eats. And a waste of money. It’s imperative to keep your cool when it comes to packing a lunch.

Sometimes refrigeration is available at school or work, and sometimes you’re on your own. Check out these food safety tips from Simple Bites to make sure you’re packing in the healthiest way possible.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on special gel packs or lunch boxes. An insulated cooler or lunch bag is a great idea, though. You can buy reusable ice packs for a low price and then make sure they get refrozen at night. We keep a few extras on hand in case we forget.

Make sure cold contents are cold when you pack them. Freeze juices and yogurts to keep them cool. They should thaw by lunchtime.

5. Use reusable packaging.

Reusable packaging can be a great way to save money. Not only are you keeping more plastic and paper from entering a landfill, but you are also saving money by not buying the same things over and over again. We’ve found these great boxes that easily hold sandwiches and snacks. They’re like bento boxes without the bells and whistles — or the high price.

There are also all kinds of reusable lunch wraps that you can make yourself.

6. Shop the sales and use coupons.

Now is the time when convenient lunch items go on sale. Keep your eyes open on coupons for products that you normally use. Stroll the clearance sections. Often, granola bars and serving size produce are marked down due to an upcoming sell-by date or simple overstock. You will be surprised at what you can find on mark down.

Lunchtime can very easily be affordable, nutritious and fun. With a little planning and creativity, you’ve got it all boxed up!

This post is part of an ongoing series about how to eat well and spend less. Along with some fabulous foodies, organizers, and frugalistas, I’ve been bringing you suggestions on how to eat like a king without becoming a pauper to do it. This month we’re discussing budget-friendly ideas for handling the back to school season, covering breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Be sure to check out what the other ladies are sharing this week or browse their archives:

Ultimate Recipe Swap

This week’s URS is Back to School themed! Come back on Thursday to share your favorite recipes for the school season.

How do YOU keep lunches affordable?

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Comments

  1. I do a lot of what you are doing. Also, I have my kids help make there lunches. This way they have a say and hand in putting together what they are going to eat which hopefully means they are more likely to eat it.

  2. School starts here tomorrow and I have 2 going to school this year instead of one so I am a little nervous that everything will go ok.

    As far as lunches go, I do the same thing you do, we do buy a bit of convience but coupons are my lifesaver in that category.

    Since school starts tomorrow today will be my last minute crunch day to get everything done and set up for an easy going morning routine.

    On my list of things to get done are:
    *Wash all the new school clothes
    *Stock fridge with juice boxes so they are cold going into the lunch boxes
    * Portion out chips and such so they are ready to go in the morning.
    * Make easy breakfasts and freeze- muffins, waffles, pancakes etc
    just a few things that will help in the early morning getting things together so we can get out the door and be on time for the bus.

  3. Great tips! I don’t have to pack lunches yet, but the day is looming on the horizon. I am totally in love with the bento craze and spend way too much time browsing bento sites…but I do recognize that those lunches are hugely time intensive and not cheap. Not to mention frequently wasteful, since you wind up with lots of extra bits and pieces with all that cutting and decorating!

  4. I take my lunch every day. My wonderful husband packs it for me. I consider it ok to spend a little more on a yummy homemade lunch to prevent me from being tempted to go out and spend a lot more. So I go ahead and buy cheese sticks. I buy lots of fruit and veggies (lunch + snacks is how I get my 5 a day). I take a diet coke. And at the end of the day, it’s way cheaper than eating out. And tastes better, too.

    Also, those packaged storebought baked goods? Homemade ones are so much better!

  5. Thank you for all of the great tips! I tried to make crackers once, but they had to be rolled out and cut. What a pain! I read your recipe and it looks easy and so much healthier than what I get at the store! I have bookmarked the recipe and will definitely try it.

    Have you ever used white whole wheat flour instead of using half white and half wheat? I usually just use the white wheat flour because it is softer like white, but has the same nutritional qualities of traditional hard wheat. I am wondering if you think they would turn out if I didn’t add any white flour, or if it would be a lot better with the white? Either way it is way more healthy than the box.:)

  6. Told you were are similar wave lengths. lol I just blogged about lunches today too!

    http://dynamicsofdavis.blogspot.com/2011/08/healthy-school-lunches.html

    Have a great day!

  7. Woo-hoo! Great tips, Jessica.

  8. i do alot of the same things for my lunch & my husband’s! like Molly said above- spending a little more on good food for lunches is way cheaper in the long run. it’s tastier and makes me less tempted to buy (not so good) food in the food court! :) win/win! i am impressed with you $3/lb cheese. here, i have a hard time getting it for less than $4.50/lb unless I buy a huge portion from sam’s which we can’t finish before it goes bad.

  9. When the 2lb. blocks of cheese are on sale for around $5, I buy several flavors and then have the deli department slice for me. I just make sure I don’t go during a busy time for the store and tie up the deli line.

    You end up with sliced cheese for around $2.50 or $3 a pound. At home I layer it in rows between waxed paper so it doesn’t all stick together.

    • Wow, I’m jealous! I have to buy 5# blocks to get it at $5.79/#. And that’s not deli, its dairy case. No way will the deli on the other side of the store slice it. Lucky you!

  10. We’re homeschooling, so I’m fortunate to not have to send lunch. We often do leftovers as lunch the next day, and when we don’t, I do something simple like mac and cheese and fruit, or grilled cheese and fruit. We have a small backyard, but have planted strawberry plants, blueberry bushes, and dwarf citrus trees. It’s so nice to have fresh fruit, and it only cost the amount of the plant!

  11. These tips can be really helpful for me. My family lives on a pretty tight budget and my girls dont really like the school luches provided. I think I am goin to try a few of these ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Great tips! Love the idea of packing lunch rather then leaving the responsibility for nutritious kid-friend meals up to the school system.

  13. I would love to know the secret to freezing yogurt (mentioned above). It was watery separated and tasted yucky when I tried it last month.

  14. I make bento lunches for my kid: http://kookyculinary.com/category/bento/kids-bento/

  15. I find that the freezer is my best friend in being prepared for school lunches. If I make a batch of cookies, I freeze them in single serving packages that I can just grab. I freeze leftovers and make pizza bread and freeze it which will thaw by lunch time. I can make bread ahead of time and just pull it out when I need it. I find that if I leave cookies or brownies out, they get eaten very fast, but by freezing them they last.

  16. What great strategies. I never thought of quick breads for school lunches. Wonderful idea. Will be trying that soon.

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