Saving money and time on lunches for kids became a challenge for us as our children entered school. Littlest easily munches on leftovers and odds and ends from the fridge, but the older children are off bright and early along with their snacks, drinks, lunches, papers, and all. We are told that school lunches are “cheaper than anything you can make at home”, but at almost $3 a meal, I disagree. Of course, there is the free and reduced meal program: many qualify, but not everyone desires to accept it.
So, just how are we saving on our school kids’ lunches? Here are the top five ways:
1. Pack It
We pack lunches everyday now- sandwiches by yours truly and other foods are put in by the children- but in the past we have looked over the menu and had the children pick which days to pack and which to buy. I told them we needed to pack at least a few times a week to keep from blowing through the lunch money. Your school cafeteria may have all kinds of extra junk: slushies, ice cream, “blue drinks”, and more. Just how do we handle that? Our kids are only allowed one “extra” per week- the cafeteria staff has notes about this on their accounts in case they “forget”.
2. Pack Cheap Sandwiches
Loaves of bread for sandwiches are purchased at the $1 store or baked at home. Cheap or homemade jelly is paired with peanut butter purchased at the lowest price per ounce. Some days, peanut butter crackers are the main course. As long as there is a protein, fruit or veggie, and a whole grain, it fits the bill.
3. Pack Cheap Sides
Crackers and granola bars and other prepackaged foods are bought on sale with coupons for less than $1, or made at home. Apples and other fruits are bought in bulk for $1 a pound or less. Consider #10 cans of fruit from Sam’s, re-portioned for the freezer in individual containers. And homemade popcorn made from our 50 pound bag is extremely cheap! Read more on saving on snacks here.
4. Pack Cheap Desserts
We keep those never-ending hoards of holiday candy in large bags, labeled for each child, in the top of the cabinets and toss a piece in each lunchbox. Home-baked goods are an occasional treat that can be very economical when ingredients are purchased in bulk.
5. Pack Cheap Drinks
Reusable drink bottles filled with filtered tap water are the cheapest. Small water bottles or juice boxes purchased in bulk are still cheaper than buying milk at school. We offer milk at breakfast and serve other sources of calcium, so milk at lunch is not a necessity.
Planning ahead also helps tremendously. PB&J sandwiches can be pre-made and frozen in individual sandwich bags. These thaw nicely in the lunchbox and will not go soggy if you work a thin layer of peanut butter on each piece of bread so that jelly is in the middle (and if you cut the edges, save them for breadcrumbs.) Yogurt sticks or small yogurt cups can be kept in the freezer as well- these also make great cold packs that thaw by lunchtime.
Napkins (use party leftovers or extras from restaurants), spoons, notes, some fruits, and non-perishables can be placed in lunchboxes the night before to ensure that you have time to get it out the door and save that lunch money!
And one last note: if you have ever joined your child for lunch at school, you may have noticed just how little they eat and how much gets thrown out (some eat well, of course, but not all.) For small children, you may not need to pack as much as you think.
Read more on saving on school lunches here and please do share in the comments how you save on school lunches!