School Lunch On A Budget

This is the first year I’ve had to worry about school lunch. At first I was thinking, “Great, now I have to spend a ton of money on those little chip packages and pudding cups.” Then my frugal side rebelled. I have never wasted money on prepackaged junk food before and I’m not about so start now! So for all you moms out there with a similar stubborn thrifty streak, here are some ideas on how to pack a lunchbox without breaking the bank… and the ideas apply when packing grown-up lunches too!

Lunch Box Equipment:

Lunch box. Think big with thick insulation. You may even find a nice one at a yard sale or thrift store if you keep your eyes out. If you live in Idaho or Utah, check out a Downeast Home store. They sell awesome lunch boxes for around $5. Most of them have monograms on them, but you can unpick them or cover them with fabric.
Ice pack. I use the free ones I got from the formula companies when I had a baby.
Reusable containers in different sizes. I like the itty bitty ones for dips and the flat square ones for sandwiches. Cheap containers are okay for dry stuff, but test out containers to make sure they are liquid-proof before you send them to school with your child. Reusable containers reduce the need to buy disposable plastic bags, which saves money over the course of the school year. It’s also better for the environment.
Plastic spoons. If they make it home, I wash and reuse them. If they don’t make it home, I thank myself for not sending a real spoon.

Lunch Box Main Dishes:

Peanut butter and jelly. The good old stand-by. To change things up, try using a cookie cutter to cut a shape into the middle of the sandwich. Or cut it into a puzzle that your child has to put back together before eating. Don’t underestimate the power that cutting shapes into a sandwich has on it’s appeal to a child!
Peanut butter and jelly rolled in a tortilla.
Peanut butter banana sandwich. Delicious! Just add thin slices of banana instead of jelly.
Meat sandwiches (although I have found that deli meat is hard to get for a good price, so I rarely make these)
Tuna salad, egg salad, chicken salad sandwiches
Shake-shake salad. Squirt dressing into the bottom of a reusable container. Layer vegetables/cheese/eggs/meat next, then lettuce on top. When your child gets to school, they just shake the container to coat the lettuce with the dressing. Then it’s not soggy! This is one of my daughter’s favorite lunches.
Cold pizza. Homemade is even better.
Homemade hot pockets. Meat, cheese, sauce wrapped in dough and cooked, then refrigerated or frozen individually.
Layered bean dip and chips
Fruit Muffins: zucchini, banana, apple
Tortilla pizza: spaghetti sauce, pepperoni and cheese rolled in a tortilla.
Cheese swirls. Melt cheese in a tortilla. Roll up and cut into ½ inch pieces.
Granola and Milk. Pack them separately, freezing the milk if necessary, and let your child mix them together at school before eating. Make sure the milk container doesn’t leak. Maybe put it in a plastic bag just to be sure. Or have your child buy a container of milk at school.
Pasta salad
Homemade “Lunchables” with pepperoni or ham, cheese and crackers
Peanut butter pancakes. Spread leftover pancakes with peanut butter and put two together like a sandwich.
Smoothie. Just make sure it’s in a non-spill container and right next to an ice pack.
Waffles cut into sticks with a small container of maple syrup for dipping. Or dip in applesauce for a lower sugar option. A batch of waffles can be made ahead and frozen individually.

Lunch Box Sides:

Ants On A Log (celery, PB, and raisins)
Pre-cut fruit in a small reusable container: grapes, strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, peeled orange slices, mandarin oranges, canned fruit. A great way to use up leftovers from the night before.
–Chips, crackers or pretzels. Buy big bags and portion out into small containers. Much cheaper than the small bags!
Cheese sticks. A 1 oz. string cheese at the store costs around $0.25 on sale. 1 oz. of cheese cut from a block of cheese (on sale for 2.50/lb.) is around $0.06.
Carrots. I find 2 lb. bags of carrots frequently for $0.88. I just peel and cut them into smaller sizes instead of buying baby carrots which are usually $2.00 a bag or more.
Peeled, salted and halved hard-boiled eggs
Applesauce. Homemade or bought in large containers, just divide it into a small portion cup. Don’t forget a plastic spoon!
Bananas. If a whole banana is too much, cut the banana in half through skin and all. Then only the tiny bit on the end will turn brown and rest of the banana is perfectly fresh.

Lunch Box Treats:

Mix up a full box of pudding or jello, portion it out into small reusable containers and you have a homemade pudding cup. I figure this method is about half price depending on the deal you get on the pudding and the milk to go in it.
Make a batch of cookies, brownies, or bars. Wrap individually in plastic wrap, then place in a gallon bag in the freezer. Tah-dah! Homemade individual treats ready for lunch boxes. And they are homemade, so that means no preservatives or added junk and you can control how much sugar/fat is in them.
–Toss in a handful of marshmallows or chocolate chips.
Halloween is coming up…let them put one or two pieces of candy in with their lunch! My kids think this is the best thing ever.


  1. I think you can do just about anything that is prepackaged. We love yogurt parfaits in lunches, made cheap with little cups and baggies of granola…fruit cups too can be homemade. Really anything you see at the store you can copy into little cups/lids and send in the lunch pack! Taryn still buys milk at school some days. I don't think 30 cents is too much for that and she loves it really cold! 🙂


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