For parents, summer feels like one long spending binge. On top of Dairy Queen runs and vacations, parents shell out big money for extra child care and back-to-school necessities. It’s no wonder that the new school year leads so many parents to recommit to frugality. For plenty of parents, that means cutting lunch-box costs. Here, we’ve got seven cheap lunch ideas for kids and adults alike.
1. Bypass Fancy Beverages
Most kids love a juice box, and many adults like to have a soda with lunch. But everyone is better off without an expensive beverage. At Aldi (where I shop), juice boxes cost about 30 cents each, and soda costs about the same. By choosing tap water, my family saves around $360 per year.
The real trick is figuring out how to pack a beverage. When I was growing up, for example, my mom froze an inch of water in a reusable bottle. In the morning she topped it off with cool water. This clever trick kept my lunch cool while providing a refreshing lunchtime beverage. But the trick had a downside: The very cold water yielded a lunch box full of condensation. Yuck!
To avoid that, I pack empty water bottles, which don’t leak. Plus, it’s easy to help my son fill one up when we get to school.
Further Reading: “How to Save Money Like a Boss”
2. Prep in Bulk
On crazy weekday mornings, lunch prep can be a hassle. To ease the burden, I meal-prep in advance. I’ll cut up two to three days’ worth of fruit and slice a week’s worth of cheese. If we’ve got a particularly busy week, my husband will make 15 sandwiches on Sunday night.
That Aren’t Just About Food
3. Pack What Kids Eat
At school, my son refuses to eat the foods we normally eat at home. After a few days of uneaten lunches, I started packing only the foods he promised to eat. So for the past three weeks, my son has eaten three slices of cheese, two crackers, one baby carrot and applesauce for lunch.
Not sure what your kids will eat? Get them involved in packing their own lunches. You can even check to see if there are any coupons for the food they like by using apps like SavingStar.
If your kids have input, they will generally waste less food. Remember, a full lunch for a kid might look tiny compared with an adult lunch, so avoid overpacking.
4. Breakfast for Lunch
Breakfast: It’s not just for dinner anymore.
If your kid isn’t crazy about traditional lunch options, pack breakfast items instead. For example, you can send kids off with whole-grain cereal and have them buy milk at school (extra points if you pack milk in a thermos). Kids can dip cold pancakes and waffles into yogurt for a fun lunch.
In high school, I made and froze breakfast sandwiches for my lunch or after-school snacks. My teachers allowed me to use their microwaves to heat them up.
Further Reading: “Bargains and Leftovers: How to Save Money on Food”
5. Skip Snack Packs
Snack packs drive up the cost of a lunch, but kids love them, and they're so easy. Instead of avoiding all packaged foods, I use these strategies to cut down costs.
First, I sometimes substitute homemade food. Since I like to bake, it’s not a big deal to whip up a batch of cookies or homemade granola bars. I also make my own hummus and veggie dip.
If homemade is too much work, I buy family packs and fill sandwich baggies or Rubbermaid containers with individual servings. This works great with crackers, chips, yogurt and cheese.
Finally, I stock up during sales. Most packaged goods last for weeks or months in the fridge or cupboard. When I see a great sale, I’ll buy six to eight weeks’ worth of a lunch-box staple.
6. Stock Up on Storage
Of course, none of these strategies works very well if you don’t have plenty of food storage containers. Recently bento boxes have gained a lot of popularity, but I don’t like them. They tend to be leaky and expensive.
Instead, we store lunch foods in Rubbermaid containers and Ziploc bags, and we pack lunches in insulated lunch boxes that we’ve had for years.
You don’t need fancy food storage, but you need a lot of containers. I recommend a 60-piece storage set for a family of four.
Further Reading: “Can You Go a Full Month Without Buying Groceries?”
7. Send Groceries With Adults
So far, we’ve focused on saving money on school lunches, but saving money on office lunches is even more important. After all, kids who don’t bring food will spend $2 to $3 on a school lunch. Adults who buy their lunch will spend a lot more.
If the thought of packing one more lunch leaves you in despair, don’t do it. Adults can easily prepare lunch at the office with a small sack of groceries. For several years, I worked with a floor full of “brown baggers.” At least half of the brown baggers never prepared lunch at home. Rather, they brought in lunch foods (bread, meat, cheese, yogurt, baby carrots, fruit, etc.) and made their lunches at work.