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.

7 Fun, Cheap Lunch Ideas for Kids and Adults - skip the fancy beverages1. 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.

7 Fun, Cheap Lunchbox Ideas

That Aren’t Just About Food

  • Silly Bandz, $5: Your child will be the coolest in the lunchroom with these “silly” elastic shapes to mess around with and share. Include them as a surprise in their lunchbox.
  • Mini Lunch Notes, $9.95: Inspiration (and time) escapes us all, but your children will know you’re thinking about them when you slip one of these into their lunch box each day.
  • US Toy Monster Finger Puppets, $9.97: Only the coolest parents will give their kids these bad boys with their sandwiches and fruit each day. And if you’re really cool, you’ll give them names. Possibly without even telling your child. Grown-ups can like monsters, too.
  • OmieBox Bento Lunch Box, $39.50: Hot and cold food in one box? You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me! This is the most practical lunch box we’ve seen, and it’s the perfect addition for those long school days.
  • UpChefs Sandwich Cutters, $17.99: “But Mom, sandwiches are boring.” Not when they’re shaped like dinosaurs and elephants! Take that extra step in the mornings can help jazz up your kids day. Who knows what shape they’ll get today? With 10 pieces, you’ll have tons to choose from.
Having food on hand is a lifesaver for those mornings when you need to shove something in a lunch box as you usher your kids out the door.

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.

fun, cheap lunch ideas for kids and adults | art by Jonan Everett
Art by Jonan Everett.

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.

7 Fun, Cheap Lunch Ideas for Kids and Adults. Daily meals don't have to cost a fortune. Check out these cheap lunch ideas for kids that will put a smile on their faces without putting a frown on yours. #cheaplunchideas #cheaplunchideasforkids #cheaplunchideasforadultsYou 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.