Easy School Lunch Ideas

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15 Cheap School Lunch Ideas

Easy School Lunch Ideas

It’s that wonderful time of year that lightens your heart and fills your soul with peace & tranquility. No, I’m not talking about Christmas! I’m talking about school starting!! Yes! Yes! Yes! It’s a bitter sweet time for most moms. Bitter because you’re back to hectic mornings, finding everyone’s books and papers and trying to get them out of the door on time… because you now have 180 lunches to make over the next nine months if you have one child and 720 if you have four — But hey, who’s counting?

It is sweet because the peaceful quiet that penetrates the house is like gentle music to your ears and you can take a lovely relaxing bubble bath without what sounds like the whole US army trying to break down the bathroom door. Well, now that I think about it, I haven’t known many moms that had the luxury of a bubble bath in the middle of the day but I can dream, can’t I?

I can’t help you find time for that bubble bath but maybe I can help you with those 720 lunches by sharing some easy lunch ideas.


Here are a few school lunch ideas and snack ideas that will satisfy all of your picky eaters:

  • To keep drinks cold in lunch boxes, pour a small amount in the bottom of the container (not glass) and then set the cap loosely on top. Put it in the freezer overnight. The next day fill with the rest of the drink. The ice should slowly melt all day long, keeping the beverage cool.
  • Have the kids pre-package chips and cookies in baggies on the weekends. Store in a basket. Grab one as needed for lunches. This is one of the school lunch ideas that will save you the most money.
  • Make a large batch of puddings and gelatins on the weekends. Pour into individual containers and refrigerate.
  • Save the catsup and mustard packets and napkins you don’t use from the fast food restaurants. Use them in lunch boxes.
  • Puddings – sprinkle with marshmallows, coconut, nuts, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips or peanut butter chips (for chocolate pudding) or berries (in vanilla pudding)
  • Banana, pumpkin or zucchini bread
  • Tuna, egg or chicken salad sandwich
  • Tuna salad and crackers
  • Sandwiches made from last night’s dinner meat (ie. roast beef, chicken, turkey)
  • Pickles
  • Ants on a log – celery with peanut butter inside and raisins on the peanut butter
  • Hot dogs
  • Canned fruit
  • Carrot sticks, celery sticks or radishes with Ranch dressing
  • Homemade granola bars or cookies


Homemade Granola Bars Recipe

3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter or margarine, softened
2 Tbsp. honey or corn syrup
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups rolled oats (oatmeal)
1 1/4 cups crispy rice cereal
1/2 cup wheat germ (optional)
1 cup chocolate chips*

In a large bowl, cream sugars and butter until fluffy. Add honey, vanilla and egg. Mix well. Blend in flour, cinnamon, baking soda and salt. Stir in remaining ingredients. Press firmly into the bottom of a greased 9×13 pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

To microwave: Press ingredients into a microwave safe dish. Microwave on medium power for 7-9 minutes. Rotate dish every three minutes. Bars will firm as they stand. Cool and cut into bars. Save the crumbs for yogurt or ice cream topping. Makes 24 bars

*The following may be used in addition to or to replace chocolate chips

1 cup coconut
1/2 cup creamy or chunky peanut butter
1/2 cup nuts
1/2-1 cup raisins, dried apples, apricots
1/2 cup fruit preserves


If you like these easy school lunch ideas, check out our Dining On A Dime Cookbook, which is filled with quick and easy recipes to make your life easier!



  1. elizabeth says

    Thanks for the granola bar recipe! I have been wanting one. I have always done sandwiches or leftovers for lunch, but the other day I just cut up some cheese, crackers, and fruit ( I was being lazy)- but my kids loved it. I think I may go this route a few days a week. It was so easy. Kind of like a “lunchable” but no meat and more fruit.

  2. says

    just read this recipe which sounds good for adults and children alike.

    they call them lunch box handwiches.


    * 1 loaf (1 pound) frozen bread dough, thawed
    * 2-1/2 cups finely chopped fully cooked ham
    * 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Swiss cheese
    * 1 egg yolk
    * 1 tablespoon water


    * Let dough to rise according to package directions. Punch down; divide into 10 pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece into a 5-in. circle. Carefully place one circle on a greased baking sheet.
    * Place about 1/4 cup ham and 2 tablespoons cheese to within 1/2 in. of edges; press filling to flatten. Combine egg yolk and water; brush edges of dough with egg yolk mixture. Fold dough over filling and pinch edges to seal. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Brush tops with remaining egg yolk mixture.
    * Bake at 375° for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm or cold. If desired, cool and freeze. Yield: 10 servings.

    Nutrition Facts: 1 serving (1 each) equals 229 calories, 9 g fat (3 g saturated fat), 50 mg cholesterol, 729 mg sodium, 25 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 14 g protein.

    I am going to speed up the prep time and use puff pastry instead of bread dough.

    • Marcie says

      Hi, I have also used canned biscuits (such as Pillsbury Grands). You just flatten out the biscuit into a circle about 5 in diameter. I put all kinds of leftover meat or chicken plus whatever shredded cheese I have on hand. Fold them over, crimp closed and bake according to directions. They can be frozen after cooking and cooling. They are like a mini calzone. Fun for kids to help make too.

  3. says

    Those handwiches sound great. Like a hot pocket or something. If it works with ham and swiss would it work with pepperoni and mozzerella? You could use pizza dough mix and make mini calzones. I just made myself hungry :)

    • says

      Yes I think you could Angela. I know what you mean about making yourself hungry. You should see me at the end of a morning writing about and looking at all of these yummy recipes. : )

  4. Brenda says

    Thanks so much for the granola bar recipe and the handwich recipe. I may also try making the handwich recipe with some cooked & crumbled sausage, diced cooked potatoes & onions and some cheese for a quick breakfast sandwich. This is such a wonderful site. So many frugal minded people like me with lots of great ideas!

  5. Joan Swander says

    Make sure you use an insulated lunch bag with plenty of ice packs to keep things nice and cold (it needs to be 40 degrees or below.) Might be good to try it one day at home and check to see that how you pack the lunch really keeps it cold. On cold, winter days, a thermos of hot chili or soup or stew is a great change for those who carry lunch.

  6. Bea says

    Here is a nice cookie recipe: Jello Cookies
    3/4 cup butter or margarine
    1/2 cup sugar
    3 oz box Jello (Take out 2 tablespoons for frosting)
    2 eggs
    1 tsp vanilla
    2-1/2 cups flour
    1 tsp baking powder
    1/2 tsp salt
    Cream butter and sugar. Add jello, eggs, and vanilla. Add flour and baking powder. Mix. Shape into walnut-sized balls. Flatten with bottom of glass, hand, or fork. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes.
    2 Tablespoons butter
    2 Tablespoons jello (reserved)
    2 cups powdered sugar
    3-5 tablespoons milk
    1 tsp vanilla
    Warm milk. Add jello. Add butter and cream mixture. Add sugar and milk. If too thick add more milk.

    • says

      Thanks Bea. This is an unusual recipe. What I really like about it is the flavors are only limited by the amount of different flavors of jello. Sounds good. I think jello is becoming my new best friend. I just got through reading about how great jello works to dye things with. Who knew.

    • Lisa B. says

      Instead of adding jello to a recipe, I just use a sugar cookie box mix from the store and add non-sweetened kool aid mix. Our favorite is pink lemonade!

  7. Bea says

    You’re welcome Jill. I love Jello, and actually this website has gotten me to eat it more. I have made those Chocolate Gels so much I can’t even tell you how many times. That homemade gelatin is SOOO good. Also, I made the Jello banana split you had on here and that is good. Jello certainly is versatile.

  8. mary says

    Like many other mothers I was naive enough to believe that what I packed in my daughter’s lunch was what she ate for lunch. As it turned out (and she eventually confessed), she could trade her homemade cookies and cake for lots of other things. Her best trade was cutting her homemade banana cake into three pieces and trading for Cheetos (a whole small bag), a piece of candy, and some fruit. And I had wondered why she wanted to eat the same things I had sent in her lunch as snacks after school!!

    • says

      I know Mary. I have had to bite my tongue at times when moms talk about sending their kids these wonderful healthy lunches to school. I always wondered it they really had forgot what it was like when they went to school and do they not remember that only in rare cases did most kids eat the lunch they brought?

      I was a rare case because I was a picky eater and would only eat certain things so usually ate my lunch but I do remember the days the school served tomato soup. Hardly any kids would touch it but I loved it so I got to have many bowls of it on those days.

      Also as far as eating healthy, the schools are so funny because the push healthy things so much.Things like you can’t even bring a good old fashion chocolate chip cookie for a treat but yet they have vending machines with much worse things in them. Crazy.

      Anyway I am so glad you gave us a reality check. :) :)

  9. Bea says

    Well Mary the thought that came to me while reading your post is that SOME kid is enjoying your homemade food! It must be good or it wouldn’t be worth trading to some other kid. There is an upside to it.
    And Jill last night I made Jello cookies with Berry Blue Jello and they are so pretty and tasty. I was thinking for Thanksgiving I could try the Cranberry Jello and for Halloween the Orange Jello. Like you said there are many possibilites.

  10. rose says

    hubby loves the unsweetened jello (in the pkg) and i add a can of the no sugar added fruit cocktail for him .. its a nice treat for him and well it doesnt bother his blood sugar too much and its a nice soothing treat he can enjoy without worrying about his acid reflux ..
    i was telling my daughter about the chocolate jello and she said anything that has chocolate in it will be awesome .. 😀 ..
    thanks for posting the jello cookies bea ,, i will share this with my daughter so she can make them for my son in law .. he loves cookies and well .. this would be a nice treat .
    and those hamwiches recipe u posted .. i have made them .. but i used the jiffy biscuit mix and rolled the dough out very thin and then stuffed them and baked them..
    i have served them on a cold day with some hot soup ..
    as for what the schools say is nutritious .. they need to take the soda/goodie machines out .. too many kids would rather get a can of soda and bag of chips/pretzels instead of getting a school lunch .. altho i must admit, whne i was a kid i personally loved our school lunches .. they were awesome .. and seemed more of a homemade taste ..
    the last time i had lunch at a school is when my son’s class got to invite one of their parents for lunch (it was some kind of thing they were doing, sorta like take ur kids to work day .. but instead it was take ur parents to lunch at school day) ..
    and well.. the food tasted like it had come out of a box .. (it probably did) .. it certainly wasnt the same type of quality i had when i was growing up and i can still remember the kids in the class complaining about it (my class) .. i wonder what they would say if they had what was served that day in my son’s school ..
    thanks for posting the granola and apple oatmeal bars .. they look delish 😀 ..

  11. Bea says

    You’re welcome Rose. Nice to see your posts. I think those Apple Oatmeal Bars sound good too. Want to make them soon. The Jello Cookies are really good and so pastel and pretty. They are nice for holidays.

  12. Grizzly Bear Mom says

    I’m only an auntie but I don’t worry about kids exchanging lunch components. It’s not going to kill them in the long run,teaches them entrepenaurship, and build relationships. Three goods for 1/3 of a piece of cake? Send that girl to Wharton Business School. Wait-she’ll make it there on her own!

  13. Mamaof4prayingformore says

    Hello…I was wondering on the Apple Oatmeal Bars…is that cooked oatmeal?? Or is it the dry oats? Thanks. Looking forward to making both bars for myself and the kids!

    • says

      No it is uncooked quick cook oats. We just put (oatmeal) because we had many people who didn’t know what rolled oats was or that you could use just regular oatmeal.

  14. Jaime says

    The Apple Oatmeal Bar recipe sounds delicious. I’ve really liked oatmeal but I may have to give it another try for this recipe.

  15. Carol says

    I know the kids love all the puddings and cookies and crackers, but wow, talk about the carb overload. They have more than enough energy to burn without giving them too much at lunch so they are keyed up in their next class to only have them crash a little while later. Even some fruit such as bananas, grapes and pineapple are high on the glycemic index. I know they are good for you, but perhaps hold them and the cookies for after school when they can get outside and burn it off.

    • says

      First I have never noticed that my kids or grandkids have extra energy whether feed more carbs or fruits or even sugar. We have heard over and over for years that sugar causes kids to be hyper. I never fell for it because the studies always said “we tested x amount of kids at birthday parties, Easter and Christmas and they were extra hyper because of sugar” I mean really it’s a birthday party – Christmas kids will be hyper no matter what they eat. Now many years later guess what they are finding kids are no more hyper after sugar or a plate of veggies.

      Once again I say feed your kids balanced meals and snacks. Just because I give a list of things I assume most people have enough common sense to not feed your kids nothing but cookies and puddings for all their meals and snacks. All the kids I know have extra energy no matter what they are feed. They are kids.

  16. granny mae says

    Just want to say thanks for all the recipes and good conversation. I would like to tell you about my grandson who lives with me. He complains all the time about the school lunches so he brings his from home. He packs his own and they are feasts for sure. Not the typical lunch for a kid. He takes left over cold chicken and stuffing, homemade apple sauce and milk or his favorite, iced tea in hot weather. Sometimes he takes left over lasgana or what ever is left from supper the night before. I make him homemade ginger bread and now his friends at school want to share his lunch so I caught him packing enough for two and some days three ! He loves salads and takes those too. One friend had never had ginger bread before and now I have to make double so the grandson can take a bunch with him to school ! He was raised on foods without dyes or additives because he is hyper. No dyes worked like a charm for himand still does. But you better give him good reg. food !

    • says

      Oh yum. Gingerbread is one of my favorites and my kids and grandkids love it too. I can’t imagine someone not ever having it. He is one lucky grandson. They really need to do potluck at school. It seems like someone elses lunch always looks better. It is a given that kids will trade or share lunches.

  17. granny mae says

    Jill, You are right. It isn’t sugar that makes them hyper. It is the food dyes in the frosting and unfortunately jello, and most anything with color in it. And if you read the lables you will find in the most unlikly places. Vanilla pudding cups have I think blue dye in them. Also marshmallows. When you start looking at labels it will blow your mind. All kinds of chips and flavored drinks and margarine and so on. We pretty much had to start making everything from scratch but most mothers don’t want to do that now days. Once you get the hang of it , it comes easy but getting into the hang of it was hard at first, however the change in the behavior and focus of my grandson was like the difference of nite and day ! We now use fruits and herbs and vegetables for food coloring when we need it. Not hard to live that way now but took some getting use to. We even had to stop all medicine with color in it including head ache medicine. Today he is the greatest kid you could ask for. If anyone out there has a problem with hyper activity etc. try this for three weeks and see if you don’t notice a big difference. Especially cut out the cereals with colors in them.

  18. granny mae says

    Just one more thing, there are some fruits that will also trigger hyper activity in some kids. When putting a kid on this kind of food regimin make sure you know everything that is going into their mouths. Snacking at friends homes is a no, no until you inform the neighbor what you are doing. I found that out the hard way ! Also they say to start out with only pears for a fruit and desert at first. It takes at least three days to get the worst of everything out of the system. Then when you add something back add only that one thing and wait for a day to see how it is affecting the child. If nothing is wrong then in a couple days add one more fruit . Until you can eliminate the bad stuff . All kids are individual so what works for one may not work for another even kids in the same family. Our kids now follow this with their own babies and we have some that were real hyper from birth. I swear the meds. for mommy affected one of them. He could not lay still at 2 days old. He was just all over the bed. Mommy was very vigilant with him and still is and watches everything he eats and even lotions that are rubbed on him. I don’t know what she would have done if we hadn’t learned about all this years ago, but she recgonised it right away and took charge. She is a great mommy.

  19. Cynthia says

    For heaven’s sake, don’t waste money buying pre-packaged gelatin or pudding. It’s way cheaper to invest in storage dishes (plastic if you like, glass if you prefer) and make a batch of gelatin and divide it among the storage dishes. A small box makes four servings (unless my husband is making it!) and a big box makes eight servings.

    The same logic holds true for applesauce, canned fruit and fruit cocktail. (Even more so since they come in bigger sizes and require no prep work!)

  20. Mary Jane says

    This newsletter reminded me of a “leftover” recipe that I used to make when I baked pies, and can easily be used for lunchbox treats for kids or husbands. Take leftover pastry scraps and roll out into a rectangle or circle a little bigger than the size of an adult’s palm of the hand, (exact shape doesn’t matter). In the middle of that pastry, put 1 tsp. of white or brown sugar, a dab of butter or margarine, and a couple of drops of vanilla or almond extract. Wet half of the outside edge of the pastry perimeter, and fold the other side over to seal it. The sugar, butter and extract are now inside the dough. Crimp the edges of the pastry with a floured fork, for an extra secure seal. Bake on a lightly greased baking sheet (along side of the pies, if you like) at about 350 degrees, until done. Outside of the pastries may be brushed with a bit of milk and sprinkled with a bit of sugar and/or cinnamon before baking. When nice and brown, remove with a spatula to a wire tray to allow to cool. They will be very hot and sticky as the sugar will have melted and may have oozed out a bit. These were usually gobbled up warm, but they are good cold, too.

    • Pat says

      Thanks for the memory, my Mother used to do this, but she used jam in the middle and called them a tart! LOL, She got so she made extra pie dough because we like the “tarts”, I remember them being put into Dad’s lunch box.
      Haven’t thought of these in probably 60 years. She also did the same with a meat mixture ( have no idea what) but my Grandma made them for the men in the family for an easy to eat lunch, when they were at work and she called them “pasties” think that would be how you spell it ( she had a thick English accent).

      • says

        Since you have our book you might check out the Cheeseburger Rolls on pg. 182. They are a type of pasties but made with bread dough but you could use pie dough, biscuit dough and put other leftover meats and veggies in them.

  21. Mary Jane says

    By the way, I made the homemade granola bar recipe from this site (as I never had a good recipe for granola bars before), and my husband has been using them as ‘currency” at work. They are really delicious.

  22. Pat says

    Busy making Rice Pudding from My copy of Dinning on a Dime!
    Yesterday I got a fantastic sale on cream ( dated Feb 7), works out cheaper than my milk, So I used 4 cups of it for my pudding rather than milk. This will do supper desert tonight for the 2 of us, and lunch tomorrow. Did think what a lovely thing to tuck into a lunch box. Just use one of the little plastic cups with the tight lids, and pack them when the pudding cools. You could add a little dab of jam on top if you didn’t use raisins. For me rice pudding is like a Hug from my Mom, makes me feel good.
    Thanks again for the book, so happy I won it.

  23. Pat says

    Oh, one more thing , on the trading lunches. I used to trade anything I had for a friends oat cakes. They were flat oat things like a large cracker. I loved them, one of my friends Mom used to make them and put them in her kids lunches and they were sick of them, so I used to trade for them anytime I had a chance. Sometimes that makes for a more varied diet for both sides of the trade. Now I’m older I understand that they were short of funds, but as a kid, I thought they were so lucky to get these many times a month.

  24. Barbs says

    My Beloved and absolutely love the idea to keep juices cold! He always complained about warm juices for his lunch. Now, he looks forward to cold juice for dinner at work! Setting up his dinner for work was a god sent, no longer do I pack his lunch on a whim. Thanks for making Dinner fixings so much easier!
    Jim and Barbs

  25. Grizzly bear mom says

    Pat regarding the oat cakes: by trading for them you were providing variety to a family that probably didn’t get much variety in its meals. You were a blessing to them.

  26. Johnnie Lorraine says

    These are all such wonderful ideas. I am so glad I found this website. I am a single mom of four on a very tight budget and these hints and tips will make feeding four growing boys so much easier (even my picky one)so I am thankful to all of you who have written in and to Jill for the time and effort in making such a wonderful site for moms like me.


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