Save Money on School Lunches

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Save money on school lunches or any time the kids need to pack a lunch! Use these easy tips for preparing school lunches for the week in 30 minutes on the weekend.

Save $400 On School Lunches!

Save $400 on school lunches this year!

These days in America, it seems that everyone is so busy that preparing school lunches is liable to push a typical mom right over the edge. When you have to choose between making school lunches or spending that extra 15 minutes in bed, it seems like buying ready made school lunches at the store is a no-brainer, but your budget doesn’t agree.

The average mom packs $2.00 worth of pre-packaged goodies into each school lunch she sends to school with her kids. (That works out to $720 for 2 kids.) What mother hasn’t wondered if those lunches are even getting eaten and if there’s an easier way to save money on school lunches?

Try these easy tips for things you can do in 30 minutes or less on the weekend to save money on school lunches and make preparation a snap!

Easy Tips To Save Money on School Lunches

  • Those snack bags of munchies cost a lot! Make your own by pre-packaging chips, pretzels, animal crackers and other snack items into sandwich bags on the weekends. (Have the kids help!) Store them in a big container or basket and just throw them in the lunch box in the morning.
  • Let the kids create their own Pizza lunch kits- Toast bread and cut out little circles with a biscuit cutter. Add small containers of pizza sauce, cheese, and other toppings.
  • Make fruit gelatin and pudding and put in small plastic containers for the week. Make a large batch of granola bars, cookies, pumpkin bread, banana bread or muffins. Divide them into zip top sandwich bags and freeze so that you can grab one or two when needed.
  • Brownie bites are simple to make. Bake brownie mix in mini-muffin pans and put three “brownie bites” in a sandwich bag for each child’s lunch. They freeze well too!
  • Fill thermos (not glass) half full with juice the night before and freeze. In the morning, remove from freezer and fill the rest of the way. The juice will be cold when the kids are ready to drink it and it keeps their food cold too.
  • Clean vegetables, slice into pieces and bag. Preparing a weeks worth of veggies at a time for lunches and snacks saves money and time.
  • Purchase cheese in blocks, cut into pieces and put in sandwich bags.
  • Save napkins, catsup and mustard packets you get from take-out. Use in lunches.


For more tips to help you save money on school lunches and other kids’ expenses, check out our Saving With Kids e-books.




  1. Misha W says

    As a mother of 9 I’m always watching your site for hints. This one struck a cord with me. It all comes back to “get back to the basics”. Are kids aren’t deprived if they don’t get lunchables and pre-packaged treats. This way we KNOW what’s going into our children! I appreciated the reminder! I had done this after a divorce and was barely getting by financially with then six kids. I had bags filled with chips and cookies ready for kids to grab in the mornings. It was fast and easy and everyone was happy. Thanks for the reminder! Its an age old habit that needs to be revisited!


  2. says

    haven’t done the school lunch thing for years except occasionally when baby sitting my grandchildren.
    One thing I learned while listening to my children was, the kits that parents sent usually went into the garbage half eaten. Not because the children didn’t like them but by the time they got them made up there was no time to eat them. They had 15 min. to eat and chat and then they were sent out to play whether they were done or not.
    Teachers said they should sit and eat quietly so 15 min. was enough time. Now in my experience children do not sit quietly and eat when there were a bunch of them in the room.
    I would send a slice of homemade pizza, a bag of vegetables cut up, a drink and crackers or cookies. Never the same lunch 2 days in a row.
    Some days it was 2 mini pita pockets stuffed with things I knew they liked.
    Some days it was a slice of cold meat wrapped in lettuce with a slice of cheese.
    I sort of made layer lunches. Things they really liked along with less of something they were not keen on. I knew they were eating something and usually the kids with the packaged meals would eat what the boys didn’t.
    Make certain that if you send something that has to be heated up that the teacher allows this. One day my son came home all upset because his 2 friends were eating those noodle soup package raw. The teacher said nobody was allowed to use the micro wave in the room. It was winter and the micro wave was in the room for this purpose but the teacher decided that hot soup was a danger for burns. He did not let the parents know so they sent soup mixes. Kids forgot to tell the parents so they ate nothing or ate the crunchy noodles. That was just wrong.
    So make sure you keep on top of what is available for your children to use when it comes to lunch time.

  3. Shannon says

    I also don’t buy pre-packaged fruit or applesauce cups. I buy the small Glad containers and the large cans of fruit, and jars of applesauce to fill them with. My kids bring home the containers and we wash and re-use themm including the plastic spoons. Saves on landfill that way too!

  4. Rhonda says

    How terrible that the kids couldn’t heat up their soup! We have an Aladdin container that goes in the microwave in the morning for a couple of minutes, and keeps the food warm until lunchtime. My son says it works great, and his food has never been cold. In addition to sandwiches, he enjoys taking leftover spaghetti or macaroni and cheese, or soups and other things that we’ve had for dinner earlier in the week. Even things like rice topped with his favorite chicken casserole go in his lunchbox! I wish more parents would send a lunch with their child; our cafeteria food is NOT healthy, AND it tastes bad, too! Kids either toss it and stay hungry or load up on the unhealthy things that are served. The really sad thing is that for many kids, this is the ONLY food they may get in a day. Such a shame that we can’t have healthier school lunches!

    • says

      I do have to say that growing up our school food was bad. You really did have to gag it down but now a lot of schools do have very good food. My kids would rather eat at school than take their lunch but there’s no way I’m spending $2.10 and $2.40 for one lunch when I can make it at home for .50- $1.00!

      I do not want everyone assuming that ALL school lunches are bad. They are not. Because of the Food Revolution show people are just assuming that all school food is bad and it’s not. I see the problem with a lot of the school food is the picky kids. The school provides good food like apples, veggies etc. but because kids are so used to eating junk food at home they refuse to eat it.

      This is not a school problem but a discipline problem in letting kids dictate what they are going to eat. Now in case anyone is thinking “well you don’t have picky kids” let me tell you have THE PICKIEST! It drives me bonkers but when they are given something they don’t like they have to try and then don’t get anymore food until the next meal if they don’t want to eat it.

      I do understand that like everything there is some good and bad and that includes school lunches but I wanted to be sure that everyone knew that not all school lunches are bad.

  5. Pati S. says

    My daughter and I vowed to save money this year as we’d like to move to a new home in the next year and that will cost money. So one of the areas we are saving is taking our lunch to work and school. I’ve gotten a couple of good ideas from this site and my one hint is that I make our lunches the night before. The time at night goes alot slower than the time in the morning!

    I am hoping this will also help me to control portion size (As I have some weight to lose!) I have done the zip lock bags and measure out serving size. My daughter will ask may I have another serving? She is learning! : ))

    • says

      I agree Pati. Do as much of everything as you can the night before. Have backpacks packed and ready to go with school papers signed, clothes laid out, coat and shoes by the door ready to go, bedrooms picked up and even bowls for cereal laid out.

      I’m with you. The time at night is different then morning. I have never been able to figure out why it takes 2 mins. to find a pair of shoes at night and 10 in the morning. Why does everything take triple the time to do the same thing in the morning?

  6. lisa says

    Lunch is a scant 20 min at my daughter’s elem. School so she prefers taking a lunch instead of wasting most of the 20 min. Standing in line for mostly prepackaged foods.When she does buy she takes advantage of the fresh salad and fruit bar. We save a lot by her wise choice, not bad for a 7 year. Old. I agree with a previous poster, all school lunches are not bad, however I think it is better, healthier and cheaper to pack them yourselves.

  7. nancie says

    Part of the reason lunches aren’t eaten is that kids take one or two bites and dump the rest so they can go play. I used to do lunch duty. If I made a rule that kids had to sit 15 minutes before they could dump their trays they would eat more. Otherwise it was two bites and dash away. I was at a low income school and the kids needed the food.

  8. Heather says

    Taking breakfasts & lunches to work or school is a necessity in our house. My husband & our son “brown bag it” because we must in order to survive financially. I love cooking in general so that’s no bother there. Our home thrives on leftovers & wild game too. My son loves venison more than beef. My mother in law throws out leftovers! My son is in kindergarten & is a very picky eater. He’d rather starve than eat something new but I haven’t given up the fight! LOL I can’t afford to shell out the money for school lunches only to know it’ll just be tossed away. I put foods in his bag I know he’ll eat & tell him whatever he doesn’t eat must be brought home. We individually bag breakfast & lunch items so they are ready to grab & go. I love this website! Keep the tips & tricks coming.

  9. Chrissy says

    I work w/ kids at an afterschool program that is open full time during school breaks etc. It is amazing to me the parents that send those lunchables w/ their kids. Have they not looked to see what is in them? A small amount of “food” (ie 4 chicken nuggets, or a coupla crackers and 4 1/2 dollar slices of sandwich meat etc) a sugary drink and either a (as in ONE) cookie or a piece of candy! That’s not enough to substain any kid all day. I usually end up over packing my own lunch (at a cost of maybe 1.50 to make) to have extra to share w/ the kids at are still hungry after they eat their 4-5.00 lunch their parents sent. Convenience is great, but you really have to look at what you’re getting for your money.

  10. rose says

    of all of my children’s teachers .. my daughter’s 3rd and tth grade and my son’s 5th grade asked all the parents to make sure the kids came to school with a snack .. like fruit or crackers and cheese or pb .. no cookies, cakes or anything like that ..
    their thinking was that even tho they ate lunch, kids do get hungry and want a snack and it helps keep them energized and focused too ..
    i know when my daughter was in kindergarten in nj they used to have breakfast too in the class .. which was really nice .. not sure if they still have this ..
    and i agree .. when my kids went to school the lunches were pretty awful .. sometimes not tho .. now they have healthier choices …
    when my daughter was in school they didnt sell soda but the last yr my son was in school b4 he was homeschooled the school had soda machines in there .. it was in the middle school he went to..

  11. says

    30 years ago when my eldest was in Kindergarten I always made healthy snacks at home. One day we were late and I had to get a snack down town catch the bus and drop him off at school.
    We went to a Laura Secord and I figured for once he could take something from the store. Figured it would be a nice treat.
    The girl kept showing him candy and cookies when he finally asked her if she had nothing healthy.
    She just looked at him at 4 years old asking for healthy.
    He went with a raisin oatmeal cookie and a container of milk.
    I think we put too much emphasis on what the schools have in them and what they serve.
    Teach your children at home about what is healthy and they may go for the treats when offered but only for a bit of time. My sons still don’t drink much pop or go for the real junk food.
    My son put himself through university working at McDonalds for 4 years and the A&W for one and he still does not like fries or deep fried foods.
    If you make healthy meals at home make sure they are meals that your children enjoy. Tofu or complete meals of vegetables are not healthy sitting on the plate. If they don’t eat it they will go out and buy the junky stuff.

  12. Katrina says

    I pack my five children lunches, moreso out of the need for healthy whole foods then for the budget. We invested last year in plastic ‘bento boxes’ and though it was not cost efficient initially (twenty bucks a box) we have more then earned the money back. It also makes lunches a bit easier to pack because we often move away from sandwhich/fruit/crackers. In the end it has saved me a ton of money for that very reason. They are plastic boxes with four containers and a set of silverware inside. Two containers are open and two are sealed.

    Some people get really creative, I don’t. because of the size of the boxes often times I chunk up leftover chicken or roast beef, throw in sliced pickles, carrots, celery, cheese cubes etc. One of the containers holds a sandwhich well for more traditional lunches but honestly, its a fantastic way to use up the leftovers! The bonus is I know exactly what they are eating and its not the corn dogs, burgers and fried foods from the school!

  13. Jaime says

    I agree with many people posting here. The children have a limited amount of time for lunch so why should they spend most of that time standing in line. I also don’t like those pre-packaged lunches that only contain a silver dollar sized slice of meat and a few small crackers because they cost so money for so little food. You get more “packaging” than food. In my opinion, the amount of food might be OK for a toddler’s snack but not for a meal. I love the idea of preparing snack items in plastic bags on the weekends and organizing them in plastic bins or baskets for easy grabbing in the mornings. It gives the child more options to choose from and the parent gets the saved time. The child can pick one item from each food grouping without having to waste time waiting for Mom or Dad to cut it up and plastic bag it in the morning. You can even have the child make their pick the night before and place the items in a brown bag in the refrigerator with their name on it so they can quickly grab it and go in the morning. A little time spent wisely on nights and weekends saves alot of time in the morning.

  14. elizabeth says

    ziploc (and I have also seen the store brand) make a divided plastic container. Basically a poor man’s bento box :) This has saved me on the zipper baggies. I can just put a handful of each item in the little sections, then snap on the cover. My kids are not really fans of snadwiches as they have gotten older (? I dont know why?) so i usually give them cheese chunks I cut up from the big block myself, crackers or pretzels, some fruit or veggies, and maybe sweet treat like muffins or rice krispy treats. I also found found nice Thermos containers marked down CHEAP after the back-to-school craze was over (at Walgreens)2 years ago, which I use for leftovers like mac n cheese, spaghetti, pasta salad, etc. They work great! For drinks I just send them a bottle of water, using your “half frozen” trick. School lunch here costs $2. I usually can pack lunch for $1 easily.

  15. DiAMA says

    Hi I’ve been reading your site and enjoying it everyday this last fortnight! But I wanna buy the dining on a dime cookbook on a serious budget and with the nz dollar it’s just under $30 to buy do you know if there’s a special comin up soon because I need to know if I can wait that long or just sell something on our local eBay and buy it with my earnings from that! Thanks

    • says

      We will have a sale on our e-books which would be the best way for you to get it. It will be coming up in a few weeks. We are also going to be doing some giveaways soon too.

  16. holly says

    I’m supprized you didn’t mention wraps in this!
    We LOVE wraps here. Whole wheat tortilas + whatever they want roll it up, cut it in half and they love it. Strips of cut up chicken w/ some chedder cheeze or bacon and some lettuce is one of their favorites.Sometimes they like ranch or honey mustard on it to. Another top pick for wraps is a slice of ham and salami, a couple slices of tomato and some lettuce. little motzerella and a tiny bit of itilain dressing. You HAVE to use whole wheat wraps though, the white ones break and fall apart. Not to mention the wheat is healthyer.

  17. holly says

    you should do an article like this for ‘on the way out the door breakfasts’. I know darn well we don’t like waking up early,and no matter how well prepared we are, its usually a struggle to get them to eat breakfast and out the door on time.

    Homemade cereal bars and granola bars
    mini fruit or bran muffins
    breakfast borritos (eggs, meat, cheeze,and maybe hashbrowns too)
    fruit wraps (either just fruit, or spread it with penut butter and then bannas, or spread with thick yogurt and add fruit)
    breakfast sandwhichs
    a baggie of dry cereal and a glass of milk
    fruit smoothies
    waffles or pancakes you made ahead and then popped in the microave while getting shoes and coats on

    and I’m sure there are more. But these are all things you can have ready and just do a grab and go. They can eat it on the way to school if they need to, plus it only needs one hand so if you or your hubby are running late for work you can grab one too. They can all be made ahead and store well.

  18. Kristina says

    Another great way to save money in the long run, and the environment, is to invest in reusable lunch wraps, bags, water bottles, and little tupperwares. We aim for waste free lunches and achieve this 95% of the time.

    There is the initial investment, but then we are set for years. Just get some labels to identify them as well. And I see exactly what the kids ate / didn’t eat, as it all comes back home.

    • says

      I had to chuckle at the concept of buying a water bottle or lunch wrap (not that it is a bad idea) but in the old days we called them a lunch pail and thermos bottle. : ) Then for a generation or so they weren’t considered “cool” and now they are “cool” again. I didn’t spend anything to send my kids lunch in. Somethings at the store are put in brown paper bags for you to take them home. I would send my kids lunches in those along with plastic containers foods came in and I would wash them out and use in the kids lunch. The kids would bring their sack home each day and 1 sackcould last a week or more.

  19. Kristina says

    Are there any more ebook sales coming up? I too would love to get the Dining on a Dime book (am abroad so can’t take advantage of your print sale…)

    • says

      Yes Kristina I think we will be having one in a few weeks but I don’t know the exact date yet. We try to put everything on sale pretty regular to help people out a little.

  20. says

    You really don’t need to spend a lot of money on brown bag lunches. 4 Days a week, lunches are somewhat basic for my kids, a sandwich, some fruit, veggies, or other extra item, a container of juice, and a cookie.

    This gets changed up according to what I happen to have in the fridge. If there’s leftover soup, then I pack that with bread and butter instead of a sandwich. If I’ve made a large batch of rhubarb or apple sauce, then I put that into containers. Sometimes they’ll get a piece of cake leftover from dinner. I just try to cover the basic food groups — some protein, whole grains, fruit/vegetable, dairy.

    I guess I’m not the cool mom, but I’d rather be able to pay our bills and provide nutritious lunches for our kids.

    On Fridays, though, I always add a special treat. After Halloween, it may be a small piece of candy. Or I may bake some cut-out sugar cookies, and frost them. Or lunch might be a sampling of items, like crackers, cheese cubes, cherry tomatoes, olives, and grapes (these lunches are always a hit). Or maybe I’ll squirrel away a couple of pieces of pizza and freeze when we bake pizza, to add a slice each to lunches on Fridays.

    And to save me some work, my teens pack the family lunches right after they get home from school. It’s time-saving for me, and gives us a chance to talk about building meals with nutrition in mind. Plus, kids should pitch in, even if mom is a SAHM.

  21. Denise says

    I always like the discussions on this website, as very few families in the affluent north Jersey town I live in are talking about savings. I love the Thermos containers for keeping food hot. My son enjoys leftover pasta or chicken nuggets for lunch, and his school does not have a microwave available. The bowls are also handy for evening ball games or swim meets, as he won’t eat before; but after it is too late to go home and begin to prepare dinner. I pack a healthy hot dinner for him to eat in the car (no fast food drive-through). Another savings tip I have is for Gatorade/Powerade. That stuff is expensive! I buy the powder that is enough to make 5 gallons. It is available at Home Depot for about $8. It is only good for a few days once mixed, so I make a small amount at a time. I half-fill water bottles and keep them in the freezer. I top them off when it’s time to go to a game. This saves a lot of money. I also have him take water, because when the Gatorade is gone, it is gone. No going to the snack stand for more.

    • says

      I’m like you Denise I love my thermos jugs. When we travel I put hot dogs in a thermos and pour boiling water over them. By the time we are ready to eat lunch they are hot and “cooked” to perfection. Of course you could use them for lunch or picnics too. We also like to do things in the winter like see the lights and things at the Botanical Gardens so we fill a thermos with cocoa to warm us up when we take a break. Much cheaper then buying something to drink and it usually tastes much better then when you buy it.`

  22. C.K. says

    When my dad was living he and mom bought a lot of pre-made salads at a gourmet grocery store. They saved me all the containers and I use them for lunches still. Sometimes they come home and sometimes they end up in the garbage, which is ok. We homeschool, but I have adult children going off to work now. I also make a batch of jello and it makes quite a few containers for the week. I use smaller icecream containers and put in salad dressing on the bottom and salad on the top to shake up later, guys love it. Of course, large batches of chili or soup is put in a thermos in the winter and lasts for lunches most of the week. We bake cookies and freeze 2 at a time in snack baggies for the guys lunches. They’re thawed out buy the time lunch comes. I also cook a lot of boneless chicken and purposefully make extra for tomorrows lunch. Since I hate making lunches (and this goes way back to when I had to make them for my dad when I was a kid…8 kids later), I enjoy having stuff in containers and baggies made up a head of time to grab and pack. Please keep the ideas coming.

  23. Andrea says

    Luckily I got my kids in the habit of throwing their ziploc baggies back into their lunch box instead of sorting them and throwing away. Then I can monitor what they eat, what they don’t like, etc. Then I wash and reuse the ziploc baggies several times before throwing away. Most of the time they dont eat their crunchy vegetables, so they need to finish their lunch before they get an after school snack.

  24. Sabrina says

    After 8 years as a SAHM, I headed back to work full-time this year. And with three children in school, I knew I needed to organize my routine – so I developed a great system my entire family loves. Here are the details:

    ~ Every weekend I prepare homemade foods, such as breads, muffins, trail mix, etc. For the trail mix – I stock up on containers of peanuts, raisins, cranberries and “end of season” bags of M&Ms and I mix those together in a large storage bowl every Sunday (just a handful of the M&M’s are added – one bag usually lasts several weeks). (This is just the base of my trail mix – each week I change it up a little.)

    ~ At the beginning of the year, I created a numbered container system. In my pantry I labeled three containers with a number from 1-3. In the number “1” container, I store juice boxes. In the number “2” container I store bagged snacks (pretzels, animal crackers, chips, etc – usually prepackaged by me the weekend before). In the number “3” container I store some sort of fruit treat(raisins, healthy fruit snacks). Every day when the kids get home from school, they empty their lunch box and refill it with one item from each container. After dinner, my husband or I prepare a fruit, dairy product and their main lunch item to be quickly added to their lunchbox in the morning. The kids LOVE having control over half of their lunch and it simplifies things for me during the week.

    ~ One “main lunch item” we often use is yogurt and granola. We stock up on the 32oz containers of yogurt (any flavor) and add a couple of scoops to a medium-size storage container (we use the reusable GLAD containers – it needs to be small enough to fit in their lunchbox.) We couple this with a small container of granola cereal. When the kids open their lunch, they dump the granola into the yogurt, mix and eat. This is a healthy, super simple meal idea.

    I hope this helps. I am all about simplifying things – I even have hangers labeled Monday-Friday for each child and prepare their clothes for the week on Sunday.

  25. lorelai styles says

    Parents today do seem to make lunch much more complicated than it used to be. For years it used to – 2 slices of bread, one slice of meat with maybe lettuce, and a small apple and buy a carton of low-fat milk. It does not have to be something new & exciting everyday. Eat to live, don’t live to eat. Too much emphasis seems to be placed on a variety of food for pleasure and not just basic nutrition.

    Just my two cents –


    • says

      Totally agree Lorelai. I wrote another post (sorry can’t remember which one) along those same lines that we make such a big deal out of school lunches and half the time the kids eat half of it or trade it or something. We do the same with even our regular meals at home too. We don’t have to serve gourmet meals with 10 courses to them each day. We need to keep it simple.

  26. lorelai says


    I completely agree with keeping dinner simple. Actually, in our home, we only have dinner on Sundays; our regular evening meals are just simple suppers. Would you mind posting some of your favorite go-to simple meals? I have your “Dining on a DIme cookbook” – love it, and also your “Menus on a Dime” – love it too. But I am wondering what your basic evening meals usually are. In our home we have about 10 basic meals that we enjoy all the time and just rotate them about with leftovers and cold meals on a tray.

    Thanks for the inspiration!


    • says

      I always say most people have 10 meals they serve over and over. Which isn’t as boring as it sounds because when you think about it the one meal only gets served 3 times a month which isn’t that bad. As far as my basic evening meals if you have Menus on a Dime then those are what I usually used. I liked too, at different times in my life, not to make a menu but to keep a notebook with a list of meats -roasted chicken, roast, meatloaf, – then a list of sides like baked potato, French fries, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese – salads, tossed, fruit, relish dish- veggies, peas, carrots, green beans. Then if I had chicken on hand I would pick something (2-4 things) from the other lists to go with it.
      Actually I pretty much do like you do. Some nights I just have leftovers, every man for themselves (each person makes their own)sometimes and the cold meals too. I could never make a month’s worth of menus or anything like that because my life was such I couldn’t always plan on from one hour to the next what I would be doing let alone a week ahead of time so I had to adjust my meals each day to what was going on at the moment.
      Hope this helps.

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