Budget-Friendly School Lunches

A typical school lunch for my kids might contain water, an apple for snack time, a salad with dressing packaged separately, green beans and carrot sticks and leftover spaghetti

It’s the time of year again; time to start thinking about crayons and classrooms. For some of the country school has already started while summer vacation is still in full-swing here in the south. Even if you don’t have kids heading to school, these are great ideas for picnics and work lunches too!

While it’s true that my children aren’t going back to school this year, they have spent the last four years toting lunches and snacks to school and daycare. Which means I spent the last four years packing 5 lunches and 5 snacks every weekday.

I’ll get into ideas for packed lunches in a bit, first let’s deal with the child who doesn’t want to pack lunches.

Generally speaking, my children preferred to pack lunch but there was a time period in which a certain child was trying to adjust socially and decided that it “isn’t cool” to pack. School lunch is expensive; last year lunch at my children’s school was $3.50 ($2 at the daycare/preschool) and it was what I would call “marginally edible”, even the salad options weren’t very good. Here are a few tips for those who have children who fall into this category:

-Do you qualify for reduced price or free lunches? The National School lunch program is a federal program that offers reduced price or free meals to those with qualifying income. Last year reduced price lunches were $.40 and breakfast was $.30, which makes school food much more affordable. The 2012-13 school year annual income limit is higher than with other federal programs so it’s worth a look. You can get more info here, your school can provide you with an application. Most federally-funded schools participate in this program, but not all.

-My teens have used their money to pay for lunches. I’ll never forget the year my second child was in 5th grade and asked me to put the $10 she received as a birthday gift into her school lunch account. I felt horrible at first, that my child shouldn’t have to pay for her own meals, but I got over it. I knew that I could make her a very good meal to take to school for less than $1, if she wanted to spend $3.50 of her own money to buy cafeteria food, so be it.

-Compromise. We made a deal with our children that if we had the extra money they could buy school lunch on Fridays, pizza day. Enjoying pizza day was a big deal to all of the children. If we didn’t have the money for them to buy lunch that day (we often didn’t, it adds up fast when you have 5 kids!) we would make pizza at home for them to pack.

Now, onto school lunch ideas!

-Freeze sandwiches in advance. Last year I froze an assortment of sandwiches and each night the kids picked what they wanted. Just plop the frozen sandwich into their lunch bag the night before and keep it refrigerated. This is a great way to send tuna and chicken salad to school without worrying about it staying cold enough. I found that the sandwiches made on hamburger buns tasted better than those made with sandwich bread, but in either case make sure you double wrap the sandwiches before freezing.

-Leftovers. If your child has access to a microwave leftovers are ideal, but even if they don’t most leftovers can be eaten cold. My daughter actually prefers cold leftovers, jumbalaya and spaghetti were her favorite leftover lunches. If you prefer to serve warm food try reheating it in the morning, putting it into a high-quality thermos (the cheap plastic types tend to crack) and place it in a separate lunch bag.

-Recycle and refill. Instead of buying pricey juice boxes or specially designed refillable bottles that you’d have to replace if they were lost, buy a few drinks that come in solid, reusable bottles. Water bottles don’t typically fit the bill, these days they’re made of very thin plastic and don’t hold up to multiple uses. I like to buy a 12 pack of sports drinks in a smaller size; the kids can drink the sports drink and bring home the bottle to be refilled.

I wash the bottle, fill almost half full with water and freeze. Before the kids leave for school I fill the rest of it with water (not quite to the top) and put it in their lunch in place of an ice pack. My kids knew to bring home their bottle, but in the event they didn’t it wasn’t a big deal. Typically I had to replace the bottles twice during a school year. If your bottle gets discolored or stinky pour some baking soda and water into it and let it soak for a few hours, or just toss it in the recycling bin and grab another bottle.

-Water. Yes, I packed my kids water 99% of the time. I don’t buy juice very often as it is expensive and not really that great for you. I sent 10 bottles of water to school each day (we live in Florida and their schools required kids to have their own water bottle to drink from during the day, especially after being outside), if I sent juice with them even once a week I’d be adding significantly to our grocery bill.

Think outside the sandwich. Sandwiches get booooooring. Try filling leftover tortillas with peanut butter (or an acceptable alternative) and thinly sliced apples, or hummus, or pesto. One of my husband’s favorites is a slice of ham, spread with cream cheese, wrapped around a pickle spear. Salads are also good alternatives, just pack the dressing separately (if you put the salad in a plastic bag they can add the dressing, seal and shake for the perfectly dressed salad!) Chicken strips with dip are another idea.

-Imitate! The next time you go grocery shopping take a look at those pre-packaged lunches sold near the luncheon meats. They aren’t all that special, they’re just low quality food that’s been packaged into a disposable container. Surely you can make something similar, with higher quality foods? You can buy reusable containers specifically for this purpose but my kids never minded baggies (which I almost always washed & reused!) The same can be done with expensive snack options, why can’t you cut your own sticks of cheese, or pour a large batch of pudding or jello into individual size portions?

-Snack lunch. Snack lunches were perhaps my children’s favorites. A snack lunch consists of several items in small quantities. A snack lunch might include a sliced apple with peanut butter for dipping, 4 carrot sticks, 2 chicken strips, a baggie of popcorn and half a bagel. I think my children really liked snack lunches because they could pick what they wanted for morning snack time and what to save for lunch.

-Reusable. I’ve mentioned it a lot already, but I can’t stress the fact that not using disposable items is going to save you a considerable amount of money.

Are you going to be packing lunches this year? Do you have kids who prefer to buy their lunches? How do you keep it affordable?

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3 thoughts on “Budget-Friendly School Lunches

  1. My kids qualify for free lunches and hate them with a passion. All four of them have complained about disgusting quality and taste. We only have one left in high school and finally broke down and allowed him to start bringing bag lunch a few weeks ago.
    He loves it but I am trying to get in the hang of providing a nutritious lunch for him that I can afford. Thanks for the ideas.

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