Frugal School Lunches for Kids


School is in full swing for now and everyone is still trying to sink into a routine.  If you are a parent of a student that routine probably includes lunch of some sort.  If you choose not to participate regularly in the hot lunch program at school then you will be faced with the daunting task of packing a lunch everyday.  Not only is it time consuming but cold lunches can also eat a big hole in your wallet.

The commercial food industry cashed in on cold lunches years ago with the introduction of individually packaged items meant for kids.  Nowadays you can walk into a supermarket and pick out a pre-packaged item for everything you need to pack your child’s lunch.  Handy, but expensive and not-so-healthy!

What I have noticed in my research for frugal and healthy kids’ lunches is that parents are going back to what many of us grew up with…homemade!  Spend a little time on the weekend to prep big batches of food and your kids will be set for the week without a lot of hassle on your part or very much money from your wallet!

Frugal Kids' Lunches

You’ve gotta love Goodwill for things like inexpensive thermoses.

Here are some essentials you’ll need to invest in up front: a thermos (I find them for super cheap at thrift stores all the time), reusable containers in a variety of shapes and sizes (I like glass but plastic is more practical for this application) and a large box of baggies.  Both the containers and the baggies can be brought back home, washed and reused so be sure to encourage your child to not throw them away.

Here are 20 different ideas for you to add to your lunchbox repertoire:

1)      Homemade Uncrustables: Using the top of a large container of Peanut butter as a “cookie cutter”, press into a PB&J and twist the cover.  You will get a round little sandwich with its sides sealed.  The larger the “cookie cutter” the less waste you’ll have.

2)      Buy large jars of applesauce or better yet make your own and fill small containers with the sauce and also include graham crackers for your child to dip.

3)      My kids love soup.  This is where you get to use your handy-dandy thermos.  Think beyond soup though…how about spaghetti?  Heat the soup or spaghetti up in the morning and put into the Thermos.  It will still be nice and warm at lunchtime.  Perfect for those wintery days!

4)      Make a batch of Banana Bread but instead of using a bread pan, pour the batter into muffin pans.  Freeze these and then pull one out and toss into the lunchboxes.

5)      Homemade “Lunchables”.  Using a reusable container, fill it with meat, cheese and crackers.  You can even include a cookie to make it fancy!

6)      Take a tortilla spread it with peanut butter and jelly then lay a banana on top and roll it up.  My boys love this fun idea!

7)      Ants on a log.  Remember this from your childhood?  Celery sticks with peanut butter and a few raisins on top!

8)      Buy big bags of pretzels, Goldfish, etc and make your own individual servings by filling small snack sized bags.  To save some time, do this all at once and store them in a storage tub so you or your child can just pull a bag out and put into the lunchbox.

Homemade Gorp

Nothing says “I love you” like a batch of homemade Gorp!

9)      Homemade Gorp or Trailmix.  Make a big batch of peanuts, raisins, Cheerios, M&Ms and anything else you want to add.  Make up smaller bags for the lunchbox!

10)   Hard boiled eggs.  This is one of my favorite cold lunch memories as a kid!  My mom would put a hard-boiled egg in a baggie and sprinkle a little butter salt on it.  By lunch time the salt will have dissolved and the egg tasted like pure butter!  Yummy!  Eggs are a terrific brain food and a good source of protein for your little Einstein.

11)   I discovered Albertson’s has little hamburger buns for “Sliders”.  These would be perfect for sandwiches for kiddos.  They are fun and the size is doable for younger kids. You can make one or two depending on appetites.

12)   Make a big bowl of pudding or Jell-o and then pour into your small containers.  Stack in the refridge and when it’s time to make lunch you are set and so is your Jell-O!

13)   Some kids are die-hard cereal fans.  You can send a big bowl of dry cereal and either send a thermos of milk or milk money and a big spoon!

14)   Buy big jars of canned fruit and pack into smaller containers.  My kids love mandarin oranges.

15)   Make up a batch of tuna, chicken or ham salad and serve it in a reusable container along with crackers for spreading or dipping!

16)   Bake a big pan of brownies or bar cookies.  When cooled package into single servings and freeze.  Pull a package out in the morning and by lunchtime it will be defrosted!  What a great treat!

17)   Kid-sized Kebobs.  On toothpicks, alternate cubes of cheese, meat and cherry tomatoes.

18)   Homemade bean and cheese burritos.  In a bowl mix a can of pinto or black beans, add a package of taco seasoning and 1 cup of shredded cheese.   Stir well then spoon into tortillas.  Fold opposite sides to each other and then roll.  Place into casserole dish and bake for 15 minutes in a 350 degree oven or until heated through.  Once cooled package into single servings and freeze.  Pull out in morning and heat or just let defrost!

19)   Buy large bags of veggies (e.g. carrots, celery, etc) and cut your own instead of buying precut veggies.  This will save LOTS!

20)   Macaroni and Cheese with cut up hot dogs heated up and put into thermos.  This should be a real winner with the kiddos!  You may have other kids asking you to make THEIR lunches when they see this in your child’s lunchbox!

Hopefully this list will get you thinking about some other great ideas for lunchboxes. The key is to not fall into the commercial, pre-packaged habit.  There are so many reasons to not go that route.  I know it SEEMS easy and time-saving but you can make similar things at home with healthier ingredients, less packaging and most importantly: LESS MONEY!

When the school bell rings this week, let your kiddos hit the books hard while you know they are getting a good lunch which will sustain their eager and growing brains.


 Erin’s got tons of tips for saving money, couponing, sticking to a budget, and living sustainably in her blog archive.


Erin Eisenman-Turner is proud to be a native Missoulian. Along with her husband and three sons, they raise chickens, pigs, rabbits, and vegetables at Turner Family Farms in the Orchard Homes area. When the farm chores are done, the coupons clipped, and the blog written, you can find Erin exploring Montana, collecting antiques, and trying to maintain a well-run, happy, and organized home for her family.

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