Lunchtime is Saving Money Time on School Lunches

Well it’s that happy time again. Back to school means that vacation time is over and the kids will be getting back to a routine of “early to bed, early to rise” once again.  But besides the shopping and stocking up on those classroom needs, it’s also the time to begin the very important (and sometimes very expensive) task of prepping for their daily school lunches and snacks that they’re going to need all year long.

Lunchtime is Saving Money Time on School Lunches

Now I know that the easy way out might be to just buy the school lunches everyday, but those choices may not be the ones your kids really want despite their “value”. Bought lunches probably won’t include most of their favorites and someplace in the back of my mind I remember when president Jimmy Carter decided that ketchup counted as a vegetable (or was it a fruit?) on the nutrition chart.  That kind of scares me.  If you want to be in more control of what your kids are eating, and make them just a bit more likely to eat a good lunch yet still save money, consider some of these good ideas for the coming school year!

Basic Strategies to Save on School Lunches

1. Lunch Planning

When considering what to make, look at the nutritional values, calorie content, salt, sugar, and cost per serving. Very importantly, talk to your kids about the menu. I know they might want chocolate bars or energy drinks but talking to them will give you a better shot at having them actually eat their lunch rather than trading or dumping it someplace. Try to avoid all pre-packaged foods and snacks. They’re really expensive and nutritionally, a possible disaster.

2. Saving Money

A complete healthy lunch can be had for an average of less than $2.00 per day if planned and executed the right way (tips are coming so keep reading!) compared to $2.75 per day from the school programs just for an entrée/sandwich not including a drink or snacks. A typical family spends over $600 a year (if not qualified for the reduced lunch programs) on each child’s lunches and making your own will cut your expenses to about $350 per child when your plan is well thought out. That’s a savings of over 40% per child (times 1.8 kids on average equals about $500 a year!). Can you say extra money for your next summer vacation?

3. Preparation Timing

It may be easiest to say when you shouldn’t prepare. Don’t do it in the mornings before the bus comes or before you’ve had your first cup of coffee. Be clear headed and do it in the evening and place it in the fridge all ready to go for them in the a.m. Then morning time should be for washing, dressing, breakfast, and easing them out the door. Having it made in advance eases the pain of rushing and arguing over it.

4. Using the Right Tools

“When you build an ark make sure you have the right tools!” I didn’t actually invent that one…it was said by Noah while he was building the ark during the great flood about a gazillion years ago. My personal expression that I have used is “never use a butter knife to install a ceiling fan!”

What I’m trying to say is to think about what you’re using to wrap, pack, and carry lunches every day. You want them to arrive in good condition so that means the containers should be reliable to keep things fresh, leak proof, and maybe even hot or cold if that’s needed (small thermos?). Investing in a good lunchbox, Tupperware or that kind of thing, or an insulated bag may be your best option. If not, then make sure you have good plastic wrap or aluminum foil and that you cut-up the portions so they can manage eating things without making a huge mess.

Paper lunch bags are about $2.00 or less per hundred and things like napkins, ketchup, mustard and mayo packs are probably all available in the cafeteria for free (check that out in advance). Oh and yes, I’m not above taking a few of those items from your local fast food restaurants when you have the chance. I mean, they’re usually just sitting there with a big invitation that says “take me home and use me for your school lunches,” aren’t they?

5. Buying Big, Not Small

When you include items like snacks, chips, or pretzels in the lunch, buy a larger size package and portion them up yourself in a baggie. Believe me, the difference in price can be unbelievable. A packages of chips (like 7/8 of an ounce) can cost you as much as $1.00 each. Portioning it yourself from an 8 oz. bag will be about $0.25 per ounce (including your baggie) and I’m not talking about buying one of those 5 lb. warehouse store sized bags!

What’s for Lunch?

Here’s a list of my suggestions for school lunches that are nutritious, delicious, and very affordable. I used all of these myself for my kids and frankly there’s no reason they won’t work just as well for you. Besides, I loved doing it in addition to the money savings.

  1. Tuna fish salad sandwich (about 2.5 oz.) on pita or bread with sliced cucumber, portion of chips, cold drink (juice box or water or milk), homemade cookie or brownie for dessert. Use a little mayo in your tuna and on the pita (about 1 oz.) and include napkins and straw if needed. Total cost about $1.50.
  2. Sliced turkey or chicken breast sandwich (about 2 oz.) on pita or bread with lettuce, portion of pretzels, drink choices as before, with store brand pudding pack or Jell-O style pack. Include a plastic spoon for dessert. Total cost under $ 2.00.
  3. Peanut butter and jelly (1 oz. of each) on white bread, choose a snack, drink and dessert as above.  Total Cost less than $1.50.
  4. Bologna or salami (about 2 oz.)(option of cheese slice) on pita or bread, choice of veggies sliced with a dab of dip you provide or homemade portion of popcorn. Drink, dessert choice of fruits like apple or banana. Total cost per meal about $2.00.
  5. Fresh soup and salad vegetarian lunch! Choice of side dressing you pack, soup choices can be tomato, onion, pea etc.(in thermos or Tupperware), snack choices like crackers or as previous, cold drink, fruit or homemade dessert choice. Total cost about $2.00.

There are plenty more low cost and nutritious choices as well. For a detailed analysis on the sandwiches, check out Len Penzo’s annual lunch survey.

Do your shopping of course with coupons, loyalty cards and stock up on things like tuna when they’re at really great prices (sometimes as low as $0.50 cents a can or about $1.60/lb.) and try to buy store brands on things that won’t make a bit of difference to your kids. For the older kids, you may want to let them have a little more wiggle room on the choices.  If they like something especially, like tuna for example, give it to them more often or mix and match like tuna and soup for a bit of a switch.


All in all, I found that the savings is really significant and the participation is really a parenting experience that you are sharing with them. And of course, lunch is really more important to them then Algebra.

Are you prepared for the “lunch experience” this year? Have you looked at menu options and the nutrition and cost factors? Are your kids participating in the process? Can you apply this idea to your own lunches at work to save your hard earned money?

14 Comments

  1. Emily @ JohnJaneDoe

    Little Bit will not eat sandwiches, so we do lots of triscuits and cheese sticks, cereal, yogurt, or apples with peanut butter for lunch. A couple of things I’ve learned:
    1) The folding sandwich bags need to be in a lunchbox or paper bag because they don’t stay sealed.
    2) Fast food plasticwear is awesome to use for lunch packing. So are Chinese soup containers.
    3) Don’t buy Lunchables. Make them. When you pack slices of cheese, wrap them in a paper towel or they sweat too much.

  2. We are notorious brown baggers. :)My wife and I pack a lunch everyday. We have found that as our children have gotten older and now in high school the choice and cost of lunch isn’t too expensive. $3.50 for lunch. Where it adds up is the additional items. $2.00 for a drink, $1.00 for a cookie, etc before you know it a $3.50 meal can can be $7-8 with add on items. If our children want to buy lunch that’s okay we just ask them to bring the extras from home.

  3. Kelly

    I enjoy preparing my kids lunches. I just hope I never run out of recipes or ideas for months to come, Gary. I just don’t want them to eat at the school canteen as much as possible.

  4. I feel very fortunate because my little girl receives free school lunches (as do all primary school kids in the UK at the moment). It’s a huge saving – we had to pay for lunches when she was in nursery, or take a packed lunch for her. The annoying thing though is that she never likes the school dinners!

    1. I guess you can’t argue with “free”, although I do think if she doesn’t like what they serve, that may be a problem! Is there any way you can introduce her or encourage her to appreciate some of the school choices at home? If you can get a menu in advance, you might be able to supplement some of her less-liked choices to insure she’s getting enough to eat. Thanks for your comments, Hayley.

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