9 Easy Ways to Save Big Money on School Lunches

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by Robin

September is here and schooldays are back. Schooldays mean school lunches. A combination of thanklessness and cost make packing school lunches the least favourite things for virtually every parent.

I know exactly one parent who really enjoys packing school lunches. One.  Should I add you to this short list - or are you like most parents?

This week I'm talking ideas to make packing school lunches less expensive and more enjoyable (for you and your kids).

1) Invest in good equipment. 

Like every job out there, having the right tools makes it easier (and usually faster and cheaper). Up front investments will pay dividends for years to come.

These are the favourites that have lasted us for years:

  1. A BIG insulated lunch box - most of them geared to kids are way too small!  These are a great price and get really good reviews.  Don't let the "adult lunch bag" scare you off - that just means they're actually a decent size.
  2. Small freezer packs like these. (But be sure to check the dollar store too.)
  3. Disposable forks and spoons (so your good silverware doesn’t go missing).  We just reuse the ones you get free from takeout orders, Dairy Queen, etc.  Free!
  4. An assortment of small plastic containers with good seals.  We swear by these ones - they've lasted us for years, seal perfectly and little fingers have no trouble opening them. (Don't be tempted by the dollar store versions - those tabs break off in no time.)
  5. wide-mouth insulated thermos (to open up options like soup, pasta and stew). Don't be tempted by ones' with characters geared to kids - they're often poor quality and when your kid tires of the character they'll want nothing to do with it. 
  6. Refillable water bottles with sip spouts. Sip spouts encourage kids to stay hydrated - something about twisting off a lid is a barrier to drinking.  These are our kids' favourites - they are practically indestructible!  I think we're going on 6 years for ours.
  7. Refillable juice containers.  We've used these for years!

Another bonus of using your own reusable equipment - so much less waste! A great choice for the environment.  Plus many schools are requesting "Litterless Lunches".

2) Write out your menu ideas. 

When there’s a time crunch, good ideas fall out of the brain and you reach for expensive pre-packaged foods.  Ensure you have ideas ready to choose from – even when you would rather go back to bed.

Just like our Master Plan of Meals for planning suppers - we like having a list written out of lunch ideas.

Try making this with your kids! A list of their favourite, healthy choices can help them eat what you send. (Because what's more frustrating than seeing your carefully packed lunch come home uneaten!) Put the list on the fridge or whatever reference point is an easy glance from your prep area.

3) Pack your own small portions of snacks. 

Sure it’s convenient to buy pre-packaged snacks of a couple of cookies or a little bag of crackers - but you pay for it! It doesn’t take long to put a pair of cookies in a small container – at a fraction of the cost.

Some parents make a week's worth at a time and save the daily hassle.

Small kids can find large containers intimidating to eat - seeing too much food overwhelms many and they don't even open them.  While a few small containers of a few favourite foods is welcome and gets eaten!

4) Make your own Lunchables and save! 

Many children (ours included) ask for those prepackaged lunches. They can be somewhat nutritious (but usually not). They are always very expensive. (For lots of our ideas about homemade Lunchables, check them out here.)

A couple of years ago, we wanted to know how much you could save by making your own version of the same thing – so we priced it out for you! Here’s what we found by taking the premade Lunchable and putting a similar one together ourselves:

A “Lunch Mate Pizza” cost $3.79

  • Our version costs $1.44: Savings of $2.35 (That’s $11.75 savings each week!)

A “Lunch Mate Stackers” cost $2.67

  • Our version costs $0.98: Savings of $1.69 (That’s $8.45 savings each week!)

You can easily pay for the containers once you make it yourself a couple of times. From then on, the money stays in your pocket.

5) “Planned Overs”. 

Make extras of popular dinners and package up the leftovers for lunches to serve in the next day or two.

Are you a baking fiend? Go nuts, and freeze individually wrapped muffins or slices of banana bread for quick lunch additions that also help keep other foods cool while they thaw in time for nutrition break.

Need some lunch box baking ideas?
We've got a few easy and tasty recipes:

Healthy Banana Bread with Chocolate Chips
Apple Spice Muffins
Aganetha's Healthier Cookies

6) Plan your choices around sales. 

Most popular kids’ lunch choices (pudding cups, anyone?) go on sale regularly. Stock up and give your kids a treat periodically.

It will be way more exciting (and healthy) to get that stuff once and a while instead of every day. Let “once and awhile” coincide with sales.

You can find sales with our favourite app Flipp (read more here)!

7) Pack your own juice vs. juice boxes. 

Making your own juice boxes is not only less expensive, but it also allows you to control how much juice goes in.

For smaller children, watered down juice is healthier (and cheaper!).

8) Pack with the seasons. 

Choose foods when they are in season locally. Apples are cheapest in fall. Strawberries cheapest in June. Peaches and pears right now!

And when you can't pack with the seasons - don't forget about canned fruits!  Look for those packed in water or juice vs. syrup and unsweetened.

9) Make a value choice: Buy at school or send from home? 

Do the math – is the food offered for sale at school worth it to you?

We determined that sending a plastic drink bottle of milk was a cheaper option than buying milk at school.  (And our daughter said our home packed version was colder!)

Buying the pizza on Fridays felt like a better value: the kids think it’s awesome, rather than milk every day, which they couldn’t care less about. Maybe there’s a similar trade-off at your school?

Want some more tips for saving money on food?  
We've got a whole series here!

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