Back-to-school season is here. While you probably budgeted for new clothes and supplies for the school year, the small cost of the simple school lunch can catch you by surprise. But with school lunches typically only costing $2 to $3, is there really a way to save?
Yes, there is. Putting together a homemade, Lunchables-style meal of sliced meats and cheeses with some crackers will likely cost less than $1.50. More important than cost, these DIY meals are completely customizable, so it's easy to add in some healthy veggies or match your child's tastes.
You're probably already thinking this sounds like a lot of effort. We can't lie: Making brown-bag lunches every day takes planning and prep work. But as long as you do spend some time prepping, making your kid's lunches doesn't have to involve a frantic dash around the kitchen every day. If you set aside time every weekend to plan, shop, and portion out lunch components, putting together a lunch will likely only take a few minutes every weekday morning.
Now let's walk through how to make your kids' school lunches without spending too much time or money — and maybe you'll save on your own lunch as well.
3 Steps to Saving Money on School Lunches
Gather Your Packing Materials
The "brown-bag" lunch has a certain nostalgic appeal. Trust us, though, the little ones will prefer their Doc McStuffins lunch box. If you're packing lunches every day, anything that's reusable makes a difference. Pick up an insulated lunch box or bag that's durable enough to last the school year. You'll also want reusable plastic containers in appropriate sizes and a bottle for filling with water, juice, or whatever kind of drink you need to pack.
Don't spend too much on any of these, since anything carried to school every day can get beaten up or lost. Still, spending a little up front means you don't need to buy disposable bags, prepackaged drinks, and more.
Plan Your Meals
With apologies to those of you who aren't meticulous planners, this step is important. Taking time to plan out the week will help you manage both time and money. Draw up a menu for the week — and, no, you can't just pack the same meal every day, as your kids are likely to get bored. Your top consideration should be what your kids like to eat, because if you pack a meal they hate and it goes uneaten, you're not saving anything. This is a good opportunity to involve your children in the process: Talk about what they'd like to have for their lunch, and compromise to find options you're both happy with.
This is the time to start thinking costs. While working on your plan, check coupons or circulars from your local grocery stores. Don't buy something your child doesn't like just because it's on sale, but anything you can pick up on sale ups your savings. (And if you can find your child's favorites on sale, it's a good idea to stock up.) However, you'll want to keep these few things off of your list:
Snack-sized, preportioned food. While it's convenient to have bags that are perfectly sized to drop in a lunch box, you'll always pay more for them. Picking up a larger bag and portioning it yourself is where you'll save the most.
Pre-chopped fruit and vegetables. This is another convenience that can really ramp up the cost — and chopping veggies isn't that hard to do yourself.
Even if you think the time-to-effort trade-off on these isn't worth it, we recommend giving planning and prepping a try. You may find that spending some time on Sunday night chopping vegetables and splitting up snacks for the week's lunches doesn't take as long as you'd imagine.
Keep a kid-sized appetite in mind when you make your shopping list, and remember you can always repackage things into the most appropriate size.
Another big cost question is how much you're buying. Like with any grocery trip, you don't want to purchase too much when shopping for school lunches. If you're buying anything perishable, be sure it's something that will get eaten before it goes bad. And while we've already suggested buying larger packages, think about how much your child is likely to eat. If you over-pack, extra food is likely to wind up in the trash, which doesn't help your grocery budget. Keep a kid-sized appetite in mind when you make your shopping list, and remember you can always repackage things into the most appropriate size.
Prep Meals in Advance
Preparation is the key to successful school lunches — especially if you're taking our advice to skip snack packages and precut veggies. Pick a time every weekend (Sunday night is usually good) to get lunches ready for the next week. You probably won't make everything, but anything you can do in advance will save you time on weekdays.
This is another place to get the kids involved. Even little ones can help you package munchies or assemble Lunchables-style snack trays. If you spend the time packaging lunch components in advance, all you have to do in the morning is put those packages into a lunch bag and fill up a reusable bottle with juice or water. Done!
We haven't mentioned cooking up to this point because it's not strictly necessary for making a packed lunch on a budget. However, if you know your way around the kitchen — or just enjoy cooking with your kids — homemade treats are always a delicious add-on. You could make your own cookie bites for dessert, put together chicken salad for sandwiches, or prepare a customized snack mix to eat for the week.
Another cost-saving lunch food? Leftovers! While kids won't always appreciate last night's dinner in today's lunch box, they will if it's extra of one of their favorites.
Packing Lunch Isn't Just for the Kids
While we've come at this from the angle of back-to-school season, if you're making one lunch in the morning, it doesn't require much more effort to make two. And for adults, the benefits of a packed lunch are much more pronounced: If you're eating out when you're at work, you could get food off of the dollar menu at a local fast food joint or spend $20 on something at a casual restaurant. Packing a sandwich and a salad for lunch may not be that exciting, but if you follow these guidelines, the meal will be healthy and probably only cost you a few dollars.
This article first appeared in DealNews.