Although my child’s school offers hot lunch twice a week, I have to pack lunch for the the remaining days. But I don’t mind—I’m a big fan of packing a lunch! Not only can you save money, but you know exactly what and how much your children are eating. Another bonus: if you have a child with a food allergy, special diet, or use only organic food products, packing your child's lunch gives you more control over what your child is consuming.

There are several steps we follow in our household to make the lunch packing process simple, budget friendly and fun! A packed lunch doesn’t have to be boring, soggy or bland. Take a peek at these simple tips and soon you will be packing a lunch that your child won’t even think about trading!

1. Avoid Buying Disposable Storage Items

When you purchase and use plastic baggies and paper lunch sacks, you’re simply throwing money away. Invest in some reusable plastic storage containers in a variety of sizes. Soft cloth reusable sandwich and snack bags are available here and wash up nicely.

Bonus: You’re saving money and the earth at the same time!

2. Make Your Own Individual Servings

When you buy a six pack of applesauce cups or a 12 pack of snack-size chips, you’re paying more for the packaging than for the food product. Instead, purchase a bulk size and divide it into reusable containers. Yes, this takes a few minutes, but the savings add up fast. For us, a six pack of fruit cups used to cost $2.50 and lasted five lunches. Now, one large can costs $1.25 and can easily make twice as many lunches. Talk about value!

Tip: I purchase the Glad Twist and Lock size small containers (approx. $3.50 for 3), as well as the Glad 4 ounce Round Containers (approx. $3.50 for 8 size small).

3. Get Creative!

Lunches don’t have to be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day. Think outside the box! Here are some of our family favorites:

  • Banana Hot Dog: Take a whole wheat hot dog bun and lightly spread cream cheese, or peanut butter and jam inside. Then pack a banana in your child’s lunch (with the peel on). At school they can peel the banana and combine. You could also pack a small reusable container of items to garnish it with, like coconut or raisins.
  • Ants on a Log: A fresh celery stick topped with peanut butter and raisins.
  • Walking Tacos: A thermos of warmed seasoned ground beef (dinner leftovers!), some separate chopped tomato, lettuce and shredded cheese. Include a bag of corn chips, and your child can combine all of the ingredients into the bag to create a walking taco.
  • More ideas: Salads with dressing on the side, last night’s leftover chicken chopped into chicken salad, a thermos full of warm soup or pasta are all great lunch choices that will keep your child full and stretch your grocery budget by using dinner leftovers.
  • Tip: The best way to keep food hot in a thermos is to preheat the thermos. Fill your thermos at least half way full with boiling hot water, cap and let sit 3–5 minutes. Heat your food up. Dump the hot water out of the thermos and put the hot food into the hot thermos.

4. Fuel with Protein, Not Sugar

Kids need protein to maintain energy during the day. By utilizing chicken, peanut butter or adding a hard-boiled egg to a salad, you’re giving your child the boost they need to get through the day. Before you toss highly-processed snacks into your child’s lunch, think again and try one of these ideas instead. Sliced cheeses, fresh low-fat meats like turkey, grapes and whole wheat crackers can all be packed for kids to create their own homemade “Lunchable.” Or, pack a whole wheat pita, some pizza sauce, shredded cheese and turkey pepperoni for them to create their own low-fat, high-protein pizza pocket.

5. Plan Ahead

As with any family meal, planning ahead and keeping lunch items stocked saves time and money. You may also want to take an hour each week prepping items such as hard-boiled eggs, chicken or tuna salads, chopping fruit, veggies and cheeses. For a sweet treat, mix up brownies or muffins and bake them in a miniature muffin pan! In no time, you’ll have a few dozen mini treats that only cost a couple of dollars! A little planning allows you to easily grab and go when it comes time to pack those lunches.

6. Give Your Lunches Some Personality

Why not slip a sweet note, fun picture, riddle or joke in with your child’s lunch? It will make them smile and let them know of your love! Another perk: It doesn’t cost a dime!

Don’t forget, these tips work just as well for hungry adults too! Extend the savings by packing your own lunch. No rushing out during lunch hour, no waiting in line, no fuss. Just find a quiet place to relax and dine! You will be glad you did, and so will your budget. Bon appétit!

This has been a guest post by Katie from South Bend, IN
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6 Ways to Prepare School Lunch for Less