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Reader Tip: We save $200/year by packing school lunches

Amber emailed in with the following tip:

We save $200+ a year by packing my son’s lunch for school.  The daily lunch at our school costs $2.15, so for the 180-day school year, the cost of buying lunch is $387.00!

I have found that I am easily able to pack my son’s lunch including a healthy entree, salty side, fruit and “treat” for no more than $1 a day. I’m blessed that he prefers his filled water bottle to a more expensive drink, however, even adding a drink would still have significant savings over the purchase price.

This year we will save about $200 (I’m figuring there will probably be 10 lunches that will end up being purchased over the course of the year). Yahoo! Given the potential savings, I decided I would purchase a thermal entree container to send his favorite leftovers. It will be a $3.99 well spent.

photo credit

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104 Comments

  • Monica says:

    Too cute to eat! =)

  • karen b says:

    We pack @ our house also. W/ 3 kids we have too, some people say how can that be but it is possible. We do allow them to buy about once a week if they want too. Ours also drink water or leftover tea if we have it:)

  • Amanda says:

    We save about 600 dollars by packing my husbands lunch for work, instead of spending $5 a day on fast food. Do those meals even cost $5… They seem more like $7 if you get a drink?

  • Helene says:

    Very timely. I was denied the reduced price lunches so it will be $453 for my grandson (1st grade) for the school year at $2.55 (assuming he is there every day which he won’t be since he catches every illness going around the school 🙂 ) Anyone have any brown bag lunch ideas for kids? There is just so much PB & J the kid will eat 🙂 Also no refrigeration available (not sure he can handle thermal or not throw it out).

    • Rae says:

      I’m sure you’ll get lots of ideas for foods to pack. But as far as the no refrigeration, an insulated lunch bag/box with something frozen will do the trick. If you don’t have room in it to do an ice pack (they come small and even with kid designs), you can freeze a juice box, baggy of grapes, yogurt, etc and by lunchtime, they are thawed out enough to eat/drink and kept the lunch cool 🙂

  • Joanne says:

    That’s great but to figure the true savings you need to subtract the total cost of the lunches you provide.

    Honest advertising…

  • Kristine says:

    I have three kids, and they get reduced-price meals at school–$.30 for breakfast and $.40 for lunch for each child. That’s less than I would spend if I packed lunches for them. I do pack a lunch for my hubby to take to work.

  • Sakura says:

    We pack my sons lunch 2 to 3 times a week for school. I never thought about the cost savings, I just wanted to make sure he was eating right. At our elementary the kids can pick from 4 different lunches. Two are questionable for me, they are yogurt and an uncrustable. They get to pick a fruit and veggie also, but it just doesn’t seem to be filling for my son.

    My husband always takes left over dinner to work with him for his lunch the next day. He takes both a frozen water bottle and a soda with him to have while he’s there. I’m sure this is saving us money, but I couldn’t tell you how much.

    BTW, the giraffe cheese is soooooo cute!

  • Valerie says:

    Maybe you could have a blog about what to pack in the lunch, or what you pack in your sons lunch. Unless you know someone who already does that could I get the link. I would very much appreciate it. =-)

  • Cassie says:

    So thankful my boys qualify for free lunch!

  • Whitney says:

    Most parents do not realize the amount of money they waste when their child eats lunch from the cafeteria at school. I have included some links in my Back 2 School Series post yesterday that have some great, cost effective lunch recipes for parents wanting to send a homemade lunch to school with their child.

    And I have to agree that the giraffe cheese is adorable! 🙂

    • Emily says:

      It is sad but the parents are paying for all the food. If too much is cooked (at least around here) it is thrown out. The cooks are required to throw it away instead of giving it to the kids or teachers.

  • Amanda says:

    And depending on how bad the school lunch is, your kid may home hungry because he hardly ate any of it. I remember my mom started packing my lunch when she ate at school with me one day and realized I wasn’t eating anything.

    Packing my lunch for work is also a tremendous savings. Even though the cafeteria where I work serves really filling lunches for $2.50, I’m sure I save well over $200 a year by not eating there every day.

    • Elias says:

      I agree! That school food is nasty. Well in our county it is anyways.

    • Kristine says:

      My kids’ school has pretty good food, including a food bar with fresh fruit and veggies, and the kids really like it. The bad thing is that they are not given a lot of time to eat; they really have to rush, especially at breakfast.

  • kj says:

    I sometimes get in a “lunch rut” packing my son’s lunches. Any suggestions? What do all of you pack in the lunch box?

  • Kristen says:

    My husband and I are both students, and since we’re not making much we qualify for free lunches for our daughter, BUT we still choose to pack a lunch for her 🙂 In my opinion, even free school lunches aren’t worth it, given the poor nutritional content! (Unless your child happens to go to a school where they actually offer healthy food.) At ours 1 of the options each day may be healthy, but the kids are allowed to have complete control over what they choose (even in Kindergarten), and I know mine wouldn’t make the greatest choices 😀

    • Kristine says:

      Kids may not eat all of the healthy stuff that you pack either; my kids are picky eaters and would probably throw away anything they didn’t like if I weren’t there–whether from the cafeteria or from home. Our school actually has pretty good food, though, including a food bar with fresh fruit and veggies, and my kids really like the food most of the time.

      • Kristen says:

        I tend to stick to packing healthy items that I know my daughter likes, so I don’t worry too much about her not eating. I figure we can have more variety and try new things at breakfast or dinner at home, but for now we stick to familiar favorites for lunch. Yesterday I had put her lunch box in her backpack, and she forgot it was there and bought lunch at school (not sure how since she had no money). She chose to have a burger and orange juice LOL

        • Christy says:

          I’m a teacher. At our school, students are never turned away for not having money. The lunch is charged to their account and when the account reaches around $20 a bill is sent home. Since you qualify for free lunch, you won’t get a bill.

          • Kristina says:

            This was a problem with our kindergartener last year. He was getting breakfast at home then going to the cafeteria to be with his friends and charging a breakfast without our knowledge. Needless to say when the bill came in we were quite surprised and upset that no one even bothered to call us. Apparently, he thought he had to have breakfast at the school to sit with his friends. About a week before we found out, he had been eating less and less at breakfast, and we didn’t think much, because he has always gone through spurts where he eats like a maniac for a week or two and then didn’t eat much other weeks. I later found out he was eating sugary cereal (lucky charms) that we don’t eat at home with chocolate milk (not to drink – in the bowl!) That made me even angrier. How dare they let my kindergartner even have that choice for breakfast without my knowledge and why aren’t parents informed about this before sending them a bill??? Don’t you think some kids might come with a lunch and throw it out, because they would rather eat the school junk food like Pizza and Nachos. Especially, once they figure out they can get it for free. Parents should be informed of this kind of policy, before kids start school and be offered a way to stop this from happening. 🙁

  • Bonnie says:

    Details please! I can’t beat the price of our school lunches. At least not with healthy food.

    • I fed my 6 children and I yesterday for a total cost of .50 for lunch. We had homemade barley soup and fruit.

      My normal goal is to feed to my family of 8 for $3- $5 for the day (it is often less than $3 for the day). I can’t imagine spending $2 or $3 for lunch for just one child, when all 8 of us can eat dinner for that!

      • Bonnie says:

        That’s great that you can do that! I would love to get my costs down to that also. My point was more that Amber didn’t give any details on how to pack lunches so inexpensively. I’d love to save by packing my son’s lunches, but I’ve never been able to do so for less than the school lunch. And since the school lunches in my area are actually pretty good, we decided to go that route.

  • Jillbert says:

    I’m a lunch packer, too! Our school lunches cost $2.50 each and I have three kids. My children do not like to buy lunches. One reason is the lunch line is long so they don’t have enough time to eat. And the food? They think it’s gross. I’m happy to pack them each morning and I can be sure they are getting a balanced lunch with healthy food they WILL eat rather than throw away.

  • Ashli says:

    I can’t believe how expensive other school lunches are! We are very fortunate to live in a district where the lunches are filled with whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, low fat dairy, and protein AND it’s only $1.65 per day. This post makes me realize how lucky we are!

    • Kristine says:

      I feel the same way. Because we qualify for reduced prices, we pay $.30 for breakfast and $.40 for lunch per day per child. And my kids’ school has pretty good food, too. We are fortunate in that.

    • Kristina says:

      Just make sure you actually check it out if you haven’t. Some school lunches sound great on paper, but when you see what the kids are actually eating, it’s not so great. I know this is not every school, but our district is bad. My son was supposed to get 1 fruit, 1 entree and milk in the morning. Instead he got a go-gurt, lucky charms (in there eyes … whole grains..NOT!), and chocolate milk. They just set a few bananas out and that was their fruit choice… take it or leave it. I didn’t see too many kids going for the nasty over ripe bananas. 🙁 I will give my school kudos for their snack program. Every kid last year got a free healthy fruit or veggie snack. They got things like pears, carrots, cantaloupe that was all locally grown thanks to a local company who provides this. Sure wish I could remember the name. 🙂

      • Ashli says:

        Oh I have been there and seen the lunches first hand. They really are great and the kids are getting lots of good food. Friday was a stuffed shell with marinara, whole grain breadstick, (with whole grains, you can actually see them in the bread) leafy green salad, cantaloupe, choice of whole apple or banana, and milk. It’s food that the kids like and it’s healthy for them, plus the portion sizes are completely appropriate for their age. I have no problem at all letting them buy their lunches, but I’m good with packing for them too. It’s up to them!

  • Zena says:

    Can you tell me where you get the thermal container for $3.99? I’ve been looking and can’t seem to find one for less than $12.99. I REALLY want one for my son’s lunch this year.

    • Elias says:

      We got ours in an oversized sandwich size at Target in the school supply section for $4.99 and the smaller size was $3.99.

    • Melissa says:

      We used to have a plastic one that we got for 3.99. But, our thermos container (that I spent about $15 on) keeps the food warmer, and has lasted way longer. We’ve had it for three years, and it still looks brand-new.

    • The $12.99 Thermos ones that they have at Target really keep the food the right temperature for hours. I have been using one to send lunch with my husband to work, and he said it was perfectly warm still. It’s more money, but you don’t have to worry about food going bad because it’s the wrong temperature. The insulation is really good one these. Plus, you’ll likely get many years of use out if it.

      Land’s End had some for a bit less, and they have free shipping this month with no minimum order (plus you can order through ebates as well). I haven’t used their brand, but you may want to check into them.

      • LoveToShop says:

        Target Dollar spot…2.50 with popular characters on it and VERY cute!! I saw Tinkerbell, Spiderman, and a couple of others.

        Or there is a thermos in a hard square lunch box target is also selling..the box is 4.99, comes with a thermos and several coupons, including one for a free 4-pack Hawaiian Rolls(value 2.50) so it’s really worth it if you need a box as well. I remember seeing Dora, Hello Kitty, Penguins of Madagascar, and Star Wars. HTH someone!

      • Becky says:

        FYI: Funny, I was just looking at those Lands End thermoses yesterday, thinking they were a little better price than those same Thermos ones you mentioned. I read the reviews, & people aren’t crazy about them. Sounds like the seals leak, and they don’t keep food at cold or hot temps like they’re supposed to.

        • I hadn’t read any reviews on them yet, and I wondered how they were. That’s good to know! It sounds like it’s worth getting the Thermos brand ones, then. Sometimes it’s worth paying more for a quality product that will last several years.

          I know we’re very happy with our Thermos brand one.

          • Becky says:

            Yes, I forgot to mention that we also have the Thermos ones & love them (especially the stainless straw water bottles)! They never leak & keep correct temps as you mentioned, Prudent Homemaker. I agree–well worth the $$$.

    • Shannon says:

      I got one for my son a week or two AFTER school started last year. The back-to-school section was all on clearance, 75% off. I didn’t get my son’s most favorite color but at least he still thinks using it is pretty cool.

  • Angela says:

    Kid lunch ideas would be great if anyone can share! I get into a rut too, mainly because my daughter is a picky eater….she won’t even try things like tuna, chicken or egg salad. And will not eat lunchmeats…so I am stuck with PB&J or PB&banana. She doesn’t like many of the school lunches so ends up buying maybe 1-2 times a week. Our lunches at school cost $2.25.

  • Amy says:

    We are lunch packers too. School lunches here are $3 and my daughter won’t eat it. She begs me to take Lunchables but I can’t bring myself to let her do it. There doesn’t seem to be enough protein in there just a bunch of crackers. I purchased a pack of crescent roll dough. Thought I would make a batch of pizza pockets and freeze some. I do a mixture of sandwiches, chips, a fruit of some sort and lemonade. We also have to bring snacks once a month for her class. I find that I can make snacks like muffins or doing a cookie (or brownie) and some fruit much cheaper than I can do the individual packages of goldfish or something similar.

  • I don’t know about elementary school yet, but the GA Pre-K program is $25 a week for 1 child for lunches. So that is $100 a month for 1 kid and lunches.

    • Rachel says:

      Yikes! That is almost $900 a year (based on a 36 week school year).

      • I don’t know all the details, but I think it is because it is a state funded pre-K so tuition is free; however, the lunches aren’t. I don’t know why parents are not allowed to send in a lunch for the kids! So it is like getting free tuition, but not technically since they have to buy lunch.

        • Andrea Q says:

          How can they legally prohibit a child from bringing their own lunch? What about children with allergies or special nutritional requirements? If you really want to send your child to the program, I’d talk to the school district about the food issue.

  • Rachel says:

    We always packed our lunches to save money, but would always buy milk from the school to go with it. I don’t like chocolate milk, so my mom always knew I was getting skim milk.

  • Meghan says:

    When we lived in New Jersey, lunch at my son’s preschool cost……are you ready for this….. $6 a DAY! And kids that were there for lunch weren’t allowed to bring their own lunch; they had to buy the school’s food. It was not healthy, fresh food–always chicken nuggets, pizza, french toast sticks, etc. It was outrageous!

    • Elias says:

      When we were looking into preschools, we had this problem too. I don’t remember how much it was but the would not allow us to bring in our own food and they kept insisting all the kids loved their food. Well of course they loved eating that junk! It was just chicken nuggets, pizza etc. It was so frustrating and they would not budge so we had to find another school. It really is outrageous.

  • Amy Lauren says:

    My parents usually packed for me until I was in around 6th grade or so, then all through high school I bought (I actually liked our school lunches, but they’re also part of the reason why I was overweight in high school). Anyway, I’m an adult now and don’t have any kids, but from what my friends who have kids say, it’s outrageous- especially if your kid goes to private school and you have to pay in advance (the food is catered in), and if your kid misses school that day, you don’t even get the money back or another lunch. Ours were around $1.35 in high school, and you got a good lunch for the price, but now that I look back, the food was totally bad nutritionally. French fries every single day…

  • Shannon says:

    My 16 year old daughter insists on packing her lunch every day, except for maybe 2 or 3 times a year. She takes peanut butter every single day because she chooses to and never complaints about being tired of it. She doesn’t want to hassle with a cold pack because her lunch is packed in a brown paper bag. I never complain because it saves me a lot of money!

  • Amanda says:

    My 2 older daughters attend private school, and their lunches are $3.20 each! Even if you splurge and buy Lunchables to pack them, it’s still WAY cheaper!

  • brandy keagy says:

    ThAnks for the ideas! Both of my boys are still home, but its great to see some new ideas! I was a brown bag kid. I recall reading that many schools are outlawing packed lunches because of the nutrition content of home-sent lunches. Anybody heard of this? That was very surprising to me.

    • Marsha says:

      I’ve heard of some private institutions providing lunches and snacks (and formula for infants) because they receive USDA funding to do so. I’ve not heard of a public district going this route short of not allowing homemade baked goods for celebrations (one must order from the food service department or an approved bakery instead – my kids’ school district doesn’t allow edible treats for birthday celebrations at all so it’s moot for us).

    • Heather says:

      If that were true, I would wonder why parents weren’t going to school board meetings and raising a ruckus.

    • I read a news article about public schools doing this.

    • Kristina says:

      I haven’t heard this, but I be the first in line to say no way… it’s my right to feed my kids the way I want too!! Good or Bad! My kids eat much better than what the school provides. I’d have a serious problem with this. USDA guidelines are (rap when chocolate milk qualifies as dairy and graham crackers as a whole grain.

  • Marsha says:

    I work full-time and get up extra early to make sure I can get our school lunches made – my kids have never bought a lunch in the cafeteria (going into fifth and second grades). They enjoy pizza rolls (pizza dough with sauce and cheese, rolled up and slices sort of the way cinnamon rolls are), pierogies (pan fried, not boiled), empanadas (which I usually make with leftovers), falafel – basically, whatever I can make in quantity and freeze to give them a nice variety, packed with the appropriate dipping sauces and accompaniments. They don’t like to take finger jello anymore, but I can still get away with homemade granola bars or no-bake oat/pb cookies. Fruit and veggies – whatever’s in season – round out the meal.

    Once you have a rhythm down it’s not hard to pull off a healthy, satisfying, cost-effective, quality meal.

  • Heather says:

    Our school lunches are even more expensive so home packed lunches mean an even larger savings. Cute picture!

  • Becky says:

    I’d love to hear any suggestions for providing milk with a packed lunch. The individual containers are ridiculously expensive. We’ve tried pouring milk from the gallon into a variety of water bottles & they always seem to leak. Yuck! I know there are other beverage choices, but we strongly prefer milk. Any ideas?

    • LoveToShop says:

      A thermos…keeps it cold and fresh and provides a cup as a lid to drink from. $2.50 in the target dollar area at the front of the store.

    • Davonne says:

      Maybe try pouring the milk unto an insulated thermos. Or, get the pint sized milk containers and freeze them overnight, then toss them frozen into the lunch bags. They’ll be thawed, but still really cold, by lunch!

    • Becky says:

      Thermos brand also makes some incredible smallish straw spouted stainless steel thermos drink containers. If I use a fair amount of ice, they keep my kids’ water cold for a full 24 hours (often still has ice in it when I go to refill it the following day for school). We’ve never had any kind of leak, & they’re pretty rough on them. They’re spendy, like $15, but we’ve had them for 2-3 years already.

  • ally says:

    http://www.weelicious.com she has cute lunch ideas for kids

  • Michele says:

    I did a post two years ago about school lunches with details about what I pack. I also figured out it was costing about $1 per lunch. Here is the link if anyone wants to see it. The costs are in the “IRL” section:

    http://savingmoneyirl.blogspot.com/2009/01/bring-your-own-lunch.html

  • Jess says:

    First – I LOVE the giraffe cheese 🙂

    I do not have children, however, when my friends complain about never having money I suggest they pack their lunch, I usually pack a lunch for work and it saves me a lot of money.

    Also, skipping Starbucks every morning on the way to work adds up to a lot of saving 🙂

    • Joy says:

      That is so true! I do not have children; however, I pack a lunch every day. Ladies at my work, who eat out, complain about the cost but will not take the time to pack lunch. It is much cheaper to pack lunch; plus, it’s much healthier!! =)

  • Stacy Raffo says:

    My oldest daughter is in 3rd grade and my youngest in K (she went to public pre-last year) so 2 kids at $1.65 a day =$3.30 a day x 5=$16.50/week x 36 weeks= $594 a year!! We are hardcore lunch packers and it saves us a ton of money.
    I do spend some money upfront to have great lunch essentials: Thermos Food Containers and thermos, small zip lock containers, sturdy plastic cutlery and a nice lunch box (I got ours from 31 when they had a $5 sale). The most important piece in mu opinion is the Thermos Food Container, well worth the $12-$15. It keeps soup, leftovers, chicken nuggets…whatever, hot until lunch! We have had ours going on 4 years though so they really hold up!
    I also save by buying tubs of yogurt and putting it into small reusable containers to save money. My kids eat a healthy lunch for about $0.65 a day, a huge cost savings!

    • Christy says:

      I did the big tub of yogurt thing when my first was a baby and am about to start again. Instead of buying yobaby, I buy the big tub of plain full fat yogurt and mix in crushed pineapple or a homemade fruit puree. I even send it to daycare like this in a reusable container. My 4 year old and I eat mostly the single servings now (fat free) that I get free or next to free with coupons.

  • mary says:

    I totally agree with the above mentions of BENTO lunches! I bought fondant cutters at Michael’s craft store, and once a weekend I cut up a variety of cheeses, fruits, veggies and breads to jazz up whatever leftovers or sandwich — my picky little girls will eat almost anything once it’s in the shape of a heart or star or flower! 🙂 And it really doesn’t take that long!

  • mary says:

    Here is a link for easy, fast “americanized” bento lunches!
    http://www.anotherlunch.com/

  • Lisa says:

    I’d save $200/yr moving to your school district- school lunches here are $4.50/day. That’s well over $2000 for my 3 kids for the year!

  • Carrie says:

    Our school lunches are only $1.20 (that’s non-reduced cost). I think that is pretty comprable to the cost of packing our own lunches when I figure in lunch boxes, thermos’, etc. However, we still pack our lunch 90% of the time. I can’t even fathom how some of their entrees are considered such. No thanks.

  • anne says:

    i use the glass starbucks bottle. it is on sale now at walgreens 4.99/pack (4 botles in 1 pack) does not leak.

  • Karen says:

    Our school lunches are $1.90. Times that by 3 kids and 180 days and that is $1026.00 a year. I can feed them for much less…and they eat it. My oldest is 9 and has food allergies (corn and peants) so what she can eat is very limited. My other two like to take their lunch, except one eats every Monday at school because she loves the chicken sandwich. That is fine with me. I have money in their account and if they want to get a milk (60 cents for just milk..only costs the school .15 so they are making quite a profit) they can, but I always pack a drink for them. I figure I save around $600-$700 a year this way AND my kids eat it. They have choices they can make and help me pack their lunches at night so the food going into the lunch is only food that they like.

  • When my mom was pregnant with her 5th child, my dad gave us a tutorial on packing our lunches. I was in 3rd grade, my brother in 2nd grade, and my sister in Kindergarten (my other sister was still at home). They definitely supervised (especially the youngest kids) but I’ve packed a lunch ever since, throughout grade school, college, teaching, traveling, and marriage. I’ve always found it cheaper (and often more appetizing) than buying!

  • We pack our lunches too, but nothing as cute as that. Did you use a cookie cutter or do it by hand? My daughter would love her lunches so much more if I could do that kind of stuff.

  • Amanda says:

    My foster daughter gets free school lunch, and I LOVE it…saves time and falling into lunch ruts (I’m not as creative as a lot of moms with their meals).

  • Joy says:

    I remember in grade school, my mother had to pay a fee to allow me to eat lunch at school. The $69 a semester fee did not cover food ($138); she still needed to pack a lunch each day.

    As a picky eater, I would only eat cereal (Crispix or Corn Flakes). It wasn’t as healthy as a sandwich, but it was still cheaper than Lunchables…

  • Holly says:

    that lunch is sooooo cute!

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