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Quick tips on packing healthy lunches for your kids - on a budget!

How to Pack Healthy Budget-Friendly Back-to-School Lunches

by Katie Cullum

photo of prepackaged lunch, cookies, chips, and caffeine drink
This may be quick in the morning, but it's not very healthy (no fruits, no veggies, high in sodium, too many cookies, too much caffeine and sugar) and it can get expensive.  You CAN do better with a few tweaks!

It's time to start packing lunches for the kids again.  Sigh.  Mornings are already a little crazy, but add in making lunches and it turns into chaos!  But you don't have to go crazy making sweet artful lunches, or spend a fortune on convenience foods that make you feel guilty and aren't as healthy as you would like. We've been trying to save money all summer with the SOS Family Challenge, and we're still going strong!


sheet with food groups and options
Grayson's sheet with the food groups at the top, and options that he enjoys under each food group. Click to image view full size.

Get the kid(s) involved with the planning.  They will be more likely to eat something that they helped plan, prepare, make, etc.  Before my son started kindergarten, I showed him MyPlate and we discussed the different food groups and why we need them all. Then, I got a sheet of paper and wrote the food groups at the top.  He came up with ideas of foods he liked in each food group.  So when we need inspiration for lunches, we get out his sheet!

  • You don't have to wait until the hectic morning to work on lunches!  You can get the ball rolling the night before.   You can package items:
    • put vegetables in small baggies or containers
    • put fruits in small baggies or containers
    • package a protein (make a PB&J sandwich, put a boiled egg in a container/baggie, put ham/turkey in a baggie or container, etc.)
    • Get your grains and dairy ready too!
  • One way to save money on lunches - don't buy everything individually packaged!  Some things, like cheese sticks, come that way.  But most things can be purchased in bulk, which saves you money.  Then, you can package how you like:
    • cutting up blocks of cheese (blocks can also be grated - check out this post on how to save money on cheese)
    • purchasing a large container of yogurt and filling small containers with yogurt (I use plain yogurt and add a little honey and some fruit)
    • sending a refillable water bottle for a drink, or purchasing milk in the cafeteria instead of purchasing juice boxes
    • putting fresh fruits & vegetables in small containers instead of buying small bags of chips
  • Homemade lunchables instead of purchasing the pre-packaged lunch containers!  I reused the plastic container that came filled with lunch meat and it works great!  I also found some stackable lunch containers on clearance at a dollar store.  You don't have to have fancy containers - try out what you have first.  Let your kids open all the containers before using - they will need to open containers by themselves.  Your kids may need to practice and feel comfortable opening containers - some are harder to open than others! Small bags are usually easy, but my son actually prefers the containers.

Here are some examples:

example of a homemade lunchable - grapes, tomatoes, cheese stick, ham slices, crackers

Healthy Lunch #1

This homemade lunch has whole wheat crackers, sliced ham, cheese stick, grapes, and cherry tomatoes.

homemade lunch with sandwich, baby carrots, yogurt with blueberries

Healthy Lunch #2

Another homemade lunch with a made with whole wheat bread (PB&J or ham/turkey/cheese), baby carrots, yogurt with blueberries.

quick lunch idea with lunchable, carrots, applesauce, juice

Quick Lunch

Lunchable, baby carrots, applesauce, juice, cheese stick.

mandarin oranges, egg, olives, sandwich thins, banana, apple

Other Options

Get your kids involved! They may like foods that you wouldn't think about (olives, pepperoni, pinwheels or other roll-ups, etc.).

Learn more

Containers & Food Safety

small containers, lunch bag, tomatoes, cucumber
Gather up your supplies - insulated lunch bag, ice packs, small containers/bags, and your list.  Try fitting different containers into lunch bag to see what all will fit at once.

You can use a lot of different containers.  Just make sure your child can open them!  I like the smaller containers, but my child is still pretty young.  Older children may need bigger containers (and bigger lunch bags).  I've collected several different types through the years - see what you have!  Check sales and clearance items also.  

Don't forget your ice packs - freezer gel packs or "blue" ice packs work well.  You can also freeze juice boxes.  If you have cold items, they need to stay cold, so paper bags may not be sufficient.  Paper bags also must be thrown away each day.  Purchasing reusable insulated bags, ice packs, and containers may be more cost effective in the long run.
Don't forget to pack a napkins and utensils if your child will need them.
Train your child to bring in the lunch bag and empty it each day!  Put the containers into the sink or the dishwasher, wipe the lunch bag out, and get things ready for the next day.

What other tips can you share? Go to my Facebook page and share your tips!

Check out our Made at Home: What's in Your Lunchbox series for even more great lunch ideas!

#1 - MyPlate Masters

#2 - Grab & Go

#3 - Prep Ahead

#4 - Hot & Cold

#5 - Allergy Friendly