AHEAD OF THE PACK
School will soon be back in session, and it isn't just a drag for kids. Packing lunches takes enough time and planning to make it tempting to send kids off to school with lunch money instead. However, packing a lunch can save money and boost nutrition. Here are 50 easy and cheap school lunches. Some are cooked in advance (leftovers are your best friend for packing lunches), so be sure to refrigerate them overnight and follow other food-safety guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
MEAT-FREE LUNCH KIT
Meat can be expensive, so save money by going meat-free a few days a week. A DIY lunch kit can include crackers, cheese cubes, cherry tomatoes, and grapes. Reusable, compartmentalized containers such as EasyLunchboxes ($14 for four) make this easier. Use whatever veggies and fruit are on hand, and throw in some nuts if your kid likes them (though skip peanuts if your school doesn't allow them).
MINI CORN DOGS
This cheap lunch takes a little effort, but kids love it. Make mini-corn muffins and stick slices of hot dog in the middle of the batter before baking. Add mustard and ketchup for dipping.
If using a divided container, split up the parts of a salad into individual compartments. Carrots can go into one, cucumbers in another, and cherry tomatoes, celery sticks, sugar snap peas, cheese slices, croutons, and dressing for dipping can also be added. Always use up whatever's in the fridge instead of buying specifically for lunches.
LUNCH MEAT SALAD
Let the kids mix up a salad themselves at lunchtime to prevent it from getting soggy. Lettuce, veggies, croutons, and shredded cheese can be put into one container, lunch meat in another, and a side of dressing sealed in a leak-resistant container ($8 for eight).
CLASSIC PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY
This classic sandwich is so simple and cheap, it sometimes gets forgotten. Two slices of bread, peanut butter, and jelly is usually a hit with kids no matter how often they eat it. Fruit, chips, and a sweet treat such as marshmallows make for a prototypical lunch.
Mix canned tuna with mayo, relish, and celery chunks. Send it in the lunchbox with crackers and cheese so the kids can put together their own mini-sandwiches.
Spread mayo on the inside of a pita pocket and layer in some bacon, lettuce, and tomato. Chips, string cheese, or cheese cubes and a small sweet complete the lunch.
Have some shredded chicken leftover from dinner? Don't let it go to waste. Mix it up with mayonnaise, dried cranberries, salt, and pepper. Send it in the lunchbox in the morning on bread with cheese.
Hard-boil extra eggs before they expire and throw together a quick egg salad for lunches. Just mix mayonnaise, diced hard-boiled eggs, salt, and pepper to taste. Pack it on a bed of lettuce, with pita chips for dipping and scooping.
LUNCH MEAT ROLLS
Roll together lunch meat and cheese slices in whole-wheat tortilla shells, and lunch is good to go. Use a toothpick to keep the roll-ups together, and add mustard or ranch in a leak-proof container for dipping.
PEANUT BUTTER AND BANANA
A twist on the classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich, this variation puts banana slices in place of the jelly. Add some sides and lunch is packed.
Slice a bagel and fill it with cream cheese, lunchmeat slices, and veggies. Cut the sandwich in half or quarters to make it easier for little hands to manage, and secure it with toothpicks.
Pita bread, pepperoni, shredded mozzarella cheese, and pizza sauce sealed in a leak-proof container make for an easy, build-it-yourself lunch idea kids will love. Applesauce makes a good side.
PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY ROLL-UP
Instead of making a PB&J on bread, spread the peanut butter and jelly on a whole-wheat tortilla, roll it up, and pin it closed with a toothpick.
LUNCH MEAT PITA POCKET
Fill a pita pocket with any available lunch meat, then add lettuce and any other trimmings your child likes, along with a condiment. Throw together some in-season fruit for a fruit salad. Local, seasonal produce is always cheaper than out-of-season choices.
Use up the last of that hummus before it expires: Fill part of a divided container with hummus and the other compartments with dip-worthy fare such as pita chips, pretzel sticks, veggie slices, and apple slices.
PANCAKES FOR LUNCH
Pack pancakes, bacon, fresh cut fruit, and syrup for dipping to make a tasty breakfast for lunch. Use the weekend's leftovers to save prep time.
BAGEL FOR LUNCH
Cut a bagel into chunks, and add a container filled with cream cheese. Complete the meal with sliced fruit and nuts.
Melt some cheese on a tortilla and cut it into triangles. In the morning, add a side of sliced bell peppers, tortilla chips, and salsa and sour cream for dipping.
Let the kids build their own tacos for lunch. Provide the shell, taco meat, and shredded cheese. Add in some sliced veggies and cut lettuce, too.
PEANUT BUTTER AND BANANA ROLL-UP
For the ultimate peanut butter sandwich twist, sub the jelly with bananas in a roll-up with peanut butter. Pretzels, string cheese, and a sweet treat as simple as a handful of chocolate chips complete the lunch.
WAFFLES FOR LUNCH
This breakfast-for-lunch idea uses a divided container to keep the waffle crisp until lunchtime. Put the waffle in one compartment (cut into pieces if needed), fruit topping in a smaller compartment, and syrup in another. Include a cooked sausage link for protein.
Use store-bought pizza dough, cut it into individual pizzas, then spread with pizza sauce and cheese. Bake until the cheese melts, and slide the little pizzas into lunchboxes after refrigerating overnight.
HOMEMADE LUNCH KIT
Take inspiration from the popular Lunchables prepackaged meals. Fill a divided container with crackers, sliced lunch meat, and cheese cut to fit on the crackers, a side of fruit, and a cookie or sweet treat.
FRUIT AND CHEESE KABOBS
If they're allowed at school, use toothpicks or small wooden skewers and fill a few with cheese cubes and a variety of fruit chunks (think grapes, strawberries, blueberries, and seasonal fruits). Pack a single-serve yogurt for dipping.
Melt cheese and cooked chicken in a tortilla, then cut into triangles. Pack with sliced veggies, along with salsa and sour cream for dipping.
Pack tortilla chips with the kids' favorite nacho toppings: shredded cheese, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, sour cream, salsa, and the like. Add some beans or taco meat to pack in the protein.
Start with thinly sliced apples and add toppings like raspberries, blueberries, slivered almonds, and marshmallows. Fill a small container with caramel and peanut butter for kids to drizzle on the "nachos."
Use a small skewer and spear it full of sandwich goodies. Try small squares of bread, rolled lunch meat, and cheese cubes. Add a side of grapes and a single-serving yogurt to round out the lunch.
Grilling out over the weekend? Save a hamburger for lunch the next day. Cut it into quarters for little hands to manage, and add a side of chips and pickles for a nice lunch.
This one's easy: Open a can of ravioli, heat it up, and put it in a thermos (for best results, fill the thermos with boiling water and let it sit for a few minutes to warm up the inside). Include a fruit side like apple slices and a sweet treat for a complete lunch.
CHICKEN FRIED RICE
A popular and cheap recipe from The Recipe Critic makes a lot of chicken fried rice, which means there are plenty of leftovers for lunches the next day. Put some soy sauce in a leak-proof container, and lunch is all set.
MACARONI AND CHEESE
Divvy up dinner's leftover macaroni and cheese into containers while cleaning up the table. Throw in a single-serve yogurt and fruit in the morning, and lunches are ready. (If there's somewhere to heat up the mac 'n' cheese at school, that's probably best.)
Throw some buttered bread and cheese into the skillet for a quick grilled cheese. Be sure to refrigerate overnight before cutting it into quarters and placing it in the lunchbox. Send a thermos of tomato soup for dipping, or put some pickles, orange slices, and pretzels on the side for a complete meal.
PEANUT BUTTER PITA POCKET
Open up a pita pocket and spread peanut butter on one side, then add a fruit filling to the other side. Use whatever is on hand, whether it's banana slices, jelly, or sliced strawberries.
ENGLISH MUFFIN PIZZA
Cut an English muffin in half and slather with pizza sauce, followed by cheese and toppings. Pop it in the toaster oven and bake until the cheese is melted. Pack it with bell pepper slices, ranch for dipping, and a sweet treat.
DIY CHICKEN STIR-FRY
Let the kids build their own stir-fry for a lunch they'll love. Place cooked rice, grilled chicken, sautéed veggies, and green onions in separate compartments of a divided container. Include a sweet and sour or orange sauce for a healthy, easy lunch.
As summer comes to an end, there's usually a plethora of summer veggies to use up. Cold corn on the cob is great for lunch, along with tomatoes, cucumber, and zucchini. Add hummus and pita wedges for dipping.
COTTAGE CHEESE AND VEGGIES
Put down a bed of lettuce in the largest compartment of a divided container and add a scoop of cottage cheese on top. Chop up tomatoes for another compartment. Include pretzels and a sweet treat and lunch is ready.
A hard-boiled egg, peeled and cut in half, is an easy source of protein. Include some string cheese, fruit, veggies, dip, and a sweet treat.
For another protein-packed lunch, spread cream cheese on salami slices. Roll them up, then pinch them together in the middle to make them stick. Make as many as your child will eat. Add pretzels and some fruit for a sweet finish.
Use up some leftover grilled chicken by slicing it and pairing it with brown rice, Greek yogurt, apple slices, and a side of ketchup for dipping the chicken, if that suits your kids' palates.
COTTAGE CHEESE AND FRUIT
Put a scoop or two of cottage cheese in a leak-proof container and sprinkle cinnamon on top, then add some fruit that mixes well with cottage cheese. Peaches, pineapple, or mandarin oranges all come in canned versions that are cheap and travel well. Include some graham crackers with peanut butter for dipping.
Cook a pot of noodles, add some butter, and sprinkle cheese over the top for a cheap pasta lunch. Heat up some chicken nuggets while you're at it and include some carrot sticks with ranch dressing, too.
ANTS ON A LOG
Fill celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins dotted on top. Cheese cubes, yogurt, graham crackers, and fresh fruit round out this easy, inexpensive lunch.
SPAGHETTI WITH MEAT SAUCE
Leftovers again? At least it's something the kids will like, and leftovers can make the best lunches. Just add a slice of buttered bread and a container of applesauce for a complete meal.
VEGETABLE PASTA SALAD
Capitalize one last time on the bounty of summer veggies. Toss carrots, cucumber, bell peppers, broccoli, and any other vegetable with cooked pasta (try a fun shape) and Italian dressing. Sprinkle cheese on top for a healthy, cheap lunchbox meal.
Cook some penne pasta and pour marinara sauce over top, and add some shredded cheese for flavor. Include a side of Greek yogurt for protein and some grapes.
Cook a hot dog and put it on a bun (or slice it up and forget the bun, depending on what your child prefers). Include ketchup and mustard in a leak-proof container. Add some fresh sugar snap peas, ranch for dipping, a side of chips or pretzels, and a sweet treat like chocolate chips.
Cook one or two frozen pretzels. Mix one part mustard to one part honey for a simple honey mustard dipping sauce. Include sliced fruit and some shelled almonds or peanuts for added protein.