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11 Ways to Save on School Lunches

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By now many parents are facing the school lunch dilemma: Go to the trouble of packing lunch every day? Or give in to the easy and possibly less nutritious option of letting children buy lunch at school? With these 11 tips, families can save money by assembling school lunches at home.

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Save money and the environment in one stroke by buying a reusable school lunch box, thermos, and containers. While there may be some expense for these items at the beginning of the school year, there's no need to add sandwich bags, snack bags, foil, wax paper, and brown paper bags to the weekly shopping list.

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Cute little individual pudding cups and their like can cost up to three times more than a homemade batch of instant pudding divided into single servings; ditto for Jell-O. When it comes to yogurt, applesauce, and canned fruit, pick up the family size and split that into individual portions. And forget about juice boxes -- buy regular size bottles and containers of juice (or milk) and fill up that reusable thermos. Chips and cookies from large bags can be portioned out into small reusable containers, as well. A good rule of thumb: The larger the package, the lower the per-ounce cost.

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One of the best sources for nutritious school lunches is dinner the night before. Using leftovers is easy, cheap, and most likely healthy. Even cooks who aren't big on leftovers can make extra just for school lunch. Adding another piece or two of chicken to the dinner pot is no hassle; dress up the remains as chicken salad or mix it in with leftover pasta and a hint of salad dressing to stave off boredom.

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In our house we save unused ketchup, mustard, and salt and pepper packets that are dispensed freely at many restaurants and thrown into takeout orders. The same goes for napkins and utensils. These items are perfect to send along in school lunches, and they don't add a dime in cost or more than a second of prep time.

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A Sam's Club or Costco membership is always a money-saving strategy, especially when there's a need to pack multiple lunches on a daily basis. Buy foods in bulk that the youngsters like. Good ideas include string cheese, yogurt, snack bars, cookies, chips, sandwich bread, cheese, even fruits and vegetables. Some of these items also further the goal of providing a healthy school lunch.

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If time is limited during the week, plan ahead. Make large batches of things, such as pudding, on the weekends and divide it up right away to save time when packing lunches on weekdays. Do the same with chips and snacks. When things get hectic during the week, grab the prepackaged servings and move on to the remaining components. A cheap, healthy school lunch just got packed and sent out the door.

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Sure, in a pinch it's easy to pack a sandwich every day, but this is how children start getting bored and trading lunches. A preventive strategy calls for a sandwich one day, a salad the next, jazzed-up leftovers after that, and so on.

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Avoid the mundane by going with assorted fillings. Chicken and egg salad are tasty alternatives to peanut butter and jelly. Skip the bread one day and opt for lettuce wraps with dipping sauce instead. Deconstruct the standby PB&J by switching out apple slices for the bread. Try pita pockets with various vegetables and salad dressings for a nice alternative.

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Children love surprises, and cutting food into fun shapes is a no-cost way to spice up lunch. Use cookie cutters to turn sandwiches into hearts, fruit pieces into mini snowflakes, and cheese slices into flowers.

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Most youngsters love to dip. Ranch, ketchup, mustard, salad dressings -- name it and they'll dip into it. Change up lunch by pairing fruit slices with yogurt dip, pita chips with hummus, veggies with ranch dressing, and crackers with cream cheese. The combos are endless, and many may be staples in the pantry. Shuffle up the mix regularly and no one's interest in lunch will flag.

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Healthy and cheap, kebabs can be made with anything on hand. Popular options include cheese cubes, fruit pieces, turkey or ham chunks, etc. Add a side of dipping sauce and the kids are sure to get a healthy lunch that's fun to eat.