How to Cut Kids' Lunch Costs: A Back-to-School Idea Roundup

School Lunches
School Lunches

I hate packing lunches. I didn't enjoy it when I was in school, and it's not any more appealing now that I have kids of my own. So for the past two years, I confess I've defaulted to letting my daughter buy lunch in the cafeteria. At $2.65 a pop, it seemed cheap enough -- especially on a chaotic morning, which most are. And while the choices haven't always been the healthiest, our district is making a real effort to improve the meals.

But with my son starting kindergarten this year, the cost of two lunches a day in the cafeteria comes to $5.30 per day -- $5.30 a day that adds up to $106 per month and a whopping $1,000 for the entire school year.

What's a cash-strapped mom who hates packing lunch to do? Turn to the blogs, of course!

Click, Prep, and Pack Lunch

There's no shortage of lunch ideas once you start looking. Even though it takes a little more time than the usual sandwich and chips, I find that changing up the menu a bit every day makes taking a lunch more enticing for kids and, frankly, more fun for me.

  • First up, I hit Another Lunch, a really creative blog from Melissa Sharp. In the past I've picked up some quick, easy ideas -- things like cutting simple sandwiches into cute shapes, creative uses for leftovers, and skipping the sandwich altogether in favor of a collection of healthy snacks like grapes, granola bars, popcorn, and cheese sticks.

  • The folks at AllRecipes have an amazing assortment of 100 lunch ideas on their Fresh Bites blog (including fun ideas like freezing applesauce to make apple slushies, fresh fruit kebabs, chicken lollipops, peanut butter quesadillas, and even a hot dog that cooks itself!).

  • For more of my favorites, check out Jessica's make-ahead lunch suggestions at Life as Mom and 30-plus lunchbox ideas from at Life at the Zoo.

For me, a huge part of the stress of making lunches is running out of supplies. If I don't have a plan -- and what I need already in the fridge and pantry -- then I end up picking up things here and there and before you know it, I've blown my grocery budget.

So next on my research list is getting organized.

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To help me in that endeavor, I found a cute, free printable lunchbox planner at A Little Delightful. Since I have two lunch-takers, I printed out two copies and hung them with magnetic clips on the front of the fridge. Now all three of us can see what's for lunch each day.

The final step in our family's lunch makeover? Transferring all our meal plans into a shopping list so we'll have the items we need for each day.

Because I don't have much storage space, I've never been able to make warehouse club shopping work for my family (if you are a Costco fan, check out this list of organic lunch ideas from Kelly at Faithful Provisions). Instead, I rely on grocery delivery services like Giant's Peapod to keep my pantry stocked.

Believe it or not, even with delivery fees, gas surcharges, and tip tacked on, I find it easier to stay in budget using Peapod than I do at the store. I can easily compare prices and see store specials, which I then match up with both paper and online coupons to maximize my savings, something that it's harder for me to do at the store. It's also much easier to resist impulse buys, which tend to be both pricier and less healthy than the items on my list. (Jacqueline Curtis at has an excellent post detailing the pros and cons of using these services and how to save if you do.)

What are your favorite tips for saving time and money on school lunches? Share them in the comments below!

Robyn Gearey is a contributor to The Motley Fool. The Motley Fool owns shares of Costco Wholesale. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Costco Wholesale.