Do you pack lunches for your kids during the school year? Any regular readers and Facebook followers know that I not only pack a lunch for the kiddos most days but I also publish the “Lunchbox Report” on the Frugal Upstate Facebook page–a quick photo and listing of what I’m sending the kids off to school with in their lunchboxes.
Now to me it seems a bit early to start talking about back to school–but even though Buddy only finished up classes two weeks ago, many of you in southern states are half way through your summer and thinking about your kids return to school in August! So it really does make sense that Walmart is already asking me to write about back to school lunches 🙂
You guys already know that there are plenty of good reasons to pack a lunch (for grownups too!), and in the past I’ve shared general tips on how to save money packing lunches. I’ve already written about avoiding the standard sandwich, using thermoses to keep food hot and making lunch fun. So for this Walmart Challenge I though I’d go back to my roots and really talk about ways to save money and be frugal packing your lunch.
To really be frugal sending lunch you need to think about packaging. Long story short– 99.9% of the time you are going to save money by purchasing items in a larger quantity and packaging them yourself. Don’t worry–I’m going to get very specific about that in just a minute. To do this you will need new, smaller packaging.
My absolute favorite item for packing school lunches is the Gladware 4oz mini rounds. These are pretty nominal in cost–maybe $4 for 8 of them, and as long as the kids don’t abuse and crack the lids they will last your for a long, long time. As a matter of fact I don’t think I’ve ever had the container itself ever break–and very few lids, and that’s with using some of them constantly for 3 years now.
For sandwiches I have square plastic containers with lids, and for hot food I have some wide mouth metal thermoses again, I’ve used the same ones for several years.
Another thing I use are zippered sandwich baggies and snack baggies. These are used for dry items that don’t fit in either my rounds or in my sandwich size containers. I have taught the kids to bring the empty baggies back home each day, and since I use them for dry items I just give them a quick wash and then they are ready to be reused.
There are also some nice “kits” out there for lunches. I was given one of these “Bento Box” lunch kits by the team from Kraft last time I was down at Walmart HQ. I liked the looks of it so much that I bought a second one so that both kids could have one. The dark blue insert you see there is a freezer pack–so you freeze that and then set the smaller containers in it. We’ll be experimenting with this set in the coming school year.
Now that we’ve discussed packaging lets address WHAT to pack in order to keep your costs down.
My kids enjoy jello and pudding. Princess in particular has fallen in love with the Great Value brand Banana Cream Pudding. One box of Great Value brand jello ($.36) or 1 box of Great Value pudding ($.68 plus the cost of your milk) will make FIVE 4oz containers. That means $.07 and $.14 respectively. That is far cheaper then the premade packs. And the time involved really isn’t much. In the evening I just whip up the pudding or jello, stick it in the fridge and I’ve got enough for several days (if the kids don’t eat it all as afterschool snacks that is!)
You can do the same math with many other things. Prepacked Great Value peaches wind up to be about $.45 each, but if you buy a large can of peaches and divide it out you’ll spend $.23 per 4 oz serving. You’ll spend $.30 per container for Great Value prepackaged applesauce, but only $.21 per 4 oz serving if you buy the larger size. Of course you can do the same with any fruit you can buy–pears, mandrin oranges, apricots, fruit cocktail.
Now lets think beyond the fruit/jello/pudding realm. Sometimes you want something with a little crunch to it, something that feels a bit more like a treat. I think that cereal does an admirable job of that. I personally wouldn’t let my kids eat chocolate cereal for breakfast–but I’m fine with a small portion to eat dry with their lunch. There are many cereals that work well as snacks–I showed a few that my kids like, but the sky (and your budget) is the limit.
I also do splurge every once in a while and throw in a true sweet. A few store bought or home made cookies (or even one of my saucepan brownies) is always appreciated!
Also in the crunch department are pretzels and vegetables. I really do like to include at least one fruit or vegetable in every lunch. Again–bulk is the way to save! I purchase regular family sized bags of pretzels and repackage them and use ranch dressing for dip. Occasionally I’ll make a true dip with sour cream, mayo and spices. Celery sticks, carrot sticks (not baby carrots–it only takes a few minutes to cut your own carrot sticks and is far cheaper!), cucumber slices, raw broccoli. It’s all good with dip!
Another thing I love to send in regularly is marshmallows. I love that it seems like a sweet treat but really doesn’t have too many calories or too much sugar (I think like 10 marshmallows is 100 calories–depending on the type). They come in all sorts of awesome flavors now–the kids love the very intense flavor in the lemon and lime flavor burst ones! They also come out with different flavors seasonally–in the fall you can find pumpkin spice marshmallows for a few weeks, then in the holiday season they have gingerbread and sometimes peppermint. Last year there were some special french vanilla ones for a while!
Why not package up a bit of everything at the beginning of the month, put it all in a basket and have it ready either for kids to make their own lunches or even just to keep thing simple for yourself when you are tossing things together early in the morning?