Walmart Challenge: How to Save Money Packing School Lunches

by Jenn @ Frugal Upstate on August 12, 2011

Even though it is only mid August, back to school is in the air!  Here in Upstate NY the kiddos don’t head back until after Labor Day-but I know many of my friends farther south and west have the kids heading back any day.

photo by Patrick Lien

With the return of school comes the return of school lunches.  Although I occasionally buy lunch for the kids via the school lunch program, I’m a big fan of packing a lunch.  Not only can you save money, but you know exactly what your children are eating and, if you teach them to bring home all uneaten food, you can see how much they are eating as well. And if you have a child with a food allergy or are using organic foods, well packing your child’s lunch is a no brainer!

So when we were told that this month’s Walmart Mom Grocery Challenge should be about back to school-well I knew that I wanted to talk about how to save money on school lunches.

Here are my top tips for saving money when packing school lunches.

1.  Use washable and reusable containers.

A variety of re-useable lunch packing options. All available (of course) at Walmart ;)

Paper lunch sacks.  Plastic sandwich baggies.  When you use those items you are literally throwing money away each day.  Instead buy containers in a variety of sizes to fit your lunchbox needs.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The 4oz Glad containers are a MUST. The small Rubbermaid are good as well.

There are a million uses for the Glad 40z containers. . . I don’t know if I could pack my kids lunches without them!  I still have most of the original package I bought when Princess entered Kindergarten (and she’s in 5th this coming year) plus I bought a new package last year.  I just wash & reuse and wash & reuse.  They are worth every penny I paid for them (which is $2.28 for 8).

These are new for me-sandwich sized & smaller. I love the attached lids!

I have several different kinds of rigid storage containers for sending in sandwiches.  Let’s face it, no one likes squashed bread.  Glad and Rubbermaid both make sandwich sized containers that are washable and reuseable-I have some of both of those.  These new Great Value brand ones from Walmart are sort of a “clam shell”-so the lid is attached.

A must for hot leftovers & soup.

Although some schools have microwaves and will warm up food for the kids, I prefer to send soups & leftovers in to school in a sturdy thermos.  Don’t buy the plastic ones-they don’t hold the heat at all!

2.  Don’t buy single serving.

Sure, those cute little pudding packs or kid sized yogurt look cute and fit easily into a lunchbox with no waste. . . but have you ever actually looked at the difference in unit price?  Why pay 3X as much for your food when only a few minutes (really, just minutes) of work will save you so much?

Instead pull out those awesome Glad 4oz mini round containers and make your own:

Make your own single serve jello packs-as an added bonus there is a much larger variety of flavors to choose from!

How about making your own pudding cups?  I bet you can’t normally find then in cheesecake flavor like I have here!

My kids adore Mandrin oranges-so I buy the biggest size Great Value can and then split it up into about 4 containers.

One of the things I like to do is take a regular sized yogurt and split it into two containers. Neither child would have eaten a whole one, and since yogurt doesn’t even come with a lid these days-well, let’s just say the 40z containers are neater.

Another idea is if you are making a wet “salad” type sandwich (think tuna salad, chicken salad etc) you can pack the bread in one type of container then the filling in these-the kid can put it together at lunch time. Viola-no more soggy sandwiches!

For dry type foods (chips, pretzels, crackers, trail mix, dried fruit) you can either use a container or a zipper style plastic baggie-your own homemade snack sized bags!. My preference is to buy quart sized freezer bags. I’ve taught the kids to always bring all the baggies home with them instead of throwing them out. Then I wash & reuse. I mean really-how much “dirt” can some crackers leave?

Instead of buying cheese sticks, check the price against blocks of cheese in your dairy case. If the blocks are cheaper then buy those! My kids would rather have a sharp cheddar cut into cubes than a dry mozzarella “cheese stick” any day of the week.

Last but not least, instead of buying prepackaged muffins or cookies you can make any type of homemade baked goodie and package it in a zippered baggie or small rigid container.

TIP: Most baked goods freeze well. Why not make a pan of brownies the package single servings up in baggies and then stick them in the freezer. When you need a treat for the kids lunches, just pull one out frozen and toss it in. It should be defrosted enough to eat by lunch.

3. Look beyond the luncheon meat.

I enjoy a turkey sandwich as much as the next gal–but that prepackaged luncheon meat can cost a small fortune! And you know what? A lunch doesn’t have to mean a sandwich! Children need plenty of fuel (and not much sugar!) to make it through their day and that does include protein-but there are other ways to fill them up and keep them nutritionally balanced without sticking a nitrate laced piece of meat between two slices of bread.

So what do we do to avoid costly luncheon meat?

Make a different sandwich: PB & J, Egg Salad, Tuna Fish, Chicken or Ham salad made from leftovers. All these make great sandwiches without the luncheon meat cost

Tip: To keep you PB&J from getting soggy put a thin layer of peanut butter on both pieces of bread and THEN put the jelly in between. If they jelly doesn’t touch the bread, you don’t get a soggy sandwich.

Send in leftovers: Macaroni and cheese. Spaghetti and meatsauce. Casserole. Chili. Homemade soup. Ramen Noodles. All these are great leftovers that can be sent in to school in a thermos.

Tip:  The best way to keep food in a thermos hot is to preheat the thermos.  Fill your thermos at least half way full of boiling hot water, cap and let sit 3-5 minutes.  Meanwhile heat your food up until it’s piping hot.  Dump the hot water out of the thermos and put the hot food into the hot thermos.

Tip:  A canning funnel is a great thing to keep on hand for filling wide mouth thermos with less mess

Think sandwich alternative: Why not send in cheese and crackers?  A full container of yogurt? Hard boiled eggs? Ants on a log (ie peanut butter stuffed celery).  Think about what your kids eat and get creative.

I hope I’ve given you some food for thought when it comes to saving money packing your kids school lunches.  Here are some other post you might find helpful on various topics related to packing lunch:

Carrot Sticks vs Baby Carrots ~ Four Reasons to Pack Your Lunch ~ Keeping Stuff Hot for Lunch ~ Lunchbox Planning for School ~ A Note on Portion Sizes  ~ How to Make Lunch Sandwiches Fun  

If you’d like some regular inspiration then follow Frugal Upstate on Facebook!  I post pictures and a rundown of what’s in the kids lunch most days there on the infamous “Lunchbox Report”.

****This is a sponsored post****
Disclosure: This is a sponsored post I am participating in with the Walmart Moms. Walmart has provided me with compensation for this post. My participation is voluntary and opinions, as always are my own.
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