Frugal School Lunches

When every penny matters, a frugal parent looks to and fro for ideas which will help to trim costs.  Food is one of the greatest variables, and one of the easiest ways to creatively cut spending, particularly when it comes to packing school lunches.  However, frugality can fly quickly out the window when pre-package conveniences become the standard. 

School lunches can range greatly in cost.  While having your children take their lunches may seem an automatic way to save, sugary snacks and drinks, pre-packaged lunch meals, and out of season fruits will derail your savings plans quickly.  It’s not frugality if it doesn’t lead to savings, so use the following helps to assure that your efforts to save are successful.

Sales and coupons

If you are a couponer, you know best how to make your coupons work well.  If you are a newbie to the world of couponing, find a reliable website or two for reference on how to shop sales with coupons.  Often, a coupon will combine with a sale on given products, thus bringing the prices into a much more inexpensive range.  In such instances, defer to the coupon items, rather than selecting generics.  Learn about your local stores’ rewards programs, and make full use of extra store coupons and rewards. 

Pay attention to the extra papers handed with your receipts.  Often, there are additional coupons, based on your purchases, and at times, there are high value coupons toward any purchase.  These are triggered by specific purchases in the store, and if you are able to determine the trigger, you may find it worthwhile to make another such purchase.  Coupon use will always be an exercise in evaluating the sale, the value of the coupon, and the end cost per unit.

Pay attention to sales cycles, and stock up when those great deals are available.  School snacks are generally at their best prices at the outset of the school year.  Snack crackers tend to be on sale during holidays and sporting events.  Fruits are seasonal, and you should pay attention to those specifically available during the school year.  Apples and oranges will generally be the best priced fruits, and will rotate back and forth as deals.  If you are able to store extra in your fridge, or if your garage stays nice and cool, extra stock of these can be kept on hand.  Bananas are traditionally the least expensive fruit, and the most commonly purchased, as well. 

If you have a store which price matches, based on sales circulars of other grocers, make the most of all sales deals, shopping in just one location in order to save time and gas.  If the store offering a deal runs out of stock, this is a great option for still getting what you want at the best price.  Do be aware of the store’s policies, in order to avoid misunderstandings and frustrations.  If you are unsure, take the time to consult with a store manager in order to best educate yourself on the do’s and don’ts.

Ethnic markets

If you have a Latino, or other ethnic market, in your locale, there are often great prices on produce and other products such as tortillas and chips.  Quality will vary, and the lowest price may mean bruised and blemished fruits, but more often, there are great selections at a fraction of the cost of high profile grocers’ offerings.


Generic products tend to be lower priced than their name brand counterparts.  When it comes to any pre-packaged product, there is nearly always a generic counterpart.  Compare the prices at the outset of your endeavor to cut lunch costs, and note per unit price.  Check out the difference between the name brand snack bar, and the generic; the name brand lunchable box, and the generic; the name brand juice drink, and the generic.    Compare between stores, and get a sense for the best value, overall.  Tuck this information away mentally, or keep a small notebook in your purse, for reference.  As you move into the year, opt for the generics over the name brand products when you shop.  While some claim that generic quality is substandard, this is rarely the case, and generics can be just as palatable as the name brand.


Processed foods tend to use more packaging, and provide less nutrition.  Furthermore, the costs associated with such foods are usually higher.  Snack foods are notorious for hiking the costs of packed lunches, and the first step in lowering those costs is to purchase a larger package, rather than individually packaged quantities.  Using a zippered snack bag, and a large package of cookies, chips, or pretzels, you will often get twice as many, or more, servings for comparable prices.  Individually packaged chips and cookies are a fun convenience, and a great time saver, but if frugality is your goal, ditch these money hungry snacks. 

Likewise, larger containers or cans of applesauce, fruit cups, yogurts, and puddings will save money.  Re-use individual sized yogurt containers and their plastic lids, for the best savings.  If you don’t have those, find inexpensive small, lidded containers for packing these products. 

Bake your own

Set aside time on the weekends for school lunch prep, and make baking a priority.  Baking your own bread can significantly cut sandwich costs, as a 5 lb. bag of flour can produce several loaves of bread for just a little more than the cost of one loaf.  Likewise, baking your own cookies, brownies, and cakes, muffins, and quick breads, you can make ample snacks for a fraction of the cost.  Cut, bag, and store.  Freeze your home-packaged snacks, to be used as needed in school lunches.  Do the same with your sandwich breads.  Make sure you leave a little room for tasting, as the smell of home baking often gets the family interested in eating.  Be disciplined, however, in setting aside your school lunch foods, so you don’t lose your savings to midnight snacking.

There are many ways to make school lunches fun and interesting.  Further, taste and quality are not contingent on the price paid, and less expensive options can actually outperform in terms of appeal.  Keep an ever watchful eye on sales and coupons, but don’t allow those elements of your school lunch preparation to be the only dictators of savings and selection.  Implement some innovative recipes, food prep, and home-packaging, and your school lunches will be a great friend to your frugal budget.