How much do you really save on school lunches vs. making your own?

I hear this conversation (aka argument) at the beginning of every school year. How can it be cheaper to send lunch with your kids every day than to buy school lunches, especially when sending fresh fruits & veggies? My answer? It’s easy! Buy on sale, make it your self, and portion control! Do NOT buy prepackaged items! Have you looked at the sodium and sugar levels (not to mention the preservatives) in most of the prepackaged “lunch” items? It’s outrageous! And, if you have a child with ADD like we do, we try to limit the amount of sugars and Red Dye #40 that we give our children. We really see a difference in her demeanor when we do this. She can focus better and get her work done better.

Here’s a few tips:

  • Instead of chips, send pretzels – a bag of pretzel sticks costs me $1.18 and lasts me for about 1-1/2 weeks.
  • Buy fresh fruits & veggies in season as much as possible and give them choices, just don’t give them too many or they will be overwhelmed.
  • Write up a menu and place it where they can see it easily. Let them choose what they would like to take the night before. This makes already rushed mornings easier to deal with because you already know what they want. Also, prep as much as you can the night before. Shaves off a few more minutes of your already crazy morning.
  • Make food fun! Make cut outs in the sandwiches if they’ll eat it better that way. Here’s a tip: Cut the bread before adding the “filling”. If taking things ham & cheese, cut those and then place on the sandwich. You can put the extras on your sandwich at lunch or on a salad. The extra bread can be cut up and made into croutons or turned into bread crumbs.
  • Make roll-ups using tortilla shells and their favorite sandwich ingredients. It’s a nice change from the usual. You can also add a thin layer of cream cheese if using meats and cheeses. It gives it nice flavor and keeps the filling where it belongs.
  • Make homemade cookies instead of buying them and, instead of baking all the dough, freeze half of it in the form of balls so that when you need more cookies, you just pull out the amount needed, place on a cookie sheet, and bake. It only adds an extra minute or two when baking.
  • Instead of baggies, use some small Gladware (or equivalent) containers and reuse them. This saves us about $6.00/month (1 husband and 3 kids) or $72/year. May not sound like much, but it does make a difference.
  • Send leftovers! Soups are really good for this! Get a good metal thermos for this. It’s worth the extra money needed up front, but pays for itself very quickly and it can be used over and over and over again. Here’s a tip. Fill the thermos with boiling water and place lid back on. In the mean time, heat food to extremely hot/boiling. About 5 minutes before they are ready to leave, pour out the water and fill with boiling food items into thermos and replace lid. The food will still be warm at lunch.
  • Instead of prepackaged juice pouches or sodas, invest in a stainless steel thermos and send 100% juice, water, tea, etc. It’s reusable and will quickly pay for itself. Plus, you’re not sending drinks full of artificial flavors and sweeteners.

Here’s a great list of items that you can send that usually go over very well with all ages:

  • cheese (buy blocks and cut it up yourself – it’s cheaper)
  • raw veggies with dip (if they like that)
  • small salad with romaine lettuce
  • fresh fruits (canned will work, just buy lite syrup)
  • air-popped popcorn – very nice change from chips
  • baked tortilla chips and salsa
  • homemade soups, especially chicken noodle during cold/flu season
  • nuts are a good side
  • applesauce
  • homemade pizza roll ups
  • homemade “Lunchable” using crackers, ham, & cheese, or drizzle thin french bread slices with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, season with oregano and toast and send with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni slices.
  • pita bread sandwiches/pizzas are a nice change
  • homemade trail mix
  • yogurt with fruit and granola

Last but not least, I thought I would give you an example of what my kids took this week and how much it cost/saved me. Our school lunches are $1.75 at the elementary and $2.00 at the middle and high school. Each day varies depending on their choices, but here’s what my kids took for lunch one day this week:


  • 3 pizza roll ups – $0.36
  • fresh strawberries – $0.45
  • Banana – $0.20
  • Pretzels – $0.05
  • 2 choc. chip cookies – $0.34
  • water – $0

Total: $1.40 Savings: $0.60


  • 3 ham & cheese roll ups – $0.29
  • pretzels – $0.05
  • carrot sticks – $0.05
  • 2 peanut butter cookies – $0.14
  • Sweet Tea $0.01

Total: $0.54 Savings: $1.46


  • 3 ham & cheese roll ups – $0.29
  • pretzels – $0.05
  • banana – $0.20
  • 2 choc. chip cookies – $.34
  • Apple Juice – $.20

Total: – $1.08 Savings: $0.67

Grand Total: $3.02

Total Savings: $2.73 or 47%

That’s a savings of approximately $10.92/month or $109.20/school year – give or take depending on sales, appetites, and what it costs to make the items.

This doesn’t include what my husband took, but if he were to eat out every day, it would cost us around $30-$50/week depending on where he went. By taking his lunch, we save anywhere from $24-$44/week or $96-$176/month or $1152-$2112/year! That’s a lot of money!

So, in the end sending a sack lunch with your kids to school DOES save money! And it’s not as hard as you think it is! Just a little time and planning ahead are all you need!

For more great frugal tips, check out Frugal Friday.

2 thoughts on “How much do you really save on school lunches vs. making your own?

  1. Great post! Our school lunches are now $3.25 for Jr High and I "don't want to know" at the High School. So packing lunches is the best option for us. You have got some great ideas that I can't wait to try.Tricia


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s