back to school

I’m a Financial Expert and Parent of 6 — Here’s How I Save Money on Groceries for School Lunches

published Aug 26, 2023
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Child's lunchbox prepared for back to school
Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

Lunches during the school year can make or break a kid’s day. They can also break a parent’s soul, or possibly the bank. Between the challenge of getting back into the lunch-packing groove and the rising cost of groceries, brown bagging it this year can feel a little intimidating. 

Never fear! I kept six kids fed during some really lean times. Here are some of my go-to tips for saving money — as well as some of my patience! — on school lunches.

Credit: Elvira Kashapova / Getty Images

1. Consult the kids about their bottom line.

Your children are the primary stakeholders when it comes to school lunches. And as children, their preferences and whims can change on a dime. Don’t expect that last year’s favorites will still be on-trend this fall. If you do, you may waste a chunk of change buying what the family doesn’t want to eat.

Ask your kids what they want in their lunches and open a discussion about nutrition, preferences, and cost. Yes, cost. It’s never too early to educate your kids about the cost of options! 

You can search for products on your local store’s website together and discuss the pros and cons of what they’d pack in their lunches. You might even have them add up the totals and see how much things really cost. You may learn that the kids are willing to forgo the name-brand juice boxes if that means that another snack or sandwich filling can be a regular on the menu.

Credit: Thomas Hoerup

2. Shop the sales and stock up on vetted groceries.

Once you’ve established some ground rules in terms of family favorites and lunch-box basics, scan the sales to see which stores offer the best prices on the foods you’ve agreed upon. In the weeks leading up to the start of school, you should see abundant sales on standard lunch-box fare.

When you find a really good price, buy what will last the next few weeks, but not so much that if the kids decide to reject it, you’re not stuck with excess. (Remember, tastes can change quickly.) Never load up on something that the kids haven’t already vetted. If it comes home in the lunch box, it wasn’t worth the effort or the expense.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Reduce the unit cost as much as possible.

Want to squeeze even more from your grocery dollar? Buy items with the lowest unit cost or make a batch of your own to further stretch your dollar.

Generally, the little packages of things cost more than the big packs. Once you know what the kids love in their lunches, buy the bigger size with the smaller unit cost and divide the product into your own containers for packing. 

Alternatively, if it’s something you can make yourself, like baked goods (cookies, granola bars, or sandwich bread), or lunch proteins you can prep in bulk (cutting your own cheese sticks from blocks or cooking chicken breast to slice for sandwiches), have at it. Make enough for the week and divide into serving-size portions. You’ll save time and money on both counts.