After three kids and a cumulative 26 years of school lunches between them (and I’m not even close to done yet), plus my husband and myself, I’ve done my fair share of packing lunches. So it should come as no surprise that when school started up again this past fall I had reached my limit! My kids are certainly old enough to pack lunches, so I wised up and delegated the task to their weekly chore chart (yeah me!). My clever readers, you should give this a go too! As a result, not only will you save money, but your kids (and possibly your spouse) will learn much needed life skills (perhaps most significantly that you are not their maid) and comic relief will likely ensue. You see, each week a different member of our household is responsible for making lunches for everyone, and we have that one child who gets a little too creative — think tuna mixed with diced turkey dogs and topped with feta crumbles and a smattering of ketchup!

Now despite an occasional culinary disaster, packing lunches will allow your family to save a ton of money. (In an interesting story I found on the internet, one woman managed to save approximately $1500 in a year by forgoing purchasing her lunch and packing it at home instead.) Using that number as a guide and thinking about how many people/lunches you can make at home…Yes, there is a LOT of money to be saved. Although you may not be able to beat the monetary value of the school lunch at your local primary school, by the time your kids are in high school and have an open campus policy it likely makes financial sense to bring lunch from home. (Not to mention the money hemorrhaged by working parents at the break room’s vending machine come three o’clock!)

In an effort to help your family save a few bucks, I’ve listed some of my tried and true tricks for packing lunches at home:

1. Delegate

The job of packing lunches should rotate among every member of your family. It took me way too long (approximately 2,468,915 packed lunches) to wise up to this basic principle. Besides saving your sanity, delegating the task will automatically create variety in everyone’s diet, dispel palate boredom, and give each person (even the one at the very bottom of the pecking order) a sense of ownership. You just might be pleasantly surprised with the lunch menu your family members come up with!

2. Plan Ahead

When I’m planning my weekly trip to the grocery store, I usually ask whomever is making lunches that week if there’s anything particular they want me to pick up. I try to help guide their varying requests by handing them a Sharpie and the store’s weekly sales flyer, telling them to circle what they want.

Another nugget for success is packing lunches the night before. This ensures nobody is in a frantic rush to get out the door when it’s their turn to make lunches, which should help guarantee against being stuck with a pathetic “sandwich” of croutons and lunchmeat crumpled into a tinfoil ball. In our family we actually pack lunches the afternoon before, when the kids get home from school and are having an afternoon snack, since we’re just chilling in the kitchen anyway. Another great time is when dinner is being prepared as there’s already plenty of action in the kitchen, so what’s a little more food prep?

3. Leftovers (are AWESOME)

A recent scientific study claims Americans waste 160 billion pounds of food a year? Isn’t that appalling? One way to stop contributing to that atrocious number is to eat your leftovers! In our house leftovers are pretty coveted, and my husband typically wins the lottery on this one because he has a microwave in his office. (My oldest used to have access to a microwave in her school’s cafeteria, but thanks to the adolescent boy who started a fire by cooking tinfoil in said microwave, the privilege has been rescinded from all.) In many schools microwaves may still be available for students, but if not, you can claim those leftovers for yourself. Most offices and breakrooms have one for staff to use. And to help jazz up leftovers the next day, keeping extra ketchup, ranch and hot sauce packets from takeout orders in order to add some extra flavor should do the trick!

4. Buy in Bulk

We’re all guilty of going a little wild at Costco and caving in to buying the snazzy individual portions (little bags of chips and applesauce pouches, anyone?) they purposefully entice us with at the front of the store. But resist if you can! Individually prepackaged snacks are much more expensive than buying larger quantities of food and packaging it up at home. It does require a little more effort (minimal, since we’re being honest) to bust open that family-sized bag of Ruffles and divvy up the portions, but the cost per serving is less than if you’d bought the exact same amount of potato chips already separated into little lunchbox-sized portions. And if you’re really time poor and have to buy some pre-portioned food (it happens to the best of us), make it the party-sized veggie tray that takes little effort to break down so at least you’re filling the lunches with a variety of snack-sized veggies.

5. Invest in Reusable Containers

The cost of constantly replenishing that random drawer in your kitchen full of knick-knacks and various-sized plastic bags really adds up (not to mention the negative impact it’s having on the environment). So wise up sooner than later and invest in some reusable containers. Here are a few options that work for our family:

  • compartmentalized lunch containers: It’s an all-in-one package, no bags necessary, and I love the varying sizes to help with portion control. (Am I the only one that LOVES goldfish crackers?)
  • reusable water bottles: Some small ones fit nicely in a lunch bag, and when frozen the night before can double as an ice pack. Forgoing juice boxes will save money (water is practically FREE, people) and is a healthier option to boot!
  • thermos: This is a must when you live in a place where it gets cold and you want something warm for lunch. No further explanation necessary.
  • small plastic containers: These work really well if you aren’t using compartmentalized lunch containers, and also help to cut down on plastic bags. (Are my kids the only ones who’ve been turned into ‘Eco Warriors’ by the environmental lessons taught in school? 100% true – When my oldest was in Kindergarten she came home and said, “Mom, I’m embarrassed by the number of plastic bags in my lunch.” OMG, the shame!) The really tiny ones are great for filling with condiment sauces (if you’re out of takeout packets). Sometimes the only way to get little ones to eat the broccoli florets in their lunch is to include some ranch for dipping!
  • reusable lunch bags: When I was a kid (the ‘80s were awesome) it was totally acceptable to take your lunch to school in a brown bag. But these days parenthood has upped the ante and it’s all about super-stylish insulated lunch bags. Fair enough, as they do help keep food at the right temperature, make identifying whose lunch is whose much easier and are a cinch to clean. (Tip: Use a bleach wipe to clean the inside and outside of your reusable lunch bags each week as the amount of germs on those things has got to be astronomical!)

6. Splurge Occasionally

Remember that tuna/hot dog/feta combo I mentioned one of my children made? Well, that was the day her sister decided to use her own money to buy lunch! You can try putting a set amount of money on your kids’ school lunch accounts and letting them know they can buy lunch or the occasional treat when they want. Unbeknownst to them, they’ll also be practicing good spending habits if you make it clear up front that’s all the money they get for the school quarter/semester/year. This will (with practice) cause them to pause before spending and ponder whether or not it’s worth the splurge.

For adults, setting aside a little “mad money” (spending cash you don’t have to be accountable for) in your monthly budget is a great option. Nobody wants to feel completely deprived, as that’s not the formula for long-term success. Allocating some money for an occasional splurge will help you manage your limited resources wisely, because when the cash is gone, it’s back to home-packed lunches (even if it’s tuna/hot dog/feta casserole day)!

7. BONUS: Cheat Ideas

It’s human nature to want to take a shortcut on occasion. That’s cool – We all do it! So in an effort to be totally transparent, here are a few of my cheat tactics when I fall a little short:

  • Precook a frozen pizza, cut it in slices, wrap up individual pieces and throw them back in the freezer for those days when somebody forgets it’s their turn to pack lunches. (Funny, I wish I could conveniently forget that I have to make dinner every night!)
  • Feeling super domestic (said no one, ever)? Cook up two of something for dinner. Then set one dish aside to divide up into individual plastic containers and freeze for use in lunches in a week or two.
  • When you just can’t deal with making another sandwich, throw an all-in-one salad bag, a random Hot Pocket or even a sushi roll in your child’s lunch. Surprisingly, they might just tell you it’s the best lunch ever!

However your family does it, having your kids take a packed lunch to school (and the adults take a packed lunch to work) will DEFINITELY save you money. Using one, two, or even all of the tips I’ve dished about here (Like that food pun?) will help make the task a bit easier, plus you’ll be teaching your children smart financial habits (looking through coupons, planning meals, budgeting for splurges, eating leftovers, etc.). And if there ever comes a day when you think you just can’t pack up one more meal, have a look at this link and then pat yourself on the back and soldier on!