School Lunch Strategies

This is a very popular post that was published a few years ago and it’s perfectly timed for Back to School! The suggestion for snacks and BTS routine still hold true to this date. Enjoy!

The following is a weekly feature brought to us by Sumiko from Near to Nothing. I’ve asked her to share tips and tricks (and recipes!) that show us ways to replace the items we’d typically buy canned or frozen from scratch at home for less! You’ll find a new From Our Pantry post each Monday.

Most moms cry when their little ones start preschool. I have to admit that I was ecstatic when my twin boys started preschool this past fall! I now have two mornings every week with just the baby at home–I didn’t realize how many usable hours there are in the day! And the boys are really in need of some outside-of-the-house-without-mommy time.

This does make Tuesday and Thursday mornings quite interesting. My 2nd grader can pretty much get herself ready for school, but the boys are another story. More than ever, we need organization and efficiency in our mornings.

I have to admit that packing school lunches is one of my least favorite things to do. I currently only have to pack two lunches (one for my daughter and one for my husband), but someday I will have to pack five. Just thinking about it makes me tired. Last year I kept finding myself scrounging around the kitchen every morning trying to pull healthy lunches together at the last minute while trying to make breakfast and help my daughter get ready for school. Can we say “frazzled”?!?!

To save money and feed my family more nutritiously, I do not buy pre-packaged snacks. Though individually packaged snacks are super convenient, they can cost three to five times more than if you bought a regular package and divided it up yourself. For example, I checked the price of goldfish crackers at WinCo a while ago. If you buy the 100-calorie packs, you will pay over $0.70 per ounce. However, if you buy a big box and divide it up into little containers or bags, you will only pay $0.21 per ounce. The same is true for just about all pre-portioned snacks: raisins, applesauce, fruit cups, pudding cups, crackers, chips, cookies, cheese, and drinks.

To be a little more environmentally friendly, I try to use cheap reusable plastic containers. I love these Glad containers. They hold ½ cup and are the perfect size for snacks. I bought this pack of eight for only $2.22 at Wal-Mart. Before sending them to school with my daughter, I used a permanent marker to write her name on them. Hopefully we’ll end the school year with almost as many as we’re started.

Packing snacks like this does take time. That’s one reason why my mornings used to be so hectic. But I am not willing to pay the extra money for convenience. I decided I did not want to continue in this manner for the next 17 years so I came up with a system for preparing school lunches:

Sunday night: prepare and package up all snacks for the week

Each night: fill lunch box/bag with non-refrigerated items (including napkin and utensils); fill thermos and put in fridge

Each morning: add refrigerated/frozen items (including ice pack)

By packaging up all the snacks on Sunday night, the rest of the week is grab-n-go. There are some things I cannot do on Sunday such as cut fresh fruit and vegetables for the entire week—I usually portion these out on Sunday and Wednesday nights.

I don’t buy pre-cut carrots. They are more expensive and they don’t last nearly as long in the fridge.

I usually send my husband with dinner leftovers for lunch. I simply package those up for him as I am putting the leftovers away. And I have the added benefit that my daughter’s school allows the kids to microwave their lunches.

Good school lunch ideas (all can be made ahead of time and frozen!):

  • Bean, rice, and cheese burrito (I can make 5o burritos for well under $20!)
  • PB&J
  • Grilled cheese
  • Peanut butter and banana sandwiches
  • Quesadilla
  • English muffin/bagel pizza
  • Macaroni and cheese

Good school snack ideas:

  • Crackers and peanut butter
  • Hummus with pretzels or pita bread/chips
  • Grapes, sliced apples or peaches, or orange slices
  • Cheese sticks (cut from a block to save money)
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Pudding
  • Whole wheat noodles
  • Carrot or celery sticks (ants on a log!)
  • Homemade trail mix/snack mix
  • Raisins or other dried fruit
  • Yogurt
  • Granola bars
  • Popcorn

One week’s worth of snacks: grapes, cheese crackers, hummus, pretzel sticks, chocolate graham crackers, peanut butter sandwich crackers, and carrot sticks.

You can also get your kids involved. My daughter made the peanut butter sandwich crackers above. Even small children can fill containers or bags. Not only does this take some of the work off you, but it helps teach them that everything they eat needs to be prepared by someone.


  1. Erin says

    We make this exact granola bar recipe and the whole family loves them! I substitute applesauce for half of the granola bars and it gives it a softer texture (and cuts down of the fat). One of our favorite mix-ins were dried cherries and almond extract. Mmmmm! Thank you both for sharing these recipes. :)

  2. Sarah says

    I make these same granola bars, but we use coconut oil in ours instead of canola oil. Adding toasted coconut and chocolate chips are a great combination!

  3. Rebecca says

    I make my granola bars with lots of cranberries and some chopped pecans…the kids love them.
    I also refuse to buy the pre-cut or baby carrots. I buy them whole and peel and cut them up like you do, but I store them in water in a tupperwear so they wont dry out. They will last the week this way, and I find it’s an easy snack to grab for myself as well. This also works with celery.

  4. Dione Schwarz via Facebook says

    I love this posting! I don’t have children, just older folks to take care of. I can just imagine packing all those lunches. I’m going to try you’re granola bar recipe :) I have a good raw protein bar recipe if anyone wants that….

  5. Catherine says

    I think the price of plastic ziploc type bags are outrageous! For the food that requires them, I reus them by throwing them in the wash, inside out, with the laundry and then letting them air dry. That way you can get a few uses out of them.

  6. Carissa says

    These look yummy! Going to give them a try! Was wondering if you could make the recipe posts with a printer friendly option? (Maybe I missed it) Thanks for all your hard work!

    • says

      I have a friend who’s allergic to eggs who tried this recipe. This is what she said:

      “I cant eat egg, so i tried it without. I did the flax seed substitute. 1 TBS flax/ 3 TBS water beat together. I was happy to find out, it worked wonderfully! And I also left out the wheat germ since I didnt have any. But they turned out great! Im so thankful you shared this!”

  7. says

    I made these today with pecan pieces, chopped dried apples, and chocolate chips. They are delicious (half the pan is gone, kids have been home less than 1 hour). But they fall apart. Is it 3/4 cup TOTAL mix-ins, or 3/4 cup EACH? I did 3/4 cup each, maybe that is my problem?

    • Sumiko says

      It’s supposed to be 3/4 c. total, though to tell you the truth, I didn’t measure when I made them a few days ago, and used more than 3/4. You would have ended up with over 2 c., which is quite a bit. If they are crumbling when you cut them, try letting them cool a little more before cutting. Also, using a plastic utensil rather than metal may help too. So glad your kids liked them!

  8. Mae says

    I have a side note to add next to Julia’s wonderful insight: Whole Foods has been in the process of alligning their prices more closely to their competitors. Even previous to that, I really feel WF’s is WAY cheaper than places like Safeway, Albies, QFC and the like

    BTW: I’m in the process of cloning KIND and Cliff bars; it has been loads of fun. Thanks for the recipe !!

  9. Jaime says

    This has been such a fun and yummy treat in our home this week! I’m not going near the granola bar section in our stores ever again! SOOO good! Thank you for sharing.

  10. Ashley says

    I literally make these weekly! Substitute the oil with applesauce and I grind my own oats to make my own oat flour…so good!! Thanks so much!


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