I’ll be honest with you upfront: I don’t pack school lunches, do much of the grocery shopping, or pay attention to price tags. I can’t cook (I’m trying to learn), and our four kids are incredibly specific when it comes to their lunches, and my husband just so happens to be the master lunch box packer.
The irony of me bringing you a list of 20 school lunch ideas is laughable by itself. Add in the for under $1 part, and it’s downright comical. What I do know, however, is that the price of just about everything has increased substantially since 2021.
According to CNN, the total cost of groceries has increased 11.4 percent since September 2021. As of September 2022, eggs cost 39.8 percent more than they did in 2020, flour is 23.3 percent more expensive, milk is 17 percent more expensive, and bread is 16.2 percent more expensive.
With the cost of living going up and paychecks, well, not going up, learning to do things more economically is trending (and the rising cost of groceries is as welcome a trend as the return of low-rise jeans. Read: NO!).
For many parents just trying to get by, resorting to parenting hacks like packing an economical lunchbox is on the rise. What I’m going to do is find 20 different items you can stick in your kid’s lunchboxes that cost $1 or less.
Of course, this is per serving – not per meal. You won’t find a meal less than a dollar. But I can help you figure out what to buy that allows you to break down lunch box ideas for approximately $1 per meal.
Of course, the price per lunch varies depending on the number of children you have, the cost of grocery items where you live, and more.
The National School Lunch Program
Before we get into discussing the cost of lunchbox items for your kids, I feel compelled to mention the National School Lunch Program’s Free and Reduced Lunch program. The rule vary slightly depending on where you live. However, every state has its own lunch rules for kids in school.
Generally speaking, any school district in which a certain percentage of children live in households that earn under the local poverty level must offer free lunches to all students every year.
If not enough households fall under that specific level of poverty, schools offer free lunches to kids whose families fall below a certain income level. Some families might find that their kids are eligible for reduced lunch prices based on their own income levels.
Check with your school lunch provider to find out if your district offers free lunches to specific students, all students, and/or if your child is eligible for any lunch reductions.
If the current economic climate is challenging your family’s financial situation, this is a program you should not hesitate to check on. It is designed to ensure that students are well-fed and their families are not financially obligated for it.
Additionally, some school districts offer lunch pick-ups on days there are no school (breaks and days off). Some also offer meals for children who fall below the poverty level on weekends – these are often given to children on Fridays.
They are backpacks filled with food, and it is enough food for all the children in the household regardless of age.
**There is help available if you need assistance feeding your children.
How to Figure Out the Cost of A Meal
Math is not my favorite; I cannot stress that enough. However, I can do basic math equations, and you can, too. The key to creating affordable lunchbox meals for your kids is to figure out what’s already cheap to make at home, and then break it down by serving.
I’ll give you an example, and then you take it for what it’s worth (meaning do the math yourself to be sure it works out for your family size and budget). Simply apply this equation to every meal you make – and then break it down by serving size.
In our example, we are using spaghetti with marinara and lean ground beef, and we are using Walmart. Walmart is everywhere, and it is cheap, and that’s why we are using it in our example.
A box of spaghetti pasta on the Walmart website is $1.84/box, and it has eight servings per box. Bertolli pasta sauce is $2.42 for 24 ounces, which is five servings. Lean ground beef is $5.56/pound, which says is four servings per container. However, you’re eating it with spaghetti pasta and sauce, so you won’t use as much. We’ll go with eight servings per container.
Pasta – $.23 per serving
Marinara – $.48 per serving
Meat – $.70 per serving
This meal is approximately $1.41 per serving. Now, you can tweak that. Maybe you have one child who doesn’t like meat. Perhaps another only likes a touch of marinara. You can make this meal anywhere from $.71 per meal to $1.41 per meal. It averages out to approximately $1 per meal.
That’s how we break it down. It won’t be perfect every single time, but the budget will work in most instances. That said, here are 20 school lunch ideas you can pack for your kids for approximately $1 per lunch.
We already discussed the cost of making spaghetti and packing it for lunch. Kids love it. It’s a staple, and it’s filling. Your kids will appreciate this lunch box idea so long as they have somewhere to warm it up.
2. Meat and Cheese Kabobs
By the time you buy your favorite packaged lunch meat and cheeses, it seems expensive. However, when you break it down into daily kabobs for the kids, it’s not so bad. You can even use regular meat such as chicken, steak, pork, or whatever you like from dinner. It’s a cost-effective way to feed them lunch.
3. Veggie Stir Fry
Who doesn’t love stir-fry? Rice is famous for being the cheapest food item to ever exist (okay, maybe I made that up, but I cannot be too far off), and pre-packaged veggies from the freezer section are cheap. I prefer fresh veggies, but the budget might call for the frozen type. Peas, carrots, and edamame are all good in this meal.
4. Chicken and Rice
Rice, again…but it is good. Does anyone dislike rice, if we are being honest? Make chicken and rice in bulk, throw it in a container, and send it to school with the kids.
5. Homemade Pizza
If you really want to stay on budget, you can make your own dough with everything you have on hand at home. Otherwise, you can buy the premade dough at the grocery store (you can find it in the bakery or in the canned biscuits and dinner roll area). Add your favorite toppings, slice it up, and serve it to the kids in their lunch boxes. You can make an entire pizza for maybe $5, so this is a great option.
6. Butter Pasta with Basil
If you grow your own basil, this is almost free. A box of pasta is $1.84 for eight servings. You already have butter at home (or you can buy 15 ounces/30 servings of Country Crock butter for $3.43 at Walmart). That brings this meal to approximately $.34 per serving.
7. Beef and Rice
Pick the beef, add it to rice. Don’t forget to season it for flavor. It’s a simple but flavorful meal to send your kids to school with.
8. Gluten-Free Burgers
I call these gluten-free because they simply don’t include bread. You can make approximately five burgers from one pound of lean ground beef, buy a head of lettuce for $1.98, and throw some mustard, mayo, or even ketchup on top. A head of lettuce is enough to make approximately 15 large pieces of lettuce with which to wrap your burger, which break down to approximately $.13 cents per serving. You’re eating for just over one dollar.
9. DIY Lunchables
A box of crackers, a block of cheese, and a package of pepperoni will cost you around $12 total. You can make dozens – and we do mean dozens – of lunchable packages with these ingredients. Depending on who many you think your child will eat in one sitting (a store-bough lunchable has four or five crackers, pepperonis, and cheese slices per container), you can make this for far less than $1 per day.
10. Breakfast Sandwiches
Bagels or English muffins, one egg, one piece of bacon or ham – that is all it takes. You can buy all of this make at least five (because that’s how many bagels are in a package), and still have enough bacon, eggs, and ham to get you through another week. All you’ll need is new bread. You’re looking at less than $1 per sandwich.
They’re flavorful and easy. You can purchase a package of chicken for approximately $13, 20 flour tortillas for $3.24 at Walmart, and cheese for $4 per bag. That’s $20, but you can make 20 quesadillas with this and still have chicken leftover to make other meals with. You’re looking at exactly $1 per meal.
Soft shells or hard, there is nothing cheaper than tacos. However, the beauty of tacos is that they are also so good. This is a meal that will cost you less than $15 for every ingredient, but you can make 15 or so tacos. That’s $1 or less per taco.
13. Egg Salad Sandwich
This is a meal you can make for next to nothing because the recipe makes a lot. You can put it on regular bread, an English muffin or bagel, or anything else. The beauty is the personalization. You can make this recipe for far less than $1 a serving if you have chickens and your own eggs, too.
14. Tuna Salad Sandwich
Tuna is inexpensive, but be sure your children like it. Not every child is a fan of tuna – or egg salad as mentioned above. You can personalize this one with different seasonings, so don’t discount it immediately.
15. Chicken Salad Sandwich
Of all the ‘salad’ sandwiches, this is the best one. Served on a toasted croissant, this is a winner. Kids love this meal. Adults love this meal. You can pack this one for everyone’s lunch for less than $1 per day.
16. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches
PB&J is a classic, and it can be personalized. Be sure you’re choosing the kind of bread, the flavor peanut butter, and the flavor jelly your kids love the most. It’s a fun lunch for them since it’s sweet. It’s also one of the least expensive.
17. Fruit and Veggies
Don’t judge simply because you don’t see any protein on this one. I have a sixth grader whose preferred meal is a salad, apples, edamame, cucumber slices, strawberries, and a side of Nutella. She’d eat that every meal of the day for the rest of her life if we allowed it. The good news is that this meal is inexpensive when you buy everything and split it up. It’s also healthy. Watermelon is another great option – and throwing in an orange is always delightful.
18. Protein Lunches
My kids love a protein lunch. You can add whatever you want. A good option is to throw in their favorite chicken. Add a container of sliced apples and peanut butter, and you have a protein-rich lunch that’s both inexpensive and delicious. It’s so filling your kids might not be hungry when they arrive home.
19. Mix and Match Lunch Box Items
You don’t have to ‘match’ everything your kids eat in their lunchbox. If your kid likes pizza and apple slices, pack pizza and apple slices. If your kid likes pizza and tuna salad, then pack pizza and tuna salad. You can’t go wrong when you pack what they want, and you also get to do it for next to nothing.
20. Leftovers from Anything and Everything Else
Whatever you make for dinner this week, put it in the children’s lunchboxes. It won’t work every day, but there are guaranteed to be leftovers on more than one occasion, which means that you can fill their lunchboxes for nothing.