Simple ways to save time and money on school lunches

The first week of school in the books. The novelty of the new school year will soon be gone, new sneakers will fade, the striking new sweatshirts will disappear, and the perfectly organized backpacks will be filled with crumpled papers.

The fresh start isn’t just for kids. Parents who graciously attend to nutritious lunches — sumptuous feasts with sandwiches cut into animal shapes, elaborate bento boxes and inspiring notes — are only ready to smack some peanut butter and jam on their bread and describe it as good. I know I am.

Preparing school lunches is a chore. It’s a waste of time. You need to constantly shop, prepare and clean reusable containers. It can also be costly, especially when preparing meals for kids with gourmet or different tastes.

My son is committed to eating a healthy lunch that he loves. However, that means grilled chicken and salad daily, plus two snacks, usually fresh fruit and protein. It works from $4 to $5 nowadays, or up to $25 a week.

If your child buys a school-provided lunch, it will definitely save you time. It may also be the most economical option. Schools buy in bulk and cook for the masses, saving them money. Plus, they receive federal compensation for every meal, which helps keep costs down. Prices range from $3 to $4 for lunch locally. That comes to $20 per week per child, or $80 per month.

You will have to think about your shopping habits (do you use coupons and buy generic?), your child’s eating habits and the number of children you have in school in order to determine what is more financially viable. We would save time and money if my son bought lunch at school, yet he is finicky and afraid to spend nearly half of his short lunch queuing to serve it.

If you want more control over what your child eats and are committed to providing a home-made lunch — with love and without spending a lot of time or money — here are some ways to save on both:

  • Skip single-serving snacks or portioned products; Convenience will cost you more. Skip individually packaged potato chip bags or pre-made vegetable trays. Splitting a larger, less expensive package into smaller parts will not take much time and save money.

  • Plan in advance. Make a list of lunch ideas and get your kids involved in the process. You can even keep lunches on hand so they can help fill their lunchbox.

  • Reuse leftovers. Make more at dinner and send it off the next day. This tactic will come in handy if you have a fancy eater that overlooks PB&J.
  • Use reusable containers. There is no point in spending money on bags, although the daily barrage of dirty dishes is a little too much, I’ll admit. It’s best to invest in quality containers so you don’t replace them every three weeks.

  • Pass the ice packs. To keep lunches fresh and properly chilled, put a tube of frozen yogurt, grapes, juice box, or applesauce in the bag. By lunch, they’ll almost melt.

  • Use coupons. There are always plenty of cash savers to print and clip each week for bread, snacks, and drinks, especially now that the new school year is starting.

  • Shop off brand. My kids love Nature Valley granola bars, but I can’t stand the high price these days. Walmart and Aldi both offer store-brand alternatives that are only delicious at half the cost.

  • Build a cost-effective bento box. These cute divided containers are fashionable and convenient. More affordable options exist, ranging from $9 to $16. But to save money, you can use the food on hand and separate the ingredients with cupcake liners in a standard sandwich container.

  • Give up fresh fruit. Frozen fruit is often cheaper than fresh and nutritious.