Cost Effective Lunchables–{Choose to Thrive}

Hi CSIers! I’m Nike from Choose To Thrive where we’re making the best of lousy economy with lots of no-cost craft and DIY projects.

I’m thrilled to be here sharing back to school ideas this morning to help me and my six kiddos this year!

So here’s the deal:

I have a love/hate relationship with my kids’  lunches. 

I hate shopping trips with my kids begging for all the pricey, pre-packaged lunch stuff that’s loaded with preservatives and wasteful packaging.

Sheesh that junk is expensive.

But the convenience? Oh how I love the convenience.

And there are times of the year when our schedule is so crazy that I cave and load up the cart with lunchables, little bags of crackers and jello packs just so that we can pull a lunch or snack together in two seconds flat.

But no more!

I’m here today to share my plan to eat healthier, save money and still enjoy the convenience that me and my kids crave.  And I hope you’ll tweak the ideas below to fit your family’s budget and nutritional preferences.

#1 – The Lunchable


Reusing the store bought tray and packing your own lunch meat, real cheese, crackers and a little treat will save you 40% — $0.60 for homemade vs. $1.00 for the store bought one. Plus the homemade version boasts real cheese, extra calcium and fewer preservatives.

A quick layer of Glad press ‘n’ seal or aluminum foil keep everything in place just like the original.

Don’t have a left-over lunchable tray? Or want a bigger tray to up the serving size for older kids?

No problem. You make your own dividers like I did for this dollar store container using an empty milk jug.

And that extra space means you can supplement that lunchable with some fruits and veggies without spending more than the store bought version.

Which $1 lunch would you rather send with your kids?

For a drink my kids prefer the juice pouch …

… while I’m more in favor of the reusable water bottle which make lunch $1.20 the first day and $0.98 every day after.

So we’ll do both: water most of the week and juice boxes on Friday for a little bit of a treat.

Either way these lunches come in significantly less than our $1.60 school lunch and WAY CHEAPER than the big-drink-included-lunchables at the store:

Really? $3.00 for a $1.00 lunchable and $2.00 juice pouch? Um, no thanks.

#2 – The Pudding & Jello Packs


Reusing those little cups (or the small tupperware containers with lids) and making your own will keep the cost and preservatives way down.

Same thing for the gelatin cups:

Making just this switch alone will save you a truck load. Six cents a cup vs. $0.56 for Jell-o brand? You could easily cover back-to-school paper supplies, back packs and shoes with just that little switch.

#3 – The Fruit Cups

The reduction in packaging, costs and preservatives make these easy switches.


#4 – The Mini Cracker Bags

You can enjoy the name brand crackers and still save almost 40% when you prepackage them yourself using $0.01 snack size sandwich bags. Just check out the cost per serving:

If you don’t mind generic, you can reduce those costs another 50+ percent.

And it’s just as convenient to grab a home-packed bag as the store packaged variety. The only difference is the price.

A few more THRIVE tips:

1. The ideas above are only guidelines. Each family will have their own nutrition and budget preferences. The idea is that by getting creative with recycled/reusable packaging, you can still enjoy the convenience of off-the-shelf while controlling costs and ingredients. So feel free to make your own tweaks with whole grain crackers, organic produce and nitrate-free meat. Or try packing a lunchable with mini tuna or PB&J sandwiches. Have fun!

2. Make your kids help with the prep work! They’re the ones asking for the “cool” packaging so they can help. It’s also a great way to teach basic food prep and math skills like measuring ingredients and dividing portions.

3. Have your kids help you shop! Don’t laugh — I’m serious. This is a fantastic chance to practice real life math skills as they determine price per unit, ounce or pound.  There’s also lots of fun ways to to teach math, spelling and budgeting with kids during shopping trips here.

3. Have cheese for sandwiches or lunchables pre-sliced at the deli. I buy the economy loaves and have them sliced right there at the store for no extra charge. It saves so much time and keeps the portions equal.

4. Rock What Ya Got! If your kids are like mine and want the meat for their homemade lunchables to be round like the store bought variety, trying using the lid of a spice jar.  (My cookie cutters aren’t the right size). Stack the meat in three layers and cut away. The lids from my 2/$1 Walmart spices worked perfectly.

And don’t toss those scraps! I save mine in a ziploc bag in the frig to use in omelets and salads.

5. Incorporate fresh produce from the garden! Now is a great time to up the nutrition with yummy, home ground fruits and veggies. I love it when I can ditch the high fructose corn syrup fruit snacks and send my kids with the homemade variety.

They have a soft, chewy texture like other dried fruits and are only $0.01 per serving vs. $0.20 for the cheapest store bought variety!  You check out the recipe here.


… and finally …

6. Pennies add up! I know some of you may look at $0.25 or $0.50 savings a day and think it’s not worth it. But trust me – it so is! My kids have been back to school for a month now (year round school) and I’ve kept track of what we would have spent to buy the prepackage stuff vs. packing our own.  So far our averaging savings is around $8 a week.

If our family takes out the money saved each week and transfers it into savings (or puts it in an envelope Dave Ramsey style), that $8/week times 25 weeks of school should work out to $200 by the end of the year.  And $200 divided between my four school-aged kids equals $50 a piece, or enough to buy a new pair of shoes, back pack and classroom supplies for each of them.

Eating healthier, using less packaging, teaching my kids about cooking-meal planning-math-budgetting AND financing back-to-school shopping for next year? That’s so worth it to me!

Hope you and your kids have fun shopping for your own creative ways to make smarter lunch choices! And be sure to stop by THRIVE for more ideas for living and crafting without spending a dime. Hope to see you soon!

  1. MissStitchaWish 5 years ago

    Love all of your ideas and suggestions! I will def use some of these tips while preparing for school on Thursday! Thank you for sharing and for the homemade fruit snacks recipe…awesome! ~ Michelle

  2. Steph Jacobson 5 years ago

    Thanks for sharing all these ideas. I try to avoid all the prepackaged foods but can’t believe how frequently I give in and buy them. With a little planning, I could save money and eat a little healthier.

  3. I do this with my husband’s lunches! I buy the glad 1/2cup containers. I can portion out cottage cheese, yogurt, pudding, hummus and canned fruit for easy lunches. I also wash and cut all my veggies when I get home from the grocery store. I put them in baggies and then I have 3 containers in my fridge: one for whole fruit and veggies, one for bagged veggies and fruits and the other to hold easy to grab containers and string cheese. I can make my husband’s lunch quickly and easily!

  4. Sue Litchfield 5 years ago

    What a great idea!

  5. Pip 5 years ago

    I was JUST preparing a post exactly like this and at first was like ..dammit! But really..THANK YOU! lmao Now I can just link! I work in an elementary school and some of the lunches I see are need protein!

  6. Jennie Larsen 5 years ago

    OMG Nike you rock… I ADORE THIS POST. This has been a bit of a delima in my house. I love the homemade lunchable container idea. BRILLIANT. jen

  7. Erin from YAYDIY 5 years ago

    While the cost savings is certainly a decent amount, even more so, I love that you’re sending your kids to school with healthy lunches – teaching them good eating habits from a young age! The meat and cheese in those lunchables are nothing but salt. Kids need the real thing! And prepackaged pudding? Why eat that when you can make them pudding from real milk? So you know they’re getting calcium. Good for you! I love these tips.

  8. Lyndee 5 years ago

    I always love Nike’s ideas. She’s a brilliant person!

  9. Mindy 5 years ago

    such simple, effective and easy ideas! I love the little round glad containers. Perfect size and portion for my baby girl’s hands and tummy.

  10. Lisa 5 years ago

    Ziplock makes a fabulous reusable container for lunches. It is divided into 3 compartments: one big enough for a sandwich, one is 1/2 cup and the other 1/4 cup. The best part is that the lid is made to keep the contents of each compartment from spilling into the next. You can put canned fruit or yogurt (purchased in a big tub) in the little compartment without ending up with a soggy sandwich. They fit into even a tiny lunchbox. My kids love when I put something into a muffin cup and add it in the sandwich box. People may think that saving a few pennies here and there doesn’t add up – but it does!

  11. Katie @ Newcomb Home 5 years ago

    I love this post! We don’t have kids yet but I like to pack my lunch and sometimes one for my husband. Great tips! Also – its more cost up front but it may be fun for your kids if you got a cool stainless steel water bottle. I’ve seen them for less than $5 at Ross or Marshall’s.

  12. Marjorie 5 years ago

    Great ideas! Thank you!How do you get the puddings and jellos from spilling all over the lunch box?

  13. Holly 5 years ago

    Fantastic ideas! I don’t have any kids that eat lunch at school yet, but when I do, I am DEFINITELY going to use your tips! Thanks for sharing!

  14. Phuong 5 years ago

    I think this is a great money saving idea. However, this is my one concern. I find that when I buy in bulk, that my family doesn’t go thru the food quick enough before it goes stale or expires. I feel like I am wasting money by throwing out more food then we can eat. So, in my opinion, buying the individually packed snacks is saving me money. Maybe this will work when my kids are of school-age.

    • Heather 1 year ago

      Freeze everything! I freeze lunch meats, cheeses, milk…you can freeze all kinds of stuff you never would think you could.

  15. Donna 5 years ago

    How about going another step further and buying a refillable thermos or water bottle to RE-USE instead of filing up the landfill with more plastic bottles.

  16. Heidi 5 years ago

    My daughter will only eat veggies, fruit, crackers and cheese for her lunch. I never have enough room in her lunchbox to pack them all separately. I didn’t even think about using one of the trays and press n seal. Great ideas. Thanks 🙂

  17. YOU ARE AWESOME!!! Our lunch prices went up again this year, so I told my kids they are taking lunches pretty much every day. If they’re not going to eat everything on their tray, they’re not having hot lunch. My kids keep begging for lunchables but then they’re either still hungry afterwards or sone of them doesn’t like the crackers or something. This is perfect! We can make them bigger meals and the stuff they like and without all the preservatives. I love all the other ideas, too. And I’m definitely going to check out the homemade fruit snacks, my kids can go through those crazy fast!

  18. Clarissa 5 years ago

    this is by far the most informative/useful blogpost i have ever read! thank you! thank you! thank you!

  19. Evelyn Cucchiara 5 years ago

    I love this blog post! Everyone in the world should be forced to read this – it would give us more money in our pockets, and better food in our kids! My kids are the same sandwich every day type of kids, so I streamlined and cut costs on their lunches like this

  20. Evelyn Cucchiara 5 years ago

    Tweeted this, FB’d it – easily the most common sense blog ever!

  21. Ryan 5 years ago

    this stinks. my cat can make a better lunch.

  22. The How To Mommy 5 years ago

    This post is INCREDIBLE! I’ve learned so much. I only wish you would’ve shared the recipe for the DIY fruit snacks. 🙂

  23. Joy 5 years ago

    These ideas are great, my daughter is always asking me to buy lunchables for her when we are at the grocery store, & I am a mean mommy cause I refuse to spend the $$ to get them 🙂 Now I can be the nice mommy and send them for her using a little DIY ideas!

    I also love all the other ideas and pinned both this post and the fruit snack post. We have a garden every year and are always over run with Zucchini and I have to end up giving a lot away so it doesn’t get wasted.

  24. Joy 5 years ago

    oh and another great idea for the drinks-I use a drink container I bought them at target and have use the same type (I have only bought 4 of them over the yrs) since my son started Kindergarten & he is in 4th grade and now I also have my daughter in school. I fill them up with what ever they want to drink at night stick them in the fridge then put a few pieces of ice in them in the morning when packing their lunches. They stay cold all day and most of the time will have ice in them still when they get home from school so they are awesome. They are Thermos brand usually have some sort of character or something on them & have a flip top lip with a straw, they are about $12 which is a bit pricey but the money I save by using them every day instead of a juice box make the cost in the beginning worth it.

  25. Jessica P 4 years ago

    You are a genius!! As as kid, my mom never allowed me to get lunchables – too expensive and too much sodium she said. I would have thought I was something if I had your homemade lunchables! This really puts into perspective how much money you save by packaging your own snacks! Thanks for sharing this!

  26. Kristen Lowery 4 years ago

    Love it, but Stauffers Isn’t a generic brand. They are a smaller lesser known company, but there is a difference between that and a generic (your fish cracker segment).

  27. greggT 4 years ago

    a good start. now IMPROVE on those ingredients.

    So replace your sat-fat rich cheese with nuts, your high-fat ham with medium-fat tofu (grill a bunch of cubes with honey), and your crackers (full of chemicals! yuck) with oat-clusters (oats, real PB, honey, a FEW choc chips; mix and form — no cooking)… and send ONLY water — as soon as your kids taste the sugary fruit juices they won’t want to go back, so never let it into the house. yes, even 100% fruit juice is 100% sugar, and it’s really bad for anyone to drink that stuff — cut up an orange into wedges instead.

    A 10-year-old kid needs only 30 grams of protein daily. A one-ounce serving of cheese, a cup of milk, an extra-large egg, two tablespoons of peanut butter or one-half cup of beans provide six to eight grams of protein each, which is about the same amount in each ounce of lean meat, fish and poultry, except that the former do not break down blood vessels — watch Forks Over Knives on netflix to understand why it is important to start veggie habits young in life.

  28. Lorie B. 4 years ago

    Incredible!! Thank you so much for taking the time to share this.

  29. Kristi S. 4 years ago

    I’m about a year late, but THANKS SO MUCH!! I started to really get into packing my kiddos lunches last year, often utilizing leftovers of things she likes. I didn’t think of making the fruit cups, or pudding or whatnot! I also loved that you used the milk jug to make dividers! I use the silicone cupcake wrappers, but your idea is much easier!! (It’s hard to keep cleaning those suckers! LOL) Thank you so much for your ideas.

  30. Jolie 4 years ago

    Have 5 kiddosn &I buy the plastic cups w/ lids, $30 total for a 500 count, buy carrots & celery at the farmers market & put my own peanut butter & ranch in my little cups w/ lids. Bought wax paper bags for sandwich slices. Heading for the 5lb bucket of p. butter next!

  31. Melanie 3 years ago

    I just started making “lunchables” for my son who is such a picky lunch time eater. Your ideas are great. Especially the idea bout using a lid from a spice container as the cutter for the ham. I love it! Thanks.

  32. Lisa 3 years ago

    Thanks!!! Love the milk jug separator idea. I use the smallest biscuit cutter for the lunch meat. 🙂

  33. Haley 3 years ago

    Just FYI, the lunches you are packing from “homemade” lunchables are not any healthier than the Lunchables themselves. Generic crackers, deli meat, and pudding is full of crap, GMOs, and things that are not healthy for children.

  34. Janice 3 years ago

    Thanks so much for these suggestions! I will be incorporating these ideas into my son’s lunches this school year! =)

  35. Dani 3 years ago

    Great ideas! Please be careful when reusing water bottles. The plastic can break down and release carcinogens into the water!

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  37. Lashawnda 11 months ago

    Wow I really appreciate the time and effort you put into this for us parents that want to change how we feed our kids at school. I am a new school parent. my son started kindergarten and I did not like what I seen as far as what they ate. This was very helpful! Thank you again.

    ~Lashawnda Smith

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