Frugal Back-to-School Lunch Ideas

kids eating lunch

Many parents admit that packing lunches is one of the more challenging tasks of raising school-aged children. After all, it’s relentless, right? Kids need lunches every single day school is session. There’s a lot of pressure in packing lunches, in no small part because how we feed kids is an emotionally charged topic with a lot of judgment from other parents and even school staff. Parents want to pack food that kids like and will actually eat, which is also a challenge. If the lunch ends up in the trash, it was a waste of time and money, and the child may not have eaten anything for lunch: It’s a lose-lose. Keeping kids fed and keeping the grocery budget on track is a challenge that’s very familiar to most parents. Luckily, there are many frugal and kid-tested lunch ideas! They range from leftovers and things that can be cooked ahead of time to foods that are easy to keep on hand and take little prep work, so parents can make sure that there’s always something to pack for lunch.

Sandwich Alternatives


  • Pita Pocket Sandwich: Kids struggle with monotony just like adults do. Something as simple as switching up the kind of bread used can make a simple sandwich fresh and exciting.
  • Bagel Sandwich: Another way to switch up a sandwich is to make it on a bagel. Just remember to cut it up into pieces to make it easier for little hands to pick up and eat.
  • Quesadillas: Quesadillas are fast, kids usually love them, the basic ingredients are cheap, and it’s a good way to use up leftovers or other ingredients already on hand. Start with a tortilla, add some cheese, and then fill it with whatever you have on hand that your kids like, like beans, meat, or veggies. Kids who like salsa will appreciate a small container for dipping, and most kids will enjoy some fruit to go with this tasty lunch!
  • Burger Bar: Cut a leftover hamburger patty into quarters. Pack it with a small container of ketchup, cheese cubes, and carrot sticks for a lunchtime-friendly take on a hamburger.

Presentation Matters

snacks cheese and meats

  • DIY Lunch Kit: It’s been said that the millennial obsession with charcuterie boards dates back to childhoods spent eating lunch kits that consisted of crackers, meats, and cheeses. The ones that generation ate were maybe not the healthiest, and those little kits are costly. Luckily, kids still love the idea of a lunch kit, and it couldn’t be easier to make one at home. Simply slice leftover chicken or deli meat into small pieces, dice some cheese, grab some crackers, and toss in some fruit. Your child will have a filling, fun lunch they’ll love!
  • Ravioli: Kids who love ravioli will really love eating it out of a thermos, which is the trick to keeping it warm until lunchtime. Pack it with some carrot sticks and fruit for a well-rounded, easy lunch.
  • Make Your Own Stir Fry: Here’s a chance to use up some leftovers in a lunch kids enjoy. In small containers, pack rice, a protein (leftover chicken works well), and leftover veggies. A little bit of the child’s favorite sauce (orange, soy, or whatever they like best) helps turn scraps from the fridge into a special meal.
  • Sandwich on a Stick: Whatever is typically served between pieces of bread can instead be placed on a stick. Looking to sneak more veggies and less bread into your kid’s lunch routine? Here’s an easy way. Packing a small container of a dipping sauce and a side of fruit makes this lunch a guaranteed kid-pleaser!
  • Deconstructed Pasta Salad: Lots of kids shy away from dishes like pasta salad, in which lots of foods are mixed together. Make those kids this easy, cheap deconstructed pasta salad instead. One night when pasta is on the menu, set aside a small container of pasta for tomorrow’s lunch. Add some cut-up lunch meat (pepperoni would definitely continue the theme) in a separate container, along with any veggie your child likes. A small treat rounds out this easy, cheap, kid-pleasing lunch.

Muffin Meals


  • Savory Muffins: These muffins are full of protein and veggies but only require one bowl and a muffin tin to cook. They’re also freezer-friendly, so you can make a bunch now for easy lunches later on.
  • Ham and Cheddar Lunchbox Muffins: The classic ham and cheese sandwich gets updated into a kid-friendly muffin that can be made ahead.
  • English Muffin Pizza: Slice an English muffin in half, then top it with pizza sauce, cheese, and your child’s favorite topping. Bake it in a toaster oven. Use some leftover veggies as toppings to increase the frugal and nutritional value, then pack your muffin pizzas with some fruit for a complete lunch kids will love!
  • Corn Dog Muffins: A simple, cheap box of corn muffin mix and the hot dog or sausage of your choice (veggie or turkey dogs work just as well as the regular kind) make this a cheap meal that can be made ahead and stored in the freezer. Simply mix the corn muffin mix as directed and pour it into a mini-muffin tin. In the center of each muffin, place a piece of cut-up hot dog or sausage. Bake as directed. Pack a few along with some fruit and carrot sticks for lunch, and store the rest in the freezer so you have an emergency lunch on hand for later.
  • Mac and Cheese Muffin Bites: If you have leftover mac and cheese, pour it into a greased muffin pan and bake for 25 minutes to turn these leftovers into the perfect lunchbox food. You can also mix in some spinach or green peas before the mac goes in the oven if you want to sneak some additional vegetables into your student’s diet.

Kid-Pleasing Quick Lunches

eggs in carton

  • Breakfast for Lunch: Toast cut into quarters, a boiled egg, yogurt, and whatever fruit happens to be on hand can become a fun, simple, cheap lunch made of foods kids love.
  • Hummus Lunch: Using hummus as the protein and calorie-rich base of the meal covers a lot of bases! That means you can often fill in the rest of lunch using only what’s already on hand. Boiled eggs, sliced veggies, lunch meat, and whatever bread you have around can make for great add-ons to this meal.
  • Waffles and Peanut Butter: Frozen waffles easily become the star of this easy, cheap lunch kids will love. Toast the waffle, pack it on its own in the lunch box, and add peanut butter (or sunflower-seed butter if allergies are a concern) and a banana!
  • Hard-Boiled Eggs: Peeled hard-boiled eggs are perfect for a lunch box. Finish off the lunch with string cheese and a piece of fruit.
  • Meatballs: Either pre-made frozen meatballs or leftover homemade meatballs are perfect for lunch boxes, and they’re a cheap source of protein. Make sure to cut them in half for younger students. Pack with the child’s favorite veggies, cheese, and a sweet treat for a super-easy lunch.
  • Soup: On cold days, nothing is better than settling in for a warm bowl of soup. Children can have this experience at school thanks to thermoses! Heat up soup (either leftovers from the fridge or soup from a can) and then pour it into a thermos. Pack a spoon, some crackers (or bread), and an apple for an easy, healthy, warming lunch!

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