As a mom to four boys, Erin Chase has made her share of PB&J sandwiches and packed thousands of school lunches.
“We have a lot of lunches to pack this year, and you can do it more cheaply by making and sending them from home than even buying at the school,” she said.
Chase, the creator of the $5 Dinners website, shared a few strategies for stretching the school lunch dollar.
First, she says, limit pre-packaged foods.
“The pre-packaged things are always more expensive,” Chase said. “Convenience costs extra money. So, any simple things that you can do yourself, baking your own, mixing up your own — you’re going to want to go ahead and do that because that’s going to save you a lot in the long run.”
For example, she baked muffins from a boxed mix on the eve of sending her kids back to class.
“It’s $2 for 12 muffins,” Chase said. “If you were to buy 12 muffins at the store, it would be six, seven, eight dollars.”
She then pops bags of home-baked muffins and PB&J crustless sandwiches into the freezer.
“I think the freezer is one of the most underutilized parts of packing lunches because you can make and bake ahead and then grab and go from the freezer and drop into the lunchbox,” Chase said.
By lunchtime, the food is thawed and ready to eat.
If you want to buy pre-packaged items, such as granola bars, Chase recommends buying them in bulk. Also, buy the large bags of chips, veggies or cookies instead of the individualized packets.
When brown-bagging it, Chase suggests limiting paper and resealable plastic bags. Instead, go the reusable route.
“I would invest in some great containers and reusable baggies if you can,” Chase said.
Finally, she advises involving the kids, so no food is thrown out.
“I want you to have a conversation with your kids so that you’re packing the perfect lunch for them that works for your budget,” she said.
More families may be packing lunches now that the pandemic-era universal free school lunch program has ended. Many school cafeteria prices are also higher to try to keep pace with grocery inflation.