Back to School: 10 Healthy lunch box ideas for under $2

You must all be starved for frugal lunch ideas, ’cause the email from my Lunchables food hack was a lot for me to digest. Who knew that shopping for crackers and cheese and then tallying the costs could give so many readers food for thought. But it did, and I know why.

We all eat lunch, and it’s easy to get stuck in meal rut when there are daily school lunches to make and busy schedules to keep. Sure, buying prepackaged lunch boxes may save a few minutes today, but over time the cost of these meals can add up. Instant meals are not always healthy either.

So I busted a gut, hit the supermarket, calculated the costs, and came up with ten kid-sized meals worthy of your a growing student’s lunch box all for under two bucks. Each lunch idea is fun, frugal, and pretty darn healthy too. I have also included vegetarian, vegan, and meat eater’s options for your family’s preferred meal plan.

The trick to packing a frugal healthy lunch is to plan meals ahead of time, make a grocery shopping list, and stock the fridge with snack-sized portions of food ready to pack in your kid’s lunch box.

Ready to get gastrointestinal? Chew on these ten healthy lunch box ideas and munch a little frugal lunch for under $2 this back-to-school season.

1. Cookie Cutter Sandwiches

Don’t be a square. Sticking a standard rectangular sandwich in your kid’s lunch box is kinda boring. Think outside of the box by cutting crusts and shaping tasty sandwiches using circular cookie cutters.

lunch

Make a standard turkey sandwich exciting with tasty flower-shaped melon and cheese slices. Nested sets of flower cookie cutters or heart cookie cutters may inspire your kid to eat healthier foods since various fruits and veggies can be shaped and presented in fun ways.

healthy lunch ideas

Total Cost: Gobble gobble. A turkey, cheese, and lettuce sandwich costs just $1.87 with melon, kiwi, almonds, and a homemade chocolate truffle bar on the side. Add yogurt, and a cereal butterfly snack pack for around $.50 more and you’ve got a packed lunch for little cost.

2. Leftover Chicken Lunch Kabobs

Skewer food costs by using dinner leftovers in your kid’s lunch box. Lunch kabobs are easy to make by sticking a drink stirrer through cubed meat chunks, vegetable pieces, and cheese cubes. Check out 1 Organic Chicken, 22 Healthy Meals, $49 Bucks for more ways to use leftovers across multiple meals.

school lunch ideas

Little fingers like little eating challenges with dipping sauce on the side. Keep the mess contained in frugal lunch boxes with dividers.

school lunch

Total Cost: Stretch your food dollar by incorporating leftovers into your kid’s lunches. Two tasty chicken kabobs with fresh veggies and a little homemade salsa for dipping pecks your wallet for a paltry $1.23, including a few flower-shaped whole wheat wraps. Add a blueberry butterfly snack for $0.65 and you’re still under two bucks for a healthy fun meal.

Kabobs lunch ideas

Kids like to wrap and roll kabob pieces in whole wheat pita shells or flavored wraps. Any number of dinner leftover options work here, so get creative with lunch kabobs to save money.

3. Peanut Butter and Banana Pinwheels

Your kid hates crusts, meat, cheese, and all other regular sandwich fixings. Awesome. Now what? Go a little bananas by rolling this tasty fruit into a bunch of nutty butter pinwheel bites.

peanut butter banana pinwheels

Just spread a little peanut butter, almond butter, or whatever gooey substance onto a wrap, add a banana, and roll away. Use a sharp knife to slice the roll into bite-sized pieces perfect for a pouty mouth. Try my homemade peanut butter recipe for something a little different — it’s less expensive than your regular spread.

peanut butter pinwheel sandwich

Total Cost: Peanut butter and banana pinwheels with crackers, cheese, veggies, and a mini yogurt keep your kid happy for $1.94, including the candy pieces.

Keep food from touching by using reusable silicone muffin cups as dividers. These little cups are cute for kids, add a little color to lunch, and can be used for baking too. A set of reusable silicone heart baking cups are fun to add to a kid’s lunch box too.

4. Cucumber and Cream Cheese Sandwich

Lunch meats and hard cheeses are not cheap. Make a meal (or two) every week meat-free and save some cash with a fresh lunch filled with fruits and vegetables.

cucumber sandwich

Total Cost: A cucumber and cream cheese sandwich (with crusts removed) costs just $1.44 with apple slices, grapes, and a few veggies on the side. Add a homemade granola bar for a few cents more and your lunch is cool for school.

Too much green? Skip the cuke and make a plain cream cheese sandwich on quality bread. Yum.

5. Breakfast for Lunch Kabobs

Serve your kid breakfast for lunch by kabobing (new word) cubes of homemade omelet, chunks of sausage, and pieces of bread together on a skewer.

healthy snack lunch

A side each of homemade hummus and homemade salsa give this brunchy lunch a dippy twist.

Kabobs lunch

Total Cost: Turn breakfast leftovers into a brunch time lunch for $1.98, including avocado, crackers, melon, tomatoes, green peas, a homemade chocolate truffle bar, and butterfly cereal snack.

Colorful reusable silicone muffin cups keep lunch items separated and prevent dipping sauces from spilling over into dry foods.

6. DIY Pizza Bagels

Does your kid like to play with food? Let the little ones stack and assemble their own lunches by putting together the ingredients for pizza bagels.

kid lunch pizza bagel

Total Cost: A stick of string cheese, pizza toppings, grapes, bagel, tomato sauce, and a couple of cookies costs just $1.88 for a very fun lunch.

pizza bagel recipe

Make every day pizza day with this simple lunch box idea. If there’s a microwave available at school, then your kid has a hot lunch ready to go!

7. Baked Potato Toppers with Dip

Bake a batch of tiny potatoes and top ‘em with cheese, tomatoes, ham, or whatever you or your kid likes to eat. A side of homemade hummus served in an easy-to-clean reusable silicone muffin cup is a simple way to jazz up a lowly spud.

baked potato

Total Cost: Spend $1.67 on potatoes, cheese, veggies, cookies, and kiwi slices and your kid will dine on a few dimes.

Buying in bulk at stores like Costco can help cut food costs. Check out Price Check Experiment: Is Costco really worth it? to see if shopping at warehouse stores makes financial sense for your family.

8. Noodles in Sauce

Spaghetti, linguine, tortellini, fusilli. Whatever your pasta preference, toss those heated noodles in a thermos or pack them in a container for a noodleicious lunch.

lunch ideas pasta

Total Cost: Pasta is a cheap, fun, and tasty meal worthy of a your kid’s lunch box. A frugal $1.74 serves a side of pasta, with tomato sauce and humus for dipping. A sliced apple, some grapes, and a few candy covered nuts complete this kid’s meal.

Use an apple corer and divider to make perfect apple slices the easy way.

9. Bagel Egger and Ham Sandwich

Is your kid a good egg? I thought so. Add a couple of hard boiled eggs (shells removed) with slices of ham and a bagel to break from the boring lunch box routine and crack your kid up.

bento

Total Cost: Two bucks will get ya two eggs, a bagel, lean ham slices, some kiwi, strawberries, melon, green peas, and a Kashi granola bar topped with chocolate chips.

Save some cash by baking a batch of homemade granola bars. Yeah, the prepackaged granola bars are often easier.

10. Perfect Pinwheel Sandwiches

Picky eaters can pick apart pinwheel sandwiches for a fun and frugal time. For this lunch I used the leftover cookie cutter meat and cheese pieces from previous meals to turn a leftover lunch into something pretty special.

Pinwheel Sandwiches

How to make pinwheels: Toss leftover cheese and meat pieces onto a wrap. Heat in microwave until cheese is melted. Layer some lettuce, place a few pickles onto the stack, and wrap everything into a tight roll. Use a sharp knife to slice roll into elegant pinwheel sandwiches.

Pinwheel Sandwiches Lunch

Total Cost: This one was hard to calculate due to the little leftover pieces. I’ll guess this meal costs around $2 after adding up the cheese, chicken, and pickle wrap with a side of homemade salsa and mustard for dipping. Three mini cookies, a few vegetables, and a mini yogurt turn scraps into a spectacular midday meal.

This meal is made possible since a frugal lunch box with dividers keeps all the ingredients separate, and not soggy.

What about the adults?

You too can take a bite out of the homemade savings by adding around $0.50 more food to each meal and dining on adult-sized portions. You can keep (and eat) the heart-shaped cheese pieces if that makes you happy. Kudos. Check out my recipe for Vegetable Sushi Nori Rolls — it is one of my favorite adult lunch box options.

Your Turn: What do your kids like for lunch?

Your two cents:

  1. Emr September 19th, 2011

    Love these ideas! But what happens to the rest of the sandwich you use the cookie cutters on? I really hate waste.

    My mom used to cut sandwiches in odd shapes — in three or five pieces, odd angles, etc. It’s not as pretty as a flower, but it’s fun and it doesn’t waste food.

  2. Kerry September 19th, 2011

    @Emr See #10.

  3. Emr September 19th, 2011

    I did see that… but what about the bread? Could you cut the bread before you layer the sandwich and then use the ends for bread crumbs? Oooh…. that’s what I’ll do!

    Love your blog and your ideas — especially when you keep things fun!

  4. Kerry September 19th, 2011

    @Emr I would absolutely put the bread pieces into the pinwheel sandwich or skewer them in a kabob. Season and bake ‘em to make croutons for salad? Stuffing for Thanksgiving dinner? :)

  5. luxcanuck September 20th, 2011

    Cute ideas…thanks! Just a couple of things. The apple and avocado slices will be brown mush by lunch time. You can’t send hummous in an open silicone muffin cup–it will be all over that section of the divided lunch box by the time the kid gets to school (kids don’t carry their lunch boxes nice and straight). Boo-hoo….we can’t send any nut products (like almonds and peanut butter) to school because of no-nut policies (yes, they are the ideal high-protein lunch snack but are a no-go).

  6. cherie September 20th, 2011

    All very cute ideas! I did want to mention something that works at my house. While I have three kids all with very particular issues about what they’ll eat at lunch, and as they get older [I have two in middle school, one in third grade] the ‘cute’ factor loses it’s cool LOL, I do best in making affordable and healthy lunches by PLANNING.
    My weekly meal plan includes a list of choices for breakfast and snack, but for dinner there’s a specific meal planned AND for lunch – for each child – there are only a few lunches they’ll ALL eat LOL – I try to plan for the different ones to be similar [for instance, they'll tolerate one sandwich of cold cuts a week - I plan them for the same day and make sure I have time to hit the deli before that day]. I plan the sides as well [fruits usually, home baked goods]. The crew won’t eat sandwiches much at all – which makes it even more ‘fun’ LOL.
    But planning s king!

  7. Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple September 20th, 2011

    These ideas are freaking adorable. My 5 year old will love them, if I ever have the energy to go beyond a sandwich and leftover vegetables.

  8. Jade September 20th, 2011

    Awesome, awesome, awesome. This is so fun for kids lunch boxes. I love this idea Kerry.

  9. Jules September 20th, 2011

    So cute, except for the raw broccoli…when I was little that was all my mom served for a brief period (well, not exactly, but all that I can remember from a time when I was 8). Ever since then, ugh…

    I’ve taken to planning dinner, making a little extra, and then dumping it directly into the box. There are scheduled breaks, so that and a few pieces of fruit keep me quite happy :-)

  10. Brenda Williams September 20th, 2011

    Love all these ideas. I don’t have to pack lunches for school anymore, but I do pack them for my husband and myself. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Andy September 22nd, 2011

    Peanut butter and banana pinwheels! I thought I was the only one. ha, ha. We use wheat flatbread to roll up our pinwheels with. It seems to be a bit easier to cut and holds its shape a little better. They make a great evening snack as well.

    You can also try it with croissant roll dough just rolled out flat and baked. Roll those up with cream cheese and some cut up broccoli if the kids will go for it and they disappear.

  12. Abbie October 1st, 2011

    Great ideas! I have an extremely picky 12 yr old boy. This is his first year w/o a microwave @ lunch. I’m hoping some of these ideas will appeal to him.

  13. Cheryl October 19th, 2011

    I love these ideas and pictures! So creative and healthy! My 7-year-old isn’t terribly picky, but won’t eat sauces or several raw veggies (like broccoli & cucumber). We end up having sandwiches (nitrate/nitrite-free ham & real cheese or peanut butter) a lot. I love the ideas of the chicken skewers and breakfast stuff, but what temperature do you keep that stuff at? I’m assuming it would have to be chilled, but I wonder if a lot of kids will eat some of this stuff cold. And I’m always worried about keeping it at a safe temperature with ice packs too. Any thoughts/suggestions?

  14. Jola July 23rd, 2012

    Really great ideas! I just tried the banana peanut butter pin wheels for my au pair boys (with a lot less peanut butter) and the totally loved them! It’s such an easy and healthy snack.

  15. Tami August 11th, 2012

    Great ideas. Thanks. Instead of using bagels or mini bagels because they’re so heavy, I use mini sliders buns. They’re mini burger buns. I find they’re not as heavy as bagels. I also discovered mini apple bagel bites using cream cheese, dried cranberries, diced apples, lemon juice, a pinch of cinnamon & the slider buns. It’s our new snack.

  16. Lili@creativesavv August 18th, 2012

    A lot of schools don’t allow peanuts, and some don’t allow any tree nuts at all. We use 2 solutions for this, homemade sunflower seed butter and bean spread (using whatever beans I have cooked, but garbanzo beans seems to be the favorite).

    I also do a lot of vegetarian burritos. They can be eaten cold or heated in a microwave.

    And one more frugal favorite, homemade yogurt cheese with dried cranberries.

  17. Molly Green February 25th, 2013

    You should make a cookbook for parents!!!

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