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10 Cheap School Lunch Ideas That Are Kid-Approved

Sandwiches are great… until they get soggy in a lunchbox, or worse — crushed by a piece of fruit or a book.

If you or your little ones are dreading the thought of heading back to class this fall with simple sandwiches, it’s time to free yourself from old lunch-making habits.

No, we’re not going to recommend buying lunch every day, unless your school has a tasty (and also inexpensive) lunch program. It’s possible to make a delicious, relatively nutritious lunch for just a few dollars a day.

Try these 10 cheap lunch recipes — they each come in at around $5 a serving, and they offer enough variety to satisfy even the picky eaters in your house.

10 Cheap School Lunch Ideas

Get ready: These lunch ideas are going to make you hungry.

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1. Lunchbox Kebabs

Christina Hitchcock’s lunchbox kebabs are the perfect alternative to tired sandwiches, and the recipe she shares on her blog It’s a Keeper is super simple.

Choose your tiny scholar’s favorite sandwich fixings, like meat, cheese and veggies, and stick ‘em on short skewers inside a plastic container. The components will stay fresh, and you can include a small container of a dip — mustard would be my choice — for mealtime.

What You Need

  • Black Forest Ham
  • Cheddar Cheese Slices
  • Grape Tomatoes
  • Skewers
  • Yellow Mustard

2. Cool Apple Quesadillas

For the kid who can’t get enough cheese, but honestly needs a few more food groups in their day, these grilled-then-chilled quesadillas from Laura Fuentes of Momables are perfect.

They take a few minutes of prep, but they’re worth it. Although designed for a cold lunch, you do cook the quesadilla on the stove like you would at dinnertime. Gotta congeal that cheese.

Fuentes layers on thin-sliced apples and cheese slices, and grills them between eight-inch tortillas. There’s a ton of wiggle room here for ingredients — consider switching to a whole-wheat tortilla or switch up the cheese selection for a new flavor combo.

What You Need

  • Flour Tortillas
  • Cheese Slices
  • Granny Smith Apple

3. Polka-Dot Pizza Dippers

Your resident pizza fiend will ask for this easy, cheap lunch day after day. And that’s totally doable, because you can prep a whole batch in advance and freeze them until it’s time to pack a few pizza dippers.

Simply divide refrigerated biscuit dough as described in the recipe on Coupons.com’s The Good Stuff blog, and top with a dab of sauce and a slice of pepperoni. They bake up flaky, and you can season to taste.

What You Need

  • Refrigerated Biscuit Dough
  • Pizza Sauce
  • Pepperoni
banana and strawberry burritos
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4. No-Bake Banana Burritos

Here’s a wholesome lunch that requires zero cooking. Promise!

It’s a sweet twist on the typical PB&J: a PB&J banana burrito.

Smear peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla, roll up a (peeled, of course) banana in the center, and send it off to school. Banana burritos!

It’s easy to swap PB for another type of spread, like sunbutter, if your kids go to a peanut-free school.

Feeling pooped from a long day of parenting? Even smaller students can prepare this lunch on their own.

What You Need

  • Yellow Bananas
  • Peanut Butter
  • Strawberry Preserves
  • Flour Tortillas

5. The Ultimate Bento Box

If your kid is more of a grazer, stop worrying about packing a meal so much as packing a bunch of snacks they’ll be excited to eat at lunchtime. Choose a reusable container with sections to pack four to six different bite-size treats.

It’s also a great way to compromise with a kid who has a major sweet tooth but isn’t so much into vegetables: pack a sweet treat, sure, but surround it with enough healthier options that it’ll all even out.

What You Need

Nike, who runs the blog Choose to Thrive, likes to make her kids’ bento boxes look like Lunchables. But here’s what I’d put in my ideal box:

  • Cracker Rounds
  • Cheddar Cheese Slices
  • Green Pepper
  • Grape Tomatoes

The fresh ingredients for this box are more expensive, but remember this is one of the more customizable lunch options. You can substitute other components like a clementine, pretzel sticks, apple slices, a handful of almonds, a hard-boiled egg or even a few cookies.

It’s also easy to adjust portion sizes based on your student’s appetite.

6. Waffle Sandwiches

Land O Lakes offers this cool recipe that asks you to put sandwich components inside a waffle maker to griddle up some goodness. I say: Let’s not work that hard.

To make an easier version of a waffle sandwich, toast up a frozen waffle, cut it in half, and layer on ham and cheese. Then, either microwave these magical sandwich sticks or grill in a pan for a few minutes.

If you’re a nice parent, add a small cup of maple syrup for dipping. If you don’t care about your child’s happiness (and want to stay on the school custodial staff’s good side), skip it. The frozen waffles are sweet enough on their own.

You can make a batch of these and freeze them so they’ll defrost for junior by lunchtime.

What You Need

  • Frozen Waffles
  • Maple Syrup
  • Black Forest Ham
  • Cheddar Cheese Slices
fruit and yogurt parfaits
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7. Yogurt Parfait

If a yogurt parfait seems like a treat best saved for a summer day, it’s time to rethink your school-lunch ways. You can whip together this nutritious combo of yogurt, fruit and granola in minutes, and you can prep a few at a time for several days worth of lunches.

What You Need

  • Vanilla Yogurt
  • Strawberries
  • Blackberries
  • Almond Butter Granola 

8. Easy Mac and Cheese Bites

Kids love macaroni and cheese, but this hot dish doesn’t keep well in a lunch box. Instead, bake up some mac and cheese bites that you can store in the freezer for a grab-and-go solution.

Pinterest is filled to the brim with “homemade” mac and cheese recipes for these bites, but let’s get real. This isn’t Sunday dinner. This is a Monday morning when you are bleary-eyed and someone is screaming like a banshee because she can’t find her other shoe.

So here’s a super simple recipe to try:

To make these zesty bites, simply prepare your favorite boxed mac and cheese as instructed. When you’re done, add some extras of your choice to the pot: finely chopped broccoli or spinach sneaks into this lunch pretty easily.

Mix well, pour it all into a mini muffin tin (you may want to grease the pan first), top with parmesan cheese, and bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Adjust for your desired crispiness.

Freeze the batch and pull out a few at a time. Send a small container of ketchup to school for dipping.

This recipe makes about 12 in a mini-muffin pan — but you might have some left over for a snack!

What You Need

  • Macaroni and Cheese
  • 2% Milk
  • Grated Parmesan Cheese
  • Frozen Broccoli
  • Ketchup
ants on a log celery snack
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9. Ants on a Log

It’s time for some early-’90s nostalgia, because you probably forgot all about ants on a log, huh? It’s a severely underrated snack, but if you eat enough of them, it totally counts as lunch.

There are many variations on the traditional combo of celery, peanut butter and raisins, so use what your kids are most likely to chow down. Craisins! Cream Cheese! Go crazy.

What You Need

  • Celery
  • Peanut Butter
  • Raisins

10. Corn Dog Muffins

If you have a child who only ever wants to eat hot dogs, here’s a way to send them to school without lobbying the PTA to get a grill for the cafeteria.

Whip up some cornbread muffin mix, pour into that handy mini-muffin pan, plop a slice of hot dog into the center of each, and bake according to this simple recipe from One Sassy Momma. Freeze a zip bag of the fruits of your labor and grab a few for lunchbox duty.

If you’re feeling extra nice, include a small container of ketchup or mustard for dipping.

What You Need

  • Corn Muffin Mix
  • Hot Dogs
  • 2% Milk
  • Brown Eggs

Lisa Rowan is a former writer at The Penny Hoarder.


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