10 Kid-Approved School Lunches Under $5 (We Promise, They’re Super Easy)

Cheap School lunch ideas
davidf/Getty Images

Sandwiches are great… until they get soggy in your 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 all your old lunch-making habits.

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

These 10 lunch recipes all cost less than $5 per serving* — in fact, eight of them cost less than $2 a day!

10 School Lunch Ideas That Cost Less Than $5

We calculated these costs based on prices and items found in Trader Joe’s in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Aug. 8, 2017.

You may be able to reduce these prices further by shopping at a lower-priced store, choosing items on sale, buying store brands or using coupons.

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

1. Lunchbox Kebabs

Cheap School lunch ideas
Image from itisakeeper.com

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 It Costs

Trader Joe’s Black Forest Ham, 8 ounces: $3.49

$0.87 for two slices

Trader Joe’s Cheddar Cheese Slices, 16 slices: $4.49

$0.56 for two slices

Grape Tomatoes, 16 ounces: $2.69

$0.16 per 1 oz serving  

Skewers, 300 ct: $1.74

$0.01 for two skewers

Trader Joe’s Yellow Mustard, 9 oz: $1.69

$0.09 per tsp

Cost of ingredients: $14.10

Cost per serving: $1.69

2. Cool Apple Quesadillas

Cheap School lunch ideas
image from momables.com

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 it’s worth it. While this lunch item is 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 It Costs

Trader Joe’s Flour Tortillas: $2.29 for 10

$0.46 for two tortillas

Trader Joe’s American Cheese Singles: $3.99 for 12 slices

$0.66 for two slices

Granny Smith Apple: $0.79

$0.40 for half an apple

Cost of ingredients: $7.07

Cost per serving: $1.52

3. Polka-Dot Pizza Dippers

Cheap School lunch ideas
Image from The Good Stuff by coupons.com

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 It Costs

Trader Joe’s Biscuits: 8 count: $2.99

$0.37 per biscuit

Pizza Sauce, 16 ounces: $1.99

$0.12 for two tablespoons  

Pepperoni, 6 ounces: $3.29

$0.55 per 1 oz serving

Cost of ingredients: $8.27
Cost per serving: $1.04

Brooke McLay’s math at The Good Stuff has this recipe weighing in at only $.81 per serving, so it really does depend where you shop!

4. No-Bake Banana Burritos

Cheap School lunch ideas
Image from missionmenus.com

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

Tortilla company Mission offers 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 if your kids go to a peanut-free school. Pro tip: Sunbutter is a decent peanut butter substitute and has addictive properties if you’re under the age of five, according to my non-scientific research with young nephews.

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

What It Costs

Yellow Bananas: $0.29 each

$0.58 for two bananas

Peanut Butter, 16 ounces: $2.29

$0.29 per 4 tbsp serving

Strawberry Preserves, 18 ounces: $2.99

$0.16 for two tbsp

Trader Joe’s Flour Tortillas: $2.29 for 10

$0.46 for two tortillas

Cost of ingredients: $7.86

Cost per serving: $1.49

5. The Ultimate Bento Box

Cheap School lunch ideas
Image from choose-to-thrive.com

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 It Costs

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:

Trader Joe’s Cracker Rounds: $2.00 for 100 crackers

$0.12 for 6 crackers

Trader Joe’s Cheddar Cheese Slices, 16 slices: $4.49

$0.56 for two slices

Green Pepper: $0.79 for one

$0.40 for half

Grape Tomatoes, 16 ounces: $2.69

$0.16 per 1 oz serving  

Cost of ingredients: $9.97

Cost per serving: $1.24

The fresh ingredients for this box are more expensive, but remember this is one of the more customizeable 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

Cheap School lunch ideas
Image from landolakes.com

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, 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 It Costs

Waffles, 8-count: $1.99

$0.50 for two waffles

Organic Maple Syrup, 12 ounces: $7.99

$0.67 per one ounce serving

Trader Joe’s Black Forest Ham, 8 ounces: $3.49

$0.87 for two slices

Trader Joe’s Cheddar Cheese Slices, 16 slices: $4.49

$0.56 for two slices

Cost of ingredients: $17.96

Cost per serving: $2.60

7. Yogurt Parfait

Cheap School lunch ideas
image from foodnetwork.com

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 prep a few at a time for several days worth of lunches.

What It Costs

Vanilla Yogurt, 32 ounces: $3.99

$0.33 per serving (⅓ cup)  

Strawberries, 32 ounces: $5.99

$0.38 per serving (¼ cup)  

Blackberries, 6 ounces: $2.99

$1.00 per serving (¼ cup)

Almond Butter Granola, 12 ounces: $3.49

$0.58 per serving (¼ cup)

Cost of ingredients: $16.46

Cost per serving: $2.29

8. Easy Mac and Cheese Bites

Cheap School lunch ideas
Loozrboy under Creative Commons

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.

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

What It Costs

Organic White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese Shells, 6 ounces: $1.29

$0.43 per serving

2% Milk, 64 ounces: $2.49

$0.10 (⅓ cup for Mac and Cheese mixture)

Grated Parmesan Cheese: $4.02 for 0.62 lbs

$0.15 per serving

Frozen Broccoli, 16 ounces: $1.49

$0.50 per serving

Organic Ketchup, 16 ounces: $1.99

$0.10 per serving

Cost of ingredients: $11.28

Cost per serving: $1.28

9. Ants on a Log


Cheap School lunch ideas
Image from sweetandsimpleliving.com

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 It Costs

Celery, 12 stalks: $2.29

$0.38 for 2 stalks

Peanut Butter, 16 ounces: $2.29

$0.58 for two 4 tbsp servings

Sun Dried California Raisins, 16 ounces: $2.79

$0.34 for two one ounce servings

Cost of ingredients: $7.37

Cost per serving: $1.30

10. Corn Dog Muffins

Cheap School lunch ideas
image from 1sassymomma.blogspot.com

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 It Costs

One box of Corn Muffin Mix, 15 ounces: $2.69

$0.45 per serving

Kosher Hot Dogs, 7-count: $4.49

$0.64 per serving

2% Milk, 64 ounces: $2.49

$0.23 (¾ cup for corn muffin mixture)

Brown Eggs: $1.19 per dozen

$0.10 for one egg (for corn muffin mixture)

Cost of ingredients: $10.86

Cost per lunch: $1.42

* We calculated the cost per serving based on each lunch recipe; in most cases, the amount required for the recipe was equal to one serving as specified on the item.

Lisa Rowan is is a writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.