Inexpensive meal ideas

6 Cheap & Easy Back-to-School Lunch Ideas

By Brittany Wren

Time to pack those lunches! Places of work are reopening and school is just around the corner. Meanwhile, the CDC recommends people stay safe by packing their own lunches instead of eating in a communal cafeteria.1 But ugh! Adding yet another item to our already packed to-do list could drive us all crazy. Luckily, with staples like tortillas, peanut butter, pasta, beans and salad greens, you can create some tasty lunch options that are easy on the wallet and don’t swallow all your time. Read on, brown bag warriors!

Bento lunch box: best no-cook option

Okay, hear us out. "Bento box” is just a fancy word for convenient to-go lunch. Food is usually packed in separate little containers or divided trays, and it’s usually no-cook. This year you might wanna avoid the break room microwave—because, germs.2 So bring your no-cook bento box lunch to work or school instead of a more traditional heat-and-serve option. Also, if you or your kiddos don’t like food to touch, this one’s for you!

Salad in a jar: best healthy option

Yes, people: we gotta eat our leafy greens. Veggies like kale and spinach are chock-full of vitamins A, C, E and K, fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and cancer-fighting carotenoids.3 That’s why we should all follow Popeye’s example and eat more salads for lunch. And banish your fears that a lunch salad will be gross, wilted, and disgusting. Instead, pack it in a jar, dressing and soft stuff first, to ensure crispness for 4-5 days.

Burritos: best make-ahead option

You pretty much please everyone with something wrapped in a tortilla. Different options abound from protein-packed breakfast burritos to veggie wraps to kid classic cheesy rollups. These are also great for gluten-sensitive diets because you can use corn tortillas.5 And the best part? These don’t usually get soggy, so you can pre-assemble for the whole week or even freeze for later.

Sandwiches: best budget option

Okay, obviously you’ve used the standard PB&J sandwich in your back-to-school lunch line-up. But did you know that sandwiches can be a healthy form of protein? The USDA actually recommends sandwiches made of turkey, roast beef, or peanut butter over regular bologna or salami.6 So go ahead. Break out your sandwich chef skills. You’re making a healthy choice.

  • Best container: Lunchskins Reusable Zippered Sandwich bag - $5.99
  • Hack it: wash and reuse the zip-top bags you already own - FREE!
  • Freezer-friendly version: PB&J (yep!) - $0.44 per sandwich7

Soup: best option to use leftovers

We’re not talking about the kind of soup that simmers for days, à la Julia Child. Nope, this is the easy #RealLife kind made from leftovers. So save your leftover dinner gravy, pizza sauce, mashed potatoes, baked chicken thighs, veggies, and pasta in little baggies all week long. Then use them to create something new and tasty for tomorrow’s lunch. Your people will never know they’re eating leftovers!

Apps: best help from the internet

We all rely on mobile apps for our communication and information feed. So we may as well use apps and websites to help feed us literally, whether it’s couponing, budgeting, or menu planning. And if we’re lucky enough to have a place to commute to these days, we’re probably driving 54 minutes round trip. Every. Day.8 That means we have less and less time to figure out tonight’s dinner, let alone tomorrow’s lunch. So yeah. We’ll take all the help we can get, thank you.

  • Mealime Meal Planner, Recipes & Grocery List app (FREE) for Apple or Android
  • Flipp grocery coupon and deal finder app (FREE) for Apple or Android
  • Walmart Shopping & Grocery app (FREE) for Apple or Android

Go forth and conquer lunch!

Going back to work and school is stressful for all of us, no doubt. No matter where this fall is taking us back to, we can take some of that stress away by forming a weekly lunch plan with our new normal in mind. From sandwiches to burritos, soups, salads and bento boxes, packing your work or school lunches doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. And once we master lunch, we can move on to bigger and better things. Like our snack options for binging Homeland. (Popcorn, anyone?)


1 Staff. (n.d.). Considerations for Schools. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

2 Staff. (n.d.). Meat and Poultry Processing Workers and Employers. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

3 Yan, L. (2016, August 13). Dark Green Leafy Vegetables. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Agriculture:

4 Staff. (2019, April). Egg Protein Comparison & Protein Costs. Retrieved from American Egg Board:

5 Picco, M. (2019, December 17). Celiac disease diet: How do I get enough grains? Retrieved from Mayo Clinic:

6 Staff. (2016, January). 10 Tips: Vary Your Protein Routine. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Agriculture:

7 Penzo, L. (2014, August 11). Peanut Butter And Jelly Is Officially The Cheapest Sandwich You Can Make. Retrieved from Business Insider:

8 Ingraham, C. (2019, October 7). Nine days on the road. Average commute time reached a new record last year. Retrieved from The Washington Post:

Brittany Wren
Brittany Wren
Read more from Brittany
I grew up shopping Goodwill and my older sister's closet. For me working hard, saving money and buying smart is not just a mantra; it is a way of life. On the weekends, I'm usually busy peeling mandarin oranges and refilling sippy cups. My writing has been published by a variety of clients including Intuit, Lifelock, and T-Mobile.

Recent Articles