25 Frugal and Dairy-Free School Lunch Ideas

frugal and dairy free

I’m Not That Mom…

I love all those fancy photos of elaborate school lunches lovingly packed by moms and nannies and posted to Instagram accounts dedicated entirely to said lunches. They’re so fun. And not particulary frugal and dairy-free. They’re also so not me. The ones I think I could pull off rather easily (a caterpillar with veggies and grape tomatoes is an adorable idea!) my child probably wouldn’t eat. And that is okay. To each mom her own.

While I may dream of being that mom who packs inventive and unique meals on the daily in reality I am the mom throwing something together at 7 am frantically while my daughter asks why she only gets four things. Don’t I know that’s not enough?Guess what? I’ve been to school at lunch and while the cafeteria does serve more the kids aren’t eating most of the food. I pack what I am convinced she will eat. 

I’m also the mom who gets sidetracked while fixing said four things because her little brother had a poopsplosion at an inopportune time. That usually gets a laugh from the school secretary when you check your child in late. Been there, twice actually. But that’s a story for a different type of blog post!

Over the summer I decided to save money in the budget and be nicer to the planet by eliminating most one-time use products in our house. I stopped buying paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates… the logical next step is using fewer plastic baggies. Yes, I said fewer. I tapering off slowly. My wallet and my lifelong habits need a little easing into some things.

I made a list of some frugal and dairy-free lunches I plan to pack for my lactose intolerant child this school year. This is five weeks’ worth of lunch ideas to try!

Frugal and Dairy Free – the List

  1. Pretzels, hummus, and turkey pepperoni with a fruit
  2. Pinwheels and banana
  3. Mixed veggies and veggie dip on toast with rolled lunch meat on the side
  4. Cookie-cutter almond butter and jelly sandwiches with berries
  5. Birds in a blanket (sliced turkey dog in a crescent roll)
  6. Turkey pepperoni, tortilla strips, and pizza sauce
  7. Hard-boiled eggs, baby carrots, and a home-baked cookie
  8. Chicken quesadilla cut into strips
  9. Pasta salad
  10. Sweet potato fries and a slider
  11. Flatbread with pesto, bruschetta, or other topping and cherry tomatoes
  12. Mini bagel sandwich and baked chips
  13. Rolled lunch meat, crackers, baby carrots, and veggie dip or hummus
  14. Ham muffins and apple slices
  15. Sandwiches on a stick (for older kids – cube sandwich and slide onto kabob sticks)
  16. Chips and salsa or guacamole and grilled chicken
  17. Chicken nuggets with dipping sauce and baby carrots
  18. Chicken salad and toast
  19. Waffles and fruit
  20. Apple and almond butter “stacked” sandwiches
  21. Turkey dog and baked chips
  22. Wrap with fresh fruit and sliced bell pepper
  23. Salad with grilled chicken and berries
  24. Fruit salad and sliced turkey dog
  25. Taco bowls – scoop tortilla chips with leftover taco meat and a few toppings in each with sliced bell pepper

A few hacks I’ve learned to be frugal and dairy-free

Although I find the vegan ranch to be a poor substitute for the original, my daughter likes it. For simplicity’s sake, I will probably use it for a veggie dip. Hummus makes a great addition to sandwiches and wraps. Plain popcorn is also a great filler in lunches. It’s been a bit of a sanity saver at our house this summer. It’s worth noting I also buy all-natural uncured meats where possible.

If it’s inexpensive, dairy-free, and my kid won’t eat it there is nothing frugal about food that ends up in the trash can at the end of lunch. And nothing fun for a teacher dealing with a kid all afternoon after she hasn’t eaten much for lunch. Can we say hangry? We get hangry in this family. Easily.

I’d rather compromise on some things I know she’ll eat that won’t upset her tummy than waste money and food trying to get her to change her eating habits. They don’t do afternoon snacks past kindergarten. Plan accordingly.

My daughter doesn’t actually eat sliced bell pepper – yet. I may or may not sneak some in there. It can be a challenge being frugal and dairy-free since meat and cheese seem like lunch staples, but I’m going to try to be a little more creative this year than I was in Kindergarten.

This year to avoid taking up space in her bag with an ice pack to keep certain foods cool I plan to keep frozen berries in the fridge overnight and let them finish thawing in her bag. This way they keep the rest of her food cool enough as well. I know frozen applesauce pouches work well, but she can’t eat it. If we weren’t dairy-free I would probably also use frozen yogurt pouches.

What are Your Frugal Lunch Ideas?

How do you manage to stay frugal and be creative with your kids’ school lunches? I’d love to hear your tips and tricks!

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