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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Healthy on a Budget is Possible and Here’s How

Yes, you CAN eat healthy on a budget! Very healthy!

Put down that boxed meal and hear me out…

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I know it can be hard to get a meal, any meal, on the table in a decent amount of time when you work full-time, have kids to haul to various activities. Heck, it’s hard if you’re home with the kids all day. Any of the above scenarios can make you want to give up and dial take-out. In fact, according to the USDA Americans spend more money eating food away from home than they do on groceries. And we have for almost a decade! You may be tempted to just open up a box and cook up a meal in 30 minutes or less. Been there, done that, gained the weight…

Wanna know a secret?

You can make a healthy meal from scratch in one dish in under 30 minutes as well. It doesn’t always require meal prep in advance either. Still with me? Good. Cooking at home can be healthier, less expensive, and have a ripple effect across your lifestyle and budget!

Instead of pulling up to the drive-thru on the way home prepare a simple, healthy meal (like the sheet pan chicken posted on my Recipes page) with a side salad and homemade dressing. The dressing is easy; pour a little olive oil in a jar, add minced garlic and other spices to taste, put the lid on, and shake. Voila! Salad dressing without preservatives! Maybe cut up a cantaloupe (under $2 in season here in Northwest Arkansas) or other fresh fruit for dessert.

After dinner, you probably feel pretty good (instead of bloated and icky from your fast food meal that sat who knows how long under a warming light) so you gather up the kids, or the dog, your spouse, and take a walk or play together outside as a family.

Not only did you eat well, but you also got some healthy movement in too without really even thinking about it. Over time this can result in a smaller waistline, fewer medications/doctor visits (even just a reduction in indigestion would be nice, right?), and money typically spent dealing with those issues can now go to beef up your Emergency fund or pay down debt.

Examples of healthy meals that can be made inexpensively are included on my Meal Plan on a Dime page. Eating healthy on a budget is so much easier if you make a meal plan before you go grocery shopping. This helps ensure only what you need goes on the list and saves you the headache of wandering the aisles hoping for some dinner inspiration before settling on the frozen food aisle.

Dinner doesn’t have to be complicated; you need a protein, a few vegetables, and if you choose a (preferably) whole grain. One handy trick I like to use is to make sure to eat the rainbow; the food on your plate should be really colorful, not monotone. This will help you make sure you are getting a better variety in your diet. I am no nutritionist, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

Don’t have a lot of time to cook or just don’t like to cook? Batch cook! You can easily double a recipe and freeze one batch to heat up for an effortless meal on a day you’re not feeling the motivation or won’t have time to prep a meal. I love batch cooking a turkey meatloaf or in the winter chicken pot pie filling. It makes the second time around a breeze! Either place the frozen batch in the fridge the day before or allow more time in the oven.

Batch cooking can also come in really handy if you are fixing a meal for friends or family. Just double the recipe and you won’t be left wondering what you’ll be eating for dinner when you get back from delivering the gifted meal.

Portion control is also a lot easier at home than in a restaurant. This is both healthier and good for the budget. We eat pasta two to three times a month, which is very economical and filling. Pasta dishes at restaurants tend to be much larger than a typical, healthy portion. It is much easier to control how much you eat when you control the plate size!

Stretching your meat out is both good for your bottom dollar and your waistline; when cooking pasta dishes opt for a meat sauce or make it a casserole and use less than you typically would by cooking up meatballs or individual chicken breasts or tenderloins to serve on the plate next to the pasta.

Sheet pan meals are an excellent way to stretch your meat as well; simply chop up several veggies and add chopped meat to the mixture. Clean up is a breeze when everything is cooked together as well!

Take a dish you typically order out and hack it to make it cheaper, easier, and healthier to prepare and eat at home! This can be a great way to get your “treat” meals in without breaking the bank going out to eat when the urge to eat it hits. If the ingredients are simple enough keep them on hand so you can make them without making an extra trip to the store. Incorporate them into your regular meal plan.

It helps a lot to have ten to fifteen tried and true recipes you know you can pull off easily, are health conscious and don’t have expensive, hard to find ingredients. Once you have a good set of recipes to fall back on meal planning and list making gets easier and less stressful. Free recipe apps and food blogs can help a lot for inspiration and cook times. Eventually, you will find yourself coming up with your own favorites and new combinations.

What are you waiting for? Get cooking! Can’t figure out how to hack a recipe to make it healthier? Reduce the sugar and/or salt. Reduce the portion size. These are always good places to start.

Would you like to see healthy, budget-friendly recipes/meal plans in your inbox on a regular basis? Let me know! If enough people are interested we will make it happen!

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Birthday Party Budget Breakdown

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

How’d we do?

I previously posted how we planned to host the kids’ birthday party on a $150 budget including food and kids’ gifts. You can click here to read that if you missed it. Here is the budget breakdown:

budget breakdown

We spent $69 for martial arts lessons for our daughter and she is loving the classes! Our little white belt just earned her first stripe this week for learning her first basic form!

We also spent a total of $54.93 on the previously mentioned sit on tractor and T-ball set from Amazon.

I also spent $12.92 at Target on a felt tool set for my son and favor bags (which I forgot to fill, so they’re ready for next year!). That made a total of $136.85 of the $150 budget.

But what about the food?

budget breakdown
Pickup portion of food

Where is the food in the budget breakdown you ask? We didn’t have to use the budget for the party food! My husband helped a coworker after work one day and was given $40 in return. I used that unexpected money and paid for burger patties, turkey dogs, buns, cake mix, frosting, a fruit bowl, condiments, lettuce, and tomatoes with cash!

So for the budget breakdown purposes, we were able to use $13.15 elsewhere in our monthly budget. Like the newbie I am at this blogging thing I forgot to take pictures of the spread before everyone dug in!

Not too shabby! Would you call that under or over? Technically I think it could go either way since we did spend money, but it wasn’t all from the budget. Let me know what you think!

Have you hosted any parties lately? How did you do on your budget? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear how you entertain your loved ones on a dime!

budget breakdown
Play Ball!
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