School packed lunches – the dreaded chore! Can you feed a hulking teenager for 30p a head?

Aug 6, 2022 | 9 comments


School packed lunches – the dreaded chore! Can you feed a hulking teenager for 30p a head?

Ideas for school packed lunches – many people with school aged children need them. Packing up a lunch box for children or an adult packed lunch is bad enough. It can be boring, tiresome and a real chore to do. You might be lucky and not mind it too much, but most people I have spoken to about it really dislike it. And if you’re also trying to stick to a strict budget on top. Oh my, the whole thing becomes a big deal.

First published in September 2016, updated (not repriced) August 2022

Most of the meal plans I have done are for two adults. I’ve done just one meal plan for four, and will be doing others, so I’ve been thinking a bit more about what children eat. I’ve had a little think about making a packed lunch to see if I can make some suggestions. At the £1 a day we work to here, I allow 50p for dinner, 20p each for breakfast and lunch and the remaining 10p for extras like a piece of cake or a scone. So, to keep to the budget, a lunch needs to be as near to 20p as I can get it, maybe 30p if we include the snack money as well.

a reusable bento box for packed lunches


How many calories does a child need?

How many calories does a child need?  A moderately active child needs…..

Age (years) Boys Girls
4 1400 1400
5 1400 1400
6 1600 1400
7 1600 1600
8 1600 1600
9 1800 1600
10 1800 1800
11 2000 1800
12 2200 2000
13 2200 2000
14 2400 2000
15 2600 2000
16 2800 2000
17 2800 2000
18 2800 2000

So assuming that a third of daily calories are eaten at lunch, that makes this many needed for the mid day meal.

Age (years) Boys Girls
4 549 510
5 549 510
6 549 510
7 549 510
8 581 541
9 613 574
10 677 645
11 677 645
12 677 645
13 733 667
14 800 667
15 867 667
16 933 667
17 933 667
18 933 667

That’s quite a big difference in energy requirements, going from 510 to 933 calories, almost double. I’ll do my best to address it!

As I understand it, most schools don’t like / allow packed lunches to contain  peanuts, chocolate or fizzy drinks, so I won’t include any. It’s a shame as nut butters are a very nutritious thing, and everyone likes a little chocolate biscuit or muffin.

When my girls were in the packed lunch stage, one of the things we did was to buy lots of individual  portions of  various goodies. We were allowed chocolate then, so there were small Club bars and penguins, packets of horrible things like Monster Munch, they loved them, tiny packets of peanuts, little bags of raisins and all sorts of other things. Having worked out the cost of the individual portions,  I also filled very small containers with nuts and raisins.  Each day they were allowed to choose one to go in their lunchbox, and we had a plan on the wall of what else would go in each day that we decided between us. It took the pain out of deciding what to pack on a daily basis, which, for me, was the worst bit. They loved being able to choose and to decide what they took to school. We had a small black tin trunk that the goodies were kept in as I have no will power whatsoever around chocolate, even tho it makes me ill. The tin had a small padlock on it and Mike had the only key. It was the only way, otherwise I would have been in and out of there all day long!

So what to pack? Sandwiches are the obvious place to start so here are some thoughts around that from the Recipes tab.

Healthy lunch for school ideas – sandwiches

vegetarian school lunches - a puy lentil sandwich

Looking at sandwiches on the Recipes tab, most work out to be around the 300 calories mark. The price is for a sandwich using 2 slices of value wholemeal bread

There are various sandwich pastes that are really delicious and have a good punch of protein in them, and  a good half way there calorie wise. If you are looking for vegetarian school lunch ideas, there are quite a few here

To ring the changes, swap the two slices of value loaf for a bagel, value pitta (preferably wholemeal) or wholemeal roll. Or you could use cream crackers or bannocks. Or a home made wrap. Put what would have been the filling of the sandwich in a small pot to be spread on the bannocks or crackers. Good with a few vegetable sticks too.

Add a few carrot sticks or a couple of cherry tomatoes. 100g of carrots are about 5p. Celery sticks are good stuffed with cream cheese, maybe flavoured with garlic, chives or a bit of Pataks Brinjal pickle. I love the pickle, it creates a more interesting flavour to what might be less interesting.

Healthy cold lunch ideas, alternatives to a sandwich include……..

cavolo nero and pancetta tart for an adult packed lunch

Some of these are vegan school lunches

insulated flasks to take soup for a healthy packed lunch

Add a piece of cake or a scone

Peanut cake for a school packed lunch

Baking your own cakes, biscuits and scones is cheaper, you know what’s in them and they fill hollow growing legs. These healthy school lunch ideas for teenagers contain a lot less sugar than baked goods from the shops.

So, sample cheap school lunch box ideas might be

a packed lunch box with healthy teen lunch ideas

Larger or more hungry children. Or for adult packed lunches

  • beef paste sandwich 9p and 300 calories, 50g carrot sticks 3p and 16 calories,, crisps 5p and 120 calories and a jammy oat bar 7p and 428 calories. Total 24p, 864 calories
  • salted cashew couscous 14p, half a banana in a squeeze of lemon juice 7p, 5 x oaty biscuits 5p. Total 26p
  • a slice of beetroot and feta tart, 24p and a herby scone, 2p, spread with a bit of butter/ soft cheese/ marmite / miso, Total 26p
  • a big slice of quiche, 22p and a flapjack 3p, total 25p
  • Or give hungry children two sandwiches, for example, a chicken and sun dried tomato one and a beef paste one. That would be 23p for both sandwiches.

Smaller or less hungry children

  • Half a beef paste sandwich 5p and 150 calories, 50g carrot sticks 3p and 16 calories,, crisps 5p and 120 calories and half a jammy oat bar 4p and 210 calories. Total 17p, 496 calories
  • a small slice of onion tart, 21p a little shredded lettuce and 3 coconut biscuits 9p, Total of 30p
  • one beetroot burger and a little cooked and dressed pasta, 15p, an Eccles cake, 15p, Total of 30p
  • half a sardine paste sandwich, 5p, 3 raisin biscuits 3p and some carrot sticks 3p, Total of 11p

Other ideas

Try and prepare as much as you can early in the week, Sunday afternoon or evening for example, as part of the preparations for the coming week. Lots of containers really help here.

meal prep food containers for packing school lunches

Bake a batch of muffins, scones and biscuits. Keep the scones and muffins in the freezer, they don’t keep well. Make up some sandwiches and wrap and freeze them, ready to grab on a school morning. Don’t forget the label! Nothing worse than expecting one flavour, taking a big bite and getting something completely different!  Not all sandwiches freeze of course, but those that do are really handy to have ready done.
freezer labels

The link to the bannocks has a roasted veg hummus which is really good. All kinds of yummy mixes can be made by blitzing together a couple of garlicky roasted veg, well seasoned, add in some cooked beans or rinsed baked beans, or not. Have the mix with veggie sticks, bannocks, cream crackers or pitta. A pot of veggie hummus can be kept in the fridge for use during the week.

Keep a bottle of water each (filled from the tap) in the freezer and it will help keep lunch cool until lunchtime.

Healthy kid lunch box ideas – Fruit to put in a packed lunch

Buy a value bag of raisins and give each child an eggcup full in a small pot. This will provide a hard to get purple portion, it’s only a tablespoon for a portion (raisins are purple, sultanas are white). If you can grow or forage some apples, cut them up and drizzle with a tiny bit of lemon juice to stop them browning. Most kids seem to prefer chopped up fruit. A tiny bunch of grapes, half a banana given the lemon treatment, a clementine (in season) are cheap ways of getting some fruit. Or defrost some frozen fruit and mix it with yogurt and the minimum amount of sugar you can get away with.

storage containers for packed lunches

Packing school lunches – Vegetables to put in a packed lunch

A small carrot cut into wedges is a very cheap way of getting veg down them. A couple of cherry tomatoes usually go down well. Make a pasta salad with value pasta, peas, corn, grated carrot or mixed frozen, diced veg and dress it with a little bit of either mayo or home made vinaigrette and add a small pot of it to the lunch box. Add any of their favourite veg. Add a few shreds of chicken from the stock carcass or a chopped hard boiled egg and give them a bigger portion to make the main part of lunch.

Add a few spinach leaves to their sandwich if you’re flush. Iceberg lettuce and white cabbage are very cheap veg for the amount you get. So shred the lettuce for sandwich additions, or make a little salad in a box with some cucumber and a cherry tomato. Coleslaw is the obvious way to use white cabbage, most people seem to like it. You can vary the dressing by making different flavoured mayo by adding sweet chilli sauce; brinjal pickle; garlic; sweet or dark miso or tomato puree. Or dress it with a vinaigrette. To a jam jar add 3 tablespoons of oil and 1 tablespoon of acid, lots of salt and pepper, a blob of mustard. Put the lid on and give it all a good shake to emulsify it. Use fresh lemon juice and zest and olive oil; good balsamic and olive oil; lemon juice from a bottle and rapeseed oil; orange juice and sunflower oil.  Any mustard that you have will work.

If they can stand taking soup in a stainless steel wide mouthed flask, loads of veg can go in that. Use chicken bones to make lovely stock, get beef bones from your butcher (should be free, or almost) to make beef stock. Put about 500g of mixed veg in a pan and saute until soft. Add 100g red lentils and enough stock to just cover. Use a stock cube if no fresh stock, or just leave it out. Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Season. Blitz half if you like. And voila, you have soup. No fancy soup makers needed, no mysterious method. And most soups made in this way cost around the 20p mark. Clean out the fridge over the weekend and put in wrinkly carrots, sprouting potatoes (cut off any sprouts or green bits), salad past its best, that half a tin of baked beans or chopped tomatoes, cut up any broccoli or cauliflower stems and leaves and add those. Once the soup is nearly cooked, shred savoy or white cabbage, or kale if you’re feeling posh, and add that for the last few minutes of cooking. In short, any veg that needs using will probably make good soup.

I hope that’s helped a bit with a few ideas for the dreaded pack up, and do share what you do too. I hope it does, all those links took flipping ages !! I know children can be fussy blighters, refusing to eat anything except  plain cheese sandwiches for 4 years, or suddenly announcing that they hate something that you’ve just stocked up on. Or maybe they happily take it too school, and then bring it all home again, uneaten.

healthy old lunch ideas - Pinterest image




  1. Thrifty Lesley

    I’m so glad you are finding it useful. Let me know how you get on

  2. Leonie

    I really can’t wait to try these!! It has made my life so much easier! Thank you so much! X

  3. Lesley

    That sounds fab Sarah. LOVE the idea of fridges in classrooms. A nicely chilled lunch would be so much nicer

  4. Sarah Jenner

    I bought my youngest 2 children a cube lunchbox that has compartments in it. There’s a section for the sandwich and then 3 compartments on the other side. I fill those compartments with a variety of things. Cheese,half a boiled egg, fruit (peeled or chopped), homemade goodies, crackers, pretzels, popcorn, sultanas, sometimes a small packet of chips, small bits of leftovers (vegie fritters, quiche, sausage roll, pizza). I use up so many little bits and pieces and my children love the variety. They are not big eaters. I’m in Australia and we love vegemite. So that goes on the sandwiches often. They also like ham, salami or cheese. All classrooms here have fridges which is great. They also take a 750ml water bottle to school every day

  5. Lesley

    Love the sound of that potato or pasta salad, I’ve got a couple of massive tins of mandarins to use up from approved foods

  6. Kaye steeper

    Florida coleslaw is another good one with value mandarins and a wee sprinkle of dried fruit. I’ve even done Florida potato salad and pasta…had to use the cheap mandarins up somehow

  7. Helen

    Thank God for free school dinners. That’s the answer to that.

  8. Lesley

    Thanks Sarah, glad it might help 🙂

  9. Sarah

    Lesley, thank you so much for this post. My children are Home Educated so thankfully we don’t have the grind of needing to make pack lunch daily. But we will use it to enliven our lunchtime whilst keeping to a sensible budget. I very much appreciated how much time and effort this has taken and the fact you have included the nutritional information is just amazing.


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