How I Pack a Week’s Worth of School Lunches for 5 Kids from $51 Worth of Trader Joe’s Groceries

published Aug 5, 2022
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spread of snacks and food from trader joe's for school lunches
Credit: Shifrah Combiths

Last year, our family, like many others, enjoyed universal free school meals. Lunch-packing parents everywhere enjoyed one less thing to worry about, especially during such a fraught time. But since the program has ended, it’s back to sandwiches and fruit and water bottles and lunch bags and ice packs and all those other pieces that have to be shopped for, prepared, and washed, school day after school day. 

There’s something I missed about packing my kids’ lunches: the feeling that I was sending them off to school with a little piece of my care going along with them, a small reminder in the middle of their day of home and family. I’m clinging to this bit of rosy-lensed nostalgia as I stare down the prospect of making sure we have lunch food for five (!) school-age children every day. 

Our older three are able to make their own lunches. I’m pretty hands-off about what they bring, although I do try to make sure they have protein and a vegetable or fruit for every lunch, and I provide them with options. 

But our youngest two, who will be attending preschool and kindergarten (hold me), will have daily lunches packed by mom or dad. I’ve whipped out our old Planetboxes for the occasion (our older kids are “too old to eat out of little compartments, Mom”) and I’m happy to be putting them to good use again. 

To make back-to-school less of a shock to the system, I decided to start making “school” lunches for the kids even before they head back to school. During a recent Trader Joe’s run, I picked up food to make these kinds of practice lunches. 

I love buying this kind of stuff at Trader Joe’s because the prices are reasonable and the portions are small enough that we can consume something without getting sick of it, which is super important when packing lunches for kids! Here’s what I bought: 

What I Bought from Trader Joe’s for My Kids’ School Lunches

  • Cheddar Rocket crackers, $2.49
  • Cocoa Almond Spread, $3.99
  • String cheese, $3.49
  • Hot dogs (beef, uncured), $6.99
  • Sliced Black Forest ham, $4.69
  • Fruit jellies, $3.99
  • Sliced sharp cheddar, $4.49
  • Carrots, cut and peeled, $1.99
  • Baked Cheese Crunchies, $2.49
  • Brioche hot dog buns, $2.99
  • Cucumbers, $1.49
  • Mandarin oranges (2 pounds), $3.69
  • Strawberries (2 pounds), $5.49

TOTAL: $51.41 (including tax)

I will supplement this with flour tortillas I already have on hand, as well as apples and some additional treats, such as Trader Joe’s Joe Joe cookies and chocolate covered pretzels. (My older kids also sometimes pack leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.) 

Here are some lunches I plan to make with my Trader’ Joe’s groceries: 

Credit: Shifrah Combiths

Lunch Plan: Day 1

  • Crackers
  • Sliced cheese cut into quarters
  • Ham cut into quarters
  • Cucumbers cut into rounds
  • Fruit jelly 
  • Strawberries

Lunch Plan: Day 2

  • Brioche hot dog bun with a hot dog (half for the little kids, whole for the older ones)
  • Carrot sticks
  • String cheese
  • Cheese crunchies 
  • Mandarin orange
  • Chocolate pretzels

Lunch Plan: Day 3

  • Tortilla pinwheels with almond cocoa spread
  • Strawberries
  • Cheddar rockets
  • Cheese stick 
  • Cucumbers
  • Fruit jelly 

I’ll repeat days based on what’s left over, but these groceries and this rough rotation will be enough to feed my crew of five for the week with enough variety while still keeping things nutritious, simple, and cost-effective. 

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