saving money school lunchWhen you’re busy, it’s oh so easy to pull out your wallet and give your child cash to buy a hot lunch at school. But the cost of those lunches can add up pretty quickly. So just in time for the back-to-school season, I asked one of my favorite experts on saving money, Stephanie Nelson of CouponMom.com, for tips on keeping costs down with kids’ lunches you make at home.

Ditch the deli. Turkey or chicken deli meat for sandwiches can easily run $10 per pound. Nelson suggests saving money by buying chicken breasts on sale and cooking them yourself. She’s right on the money: I recently found chicken breasts in a bulk value pack for $2.50 per pound, but they were 50 percent off because they had hit their sell-by date. That’s almost a 90 percent savings! Slice chicken for sandwiches or shred it up for chicken salad. Chicken keeps nicely in the freezer for later use, too.

Mix it up. Switch the starch you use for sandwiches so you use what you can buy on sale and also keep things interesting for your kids. As an alternative to bread, try tortillas, pitas, or sandwich thins. In addition, buy and freeze regular bread whenever you see a buy one, get one free (BOGO) sale, advises Nelson.

Leverage your leftovers. Last night’s pasta casserole or chili makes a great hot lunch when you send it in a thermos, and meatloaf can turn into a yummy sandwich. Whenever possible, make a little extra of your evening dinner and plan on using it for lunch the next day. It’ll save you both money and prep time.

Bag your own. Instead of buying expensive individually wrapped snack foods like pretzels or cookies, Nelson advocates buying a full-size bag or baking your own. Then, have your kids help you divide the treats into individual snack bags. Make enough for the whole week, and store the bags in your pantry or pop homemade cookies or brownies into the freezer in ready-to-serve portions. You don’t even need to thaw them when you pack them up—they’ll defrost by the time lunch rolls around.

For even more ideas, check out Stephanie’s book, The Coupon Mom’s Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bills in Half.

Teri Cettina is a mom of two daughters and freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and parenting topics. She blogs at Your Family Money. Follow her on Twitter: @TeriCettina.