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How I Keep My Money and Avoid the Fries

Pulling out of my in-laws’ driveway, we wave goodbye and the kids settle into their seats as we head to the interstate. My daughter already looks sleepy since it’s well past her naptime and well past when we were going to leave for home. I realize with a groan we are low on snacks and we probably will be on the road at supper time.

Fast Food is an Easy but Expensive Meal

It is approximately a four-hour trip home, and if we time it right, we arrive in time to eat at home. That rarely happens so fast food is an easy solution that costs us $10 or more with my family of 5. However, we have a budget of $15 a month for going out to eat and there are nights when I like to buy pizza instead of cooking dinner!

Sure enough, on our drive home, the kids are hungry. Fast food signs glow and like moths drawn to a light, we pull into a fast food parking lot. Thirty minutes later we leave, with $11 less in my husband’s wallet, and mouths watering from the scent of hamburgers and fries filling our van.

Plan Ahead

Fast forward a few months and we are once again, leaving late, pulling out of my in-laws’ driveway, waving goodbyes and the kids are settling into their seats. Only this time I have a plan. Knowing we will probably leave late, I bring along a packed supper to help us flee from the temptation of fast food.

When I’m on top of it, I pack meals for trips, lunches when doing errands, and snacks to hold us until we get home. I am in the messy process of training my kids to make their own lunches, but I look forward to the day when they can do this independently.

"With lunches pre-made, the kids can eat in the van or right away when we get home from errands, reducing my stress and saving money!"

Frequently Used Supplies

Simple plastic sandwich containers work well for us, but there are lots of options. My mom wraps aluminum foil around sandwiches while my eco-conscious friend uses cloth napkins. In 15 years, we’ve worn out a medium size soft cooler and started on our second. Ice packs and even an empty juice bottle with frozen water in it have worked for us to keep the cooler cool.

Foods We Use

Some foods we eat on the go are sandwiches, pizza, summer sausage, pepperoni, cheese, hummus, deli meat, plus sides of fruit, vegetables, chips, crackers, and pretzels. Sometimes we buy part of the meal at a fast food restaurant or buy dinner at a grocery store.


Thankfully my family likes water, so we travel with our own water bottles, with an extra to refill as needed. My husband and I have cut out the coffee breaks at gas stations and instead bring coffee from home in our travel mugs.

Price Your Options

We figure on about $10 for eating out using the dollar menu from McDonald’s and letting everyone order a hamburger, well, my husband orders 2, and we all share 2 large fries. We go on about 4 trips a year to see family, and we are most tempted to eat out on the return trip. So, over a year we would spend $40 on fast food during trips.

A common packed meal for us consists of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tortilla chips, apples, and granola bars using Walmart’s Great Value brand. I figured out the price per serving and then multiplied that by how many servings we use in the meal. I came up with $4.93 for our whole family of 5, which is about a dollar a person!

As for the supplies, a soft-sided Ozark Trail 24 can size cooler is $16.74 at Walmart, 2 small ice packs are $0.94 each, or free if you freeze water in an empty plastic juice bottle. Walmart has a set of 4 Mainstays sandwich containers for $1.88 which is what we have and like, so that’s $3.76 for 8. You might be able to find these supplies at a yard sale or thrift store and save even more!

These supplies will last for years and every time we use them, they become an even better deal. Assuming everything lasts for 5 years and we’re using it 4 times a year, then it’s $1.11 per use, and this would be even cheaper since we often use just the containers and not the cooler and ice packs.

The Savings are Substantial

A simple packed supper for 5 is $4.93 compared to $10 if we ate out, and it is much healthier too! Add in the cooler and containers, and it’s still only $6.04. When I looked at the numbers, I was surprised by how much cheaper buying tortilla chips is instead of fries, $3.78 for 2 large fries versus 51 cents!

Now, I didn’t bother adding in taxes and obviously, prices will vary from state to state and store to store, but this gives you an idea of what you might save if you pack instead of eating at a fast food restaurant. The savings may not seem like much, but when you have a skinny budget as we do, every dollar matters!

Do you pack meals for trips and errands around town? If so, what are your go-to meals? If not, what steps could you take to cut out or cut back on fast food?


Rachel is a mother of three active kids and is married to a brave man who is about to start a new career. She enjoys gardening without gloves, turning leftovers into new dishes, rearranging rooms, and when she has free time you can often find her reading.

Rachel, Tennessee


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