Homemade Alternatives to Pre-Packaged Foods: Lower Cost and Healthier Too

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Our lives are busy and as a result we often opt to feeding our families heat-and-serve or ready-to-eat meals and snacks since they are convenient and, generally, our kids love them. Did you know that buying pre-packaged, out-of-the-box groceries are often much more expensive than their homemade counterparts? In some cases it is 6 – 10 times more expensive to buy the item at the store versus making it at home. Of course we wonder how much time is involved to make foods at home, since time is something many of us are short of.

I have found a few do-it-yourself food and snack options that are quick (5 minutes or less), less expensive and generally healthier than their store bought counterpart.

Your turn: What kinds of meals and snacks do you prep or make at home that cost less than buying the store bought option?

Frozen Pancakes and Waffles

Almost any pancake or waffle recipe you make at home for your family can be cooked ahead of time and frozen, then reheated in the microwave or toaster. Personally, I make a quadruple batch of this Whole Grain and Nut pancake recipe every 6 weeks or so, cool the extras and freeze them, putting 6 pancakes into each Ziploc bag. Topped with homemade applesauce or fresh fruit, they make a hearty breakfast or snack.

Instant Oatmeal

Buying instant oatmeal packets at the store versus making your own can cost you 6-10 times as much per serving and making your own is quick and easy. To healthify the recipe use old fashioned oats versus instant. They cook just as fast, but are higher in fiber.

In 30 minutes you can whip up dozens of oatmeal packets by measuring ¼ cup of oatmeal into a Ziploc bag. For flavor mix-ins try adding a tablespoon of raisins, dried fruit, nuts, or a teaspoon of brown sugar. If you enjoy the fruit and cream flavored oatmeal packets I’d recommend powdered coffee creamer instead of powdered milk as it has a longer shelf life.

The first time you do this you’ll need to invest in Ziploc bags, but wash and reuse them to avoid that as an on-going cost.

Breakfast Sandwiches

We’ve all heard that eating a big breakfast is important and getting a dose of protein is part of that. Breakfast sandwiches, whether store-bought and reheated in the microwave or from a drive thru window, make that quick and easy. Now, make your own hot breakfast sandwich by scrambling an egg in the microwave.

Spray a small dish with non-stick cooking spray then pour in one beaten egg (or opt for egg whites if you prefer). Microwave the egg for 30-45 seconds (depending on your microwave) and you’ll have a scrambled egg. Use your egg on top of a whole wheat bagel with low-fat cheese for a hot breakfast sandwich in less than 1 minute. (PS – feel free to add veggies to your sandwich like the delicious tomato slices included in the photo above – yum!)


My kids love lunchables. I’m not sure what the intrigue is – maybe it is the container with small divided compartments or the ability to assemble their own snack. A typical Lunchable weighs less than 5 ounces, which includes 6-8 crackers, and costs around $2.75.

Invest in a reusable lunchable-style container (like those made by Rubbermaid or Ziploc), then have your child help you assemble their own lunchable. Choose lower-fat cuts of meat, use whole wheat bread instead of crackers, and for dairy-free eaters use dairy-free cheese.

Buy the products you want and then use cookie cutters to make snack-sized bites. My daughter loves to push the cookie cutter into the cheese and deli meat and thoroughly enjoys any sandwich with heart or star-shaped food on it.

Bagel Bites

When you buy a box of Bagel Bites do you know what you are getting? You get mini bagels covered with some pizza sauce, cheese and potentially some meat. That said, can you imagine how easy these are to do yourself? You’ll save half or more than what you’d pay for these snacks in the store by prepping them at home.

Buy a bag of mini bagels, which usually come pre-sliced, and open them up so the halves are spread out on a cookie sheet or some other solid surface/container that will fit inside your freezer. Spread some pasta or pizza sauce on top (make your own if you are ambitious), sprinkle with cheese and add any cooked ground beef, pepperoni or other meat you’d like. Set the whole cookie sheet in your freezer. Once the bagel bites are frozen solid transfer them into a ziploc bag, seal it and pull out a couple when you’d like a snack. Reheat them in the microwave or toaster oven like you would their store bought counterparts.

Ice Cream Sandwiches

I love ice cream in every form, shape and size, including ice cream sandwiches. This alternative is not an exact replication of a store-bought ice cream sandwich, but is a much lower-cost substitute. Use Cool Whip in place of ice cream and graham crackers in place of cookies. This isn’t necessarily healthier, but you can make 30 of these sandwiches for the same price you’d pay for a box of 12 ice cream sandwiches.

My family devours these and I think they’d be a great treat for a child’s birthday party, since they are so easy and so inexpensive.


  1. Kid says

    Thanks Carrie for the ideas.! These type of ideas are why your site is the best and most well rounded site out there. You are not just a coupon site. Keep up the good work.(P>S> I was almost in withdrawals the last two days with your technical difficulties lately.)

  2. Priscilla says

    Love the idea of making my own Bagel Bites. They are something I enjoy if I can get them for free…but I sure would enjoy them more homemade without all the preservatives!

  3. says

    Love these ideas…but thanks to you I can't remember the last time I actually paid for Bagel Bites! ;)

    One thing I do is make my own "Uncrustables" type of sandwiches. Buy a couple loaves of bread, some Skippy Natural, and some All-Fruit, and crank out a whole bunch. Throw into Ziplocs and into the freezer, then pop them into lunch bags in the morning. They are thawed by lunch. Plus, I control what goes in – no high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogentated vegetable oils, etc…

    Pampered Chef sells a sandwich cutter that makes them look *exactly* like Uncrustables, too. My kids love "circle sandwiches."

  4. Celeste says

    I love these ideas. I spread my own peanut butter on ritz crackers instead of buying them. I use natural peanut butter. I also make my own lunchables too.

  5. Kate says

    Great to see you on TV, Carrie! (My husband turned the TV on this morning, which happens about 3 times a year–glad I got to see you on the few times we turned it on!)

  6. Lisa ** says

    I totally agree with this. I started making my own frozen waffles, pancakes, and french toast sticks sometime ago and the kids love to help and pick out shapes before I freeze them. I also make my own granola bars, peanut butter sandwiches, and crutons (thanks to some ladies here for the crutons). I'm always looking for more things to make at home so the bagel bites idea is great! Its similar to the english muffin pizza's my mom used to make as a kid.

    I did have to laugh too though, I haven't actually paid for bagel bites in so long either. Also my husband is going to groan when I make my own bagel bites – they are his "treat" when I actually buy something like that. But he just tolerates my ways.

  7. anna says

    Does anyone know where you can buy a "sandwhich cutter" in stores to make your own uncrustables? These things are ridiculous at 2.50 a box but my son is addicted!

    • says

      The only one I've found that seals the edges is a Cut N Seal from Pampered Chef. It costs around 10 bucks, but I've had mine for years and years and it still works great. Also you can use it to make cute little snacks by filling them with spinach and cheese or other fillings and then cutting them into half-moons and baking them.

      If you don't need the edges sealed, any old cookie or sandwich cutter will do.

  8. Sunday Burquest says

    I got tired of buying "treats" for the kids' lunches. I"ve enlisted my daugher (who is 10 and loves to cook or bake) to make a ban of Brownies or a batch of cookies, or cupcakes (no frosting) on Sunday night. We put them in baggies for lunches instead of buying expensive bars or fat ladden Little Debbies. She loves doing it as "her job" and the mixes are so cheap! Last week Pillsbury cake mixes were 89 cents at Coborns w/ a 35cent off coupon on each box – YAY!

  9. Brenda says

    I saw a story somewhere about a woman that saves all of the crusts that she cuts off of her children's sandwiches, toasts them in the oven, then into the food processor they go, voila – "free" breadcrumbs! Though, you'd have to cut the crusts off BEFORE making the sandwich, but still a nice idea!

    I love hearing everyone's ideas! I'm guessing I'll be heading to Aldi for a bag of mini bagels very soon!

  10. Kari H. says

    I make my own granola…much cheaper and healthier than the store bought versions.. We use it mostly for yogurt parfaits but can be used as a topping for fruit crisps, as a cold cereal or just mix with nuts etc for a trail mix.

    Its really simple and easy and makes the house smell yummy!

    here is a link to the recipe I started with…I have adjusted some of the ingredients to suit my won taste…its really versatile.

    I would LOVE a recipe for pancake/biscuit mix (like Bisquick WITHOUT the saturated/hydrogentated fats) that I can make a big batch of and have on hand for quick and easy baking. I have also been looking for a a good, chewy granola bar recipe. The recipes I have tried are all the hard/crispy kind and we prefer chewy granola bars.

  11. Kim says

    My version of choclately ice cream sandwich cookies: take a chocolate cake mix and mix with 1/2 cup melted butter…press on cookie sheet and bake (probably 350 for 10-15 minutes). Cut while warm with pizza cutter into squares, cool and put ice cream on…freeze in ziploc bag or plasitc container.

  12. Maria says

    Thanks for the granola recipe. I would also love a Bisquick kind of recipe that I can make ahead, if anyone has one.

  13. BrendaW says

    A few years ago I got a crimper thing at a Pampered Chef party. I make my daughter a fresh uncrustable every day for lunch. (and the dog gets a treat from the scraps!)

    I use natty PB & honey so it's exactly how she likes it.

  14. BrendaW says

    Also, I have more cookie cutters than I'll ever use (dang Target clearance sales) that are great for making shaped sandwiches. I'll do them based on the season or special event.

  15. BrendaW says

    Def make our own cookies, brownies, etc for school lunches. Besides saving money, it teaches the kids some valuable life skills.

    We don't freeze waffles often, but we regularly make up a batch of waffle batter & keep it in the fridge until it's gone. (good old Tupperware pitcher/bowl w/the red lid) When the kids were little we got a waffle stick iron where it makes 6 sticks for dipping (I've seen them @ Cub for about $15). Now we have a belgian waffle maker.

    We make our own syrup too. Dh's family has always used a product called Mapleleine. We make our's with splenda, but the normal recipe uses sugar. 1cup water, 2 cups sugar & 1tsp Mapleleine (a bottle about the size of your normal vanilla bottle lasts over a year). Somewhere I found a microwave syrup pitcher so we heat that up while the waffles cook & they're good to go.

    We bought egg molds/biscuit rings a few years ago. It gives our eggs a perfectly round shape (a la McD's) for our egg sandwiches.

    Instead of bagel bites we often do english muffins, full sized bagesl, french bread, torillas/wraps or even those new skinny buns for quick pizzas.

    Chicken nuggets — boneless breasts, parm cheese & bread crumbs & bake them. I think the original recipe was from Kraft.com we now just wing it.

    Buffalo wings — easy peasy w/all the sauces available out there

    Chip dip — soften a block of cream cheese & mix with 1/2 pkg french onion soup (lipton dried) & a little milk as needed for consistency (go easy on the milk of it gets soupy too fast)

    We have a mandonline slicer & even make our own french fried in the deep fryer. We have a dehydrator to make our own beef jerky. We have an ice cream maker…

  16. Rhonda says

    Very Simple, but yummy…..instead of buying prepackaged trail mix etc. I purchase

    M & M's, salt free peanuts, and raisins and make my own Gorp then throw it into an airtight container and grab a scoop whenever I need a fix. While the M & M's aren't necessarily the best for us I like the idea that no preservatives are added to the mix when I make it myself (also you can substitute, peanut butter or milk chocolate chips instead of M & M's)

  17. Sheila says

    I keep finding more things to like about PYD and the group of people who post here. I love this topic! Thanks for all the great ideas. This is just what I was looking for.

    Now for my question. Does anyone have a good cookbook recommendation that has these types of ideas all gathered together?

    Thanks for the great posts.


  18. Miranda says

    One of my friends told us that she made baby wipes when she had her first child due to increased diaper rashes. No issues with diaper rash or irritations since using this recipe. Here's how she made them:

    Mix in bowls:

    • 2 cups water

    • 2 Tsp Baby oil

    • 2 Tsp baby wash

    Swirl mixture.

    Place cut side of paper towel down. Cover tight & let sit for 3 hours or more. Peel out the core & throw away.

    Use the wipes from the center out.

  19. Angee says

    Those are great ideas, I actually used the pancake idea tonight!!

    Someone may have already said this, but pudding and jello work really well too. I mix up a packet and pour into small tupperware containers. They work great for school lunches or just an after school snack. Cheaper and less waste than the pre-packaged counterparts.


  20. Susie says

    I have a great recipe for a pancake/muffin/waffle mix from an old Mennonite cookbook called "More-with-Less. It's called Master mix and it's used in many recipes.

    For 4#'s of mix:

    5 C flour

    6 Tbsp Baking Powder

    1 1/2 T salt

    1 1/2 t cream of tartar

    1/4 C sugar

    2 C dry milk powder

    Cut in 2 C. vegetable shortening (since I don't use "crisco" type stuff, I just leave this part out and add the "oil or fat" in with my recipe.

    You can use any kind of flour with this recipe. You can add 1 C wheat germ to the recipe too if desired.

    So, for example, my pancake recipe for a serving of 4 is:

    1 C milk

    1 egg

    1 1/2 C Master Mix

    To add the fat, I'd add a little butter/oil etc.

  21. Cindy P. says

    I LOVE the mini bagels from Trader Joe's. There about $2.29 a bag and they are delicious. Their pizza sauce is good too.

  22. DeborahG says

    For years I've used both Make a Mix and More Make a Mix cookbooks. They are wonderful but now out of print. However, you can find them online. I had to purchase three sets for my daughter in laws. One set was a little rough so I gave up my copy. They also love them. These books are a series of mixes with recipes to use those mixes. Most of them are really, really good.

    I also used another set called Make Your Own Groceries and More Make Your Own Groceries. Most recipes have numerous variations as well. The former book does have a great granola cereal recipe and granola bars. My kids were always disappointed if I ran out. Their favorites were Cinnamon nut raisin and maple and brown sugar granola. They also really like the chocolate chit and peanut butter granola bars. I always used the time recommended however if you find that time unacceptable for softer granola bars lower the baking time. For more firm increase the time.

    I used these books while I raised my family. I saved a bundle of money. Enough to keep my children in sports, music and activities year round. We even send them to out of state hockey camps.

  23. Ruth says

    I'm having trouble posting a link, but go to allrecipes.com and search for Chewy Granola bars. I have made A LOT of them in the past few months and my kids and husband love them. Enjoy!

  24. Sara Jane says

    Hi Ladies great website wonderful tips! I make almost everything from scratch these days! I rarely buy processed prepackaged anything! I have a homemade recipe for sloppy jo sauce that is simply canned tomato sauce, worchesershire sauce and minced onion. I no longer use canned soups in my casseroles, instead I make my own bechemal white sauce (recipe available in many cookbooks) and it is soooo good! I add cheese to the bechemal sauce to make homemade mac and cheese. Search for homemade pudding receipes—it is almost as easy as instant but soooo much better especially with a good vanilla!

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