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School Lunch vs. Lunch Box

Across America, the sounds of school buses are again filling the crisp morning air.  Children run toward the bus stop with backpacks filled with pencil boxes, folders, notebooks, and lunch boxes. 

School lunch proposes a dilemma for many parents. Should you send a lunch from home, or have them eat school lunch?  Many parents go with school lunch because it provides variety, and it's convenient to not have to prepare a lunch every day.  Some parents believe that they can send a better, more nutritious lunch from home, and at less of a cost, as well. 

But which one really is less expensive?  

At my kids' school, school lunch is $2.45 a day.  After doing some math, for two kids, five days a week comes to $24.50 a week for school lunches.

So, how much would a typical week of lunches sent from home cost? In order to make a variety of lunches for the week, I'll need the following supplies: 

  • Sandwiches: To give some variety, we'll need cheese slices, sandwich meat and tuna, and bread. 
  • Fruit: Bananas, apples, grapes, or whatever is on sale that week.  
  • Side: Favorites at my house are Goldfish crackers, Chicken in a Biscuit, and Cheese Its. 
  • Dessert: Fruit snacks, granola bars 
  • Drink: Juice boxes 

How much will these supplies cost (rounded) 

Loaf of Bread 1.50
Cheese slices 2.50
Sandwich Meat 3.00
Can of Tuna .75
Jar of Mayonaise 2.50
Bunch of Bananas 1.50
Pound of Grapes 2.00
Pound of Apples 2.00
Goldfish crackers 1.75
Chicken in a Biscuit crackers 2.50
Cheez-Its 2.50
Granola Bars 2.00
Fruit Snacks 1.75
Juice Boxes 2.00
Total: 28.25














While the total price of the items is a little more than the school lunch, there are some items that would most likely outlast a single week such as a package of sandwich meat, the cheese slices, the jar of mayonnaise, as well as the snack crackers. 

So, in the end, I would say the price of school lunch compared to making your own is fairly even.  I would assert however, that overall, the school lunches provide a better variety than sending a lunch. 

My conclusion, therefore, is that I will continue this school year in sending a lunch box when the kids absolutely do not like what is provided at school. Do you have an opinion on school lunch versus sending a lunch for your child?  Please share, we would all love to hear your thoughts! 

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Travis Pizel

Travis is a contributing writer for the My Journey Out of Debt blog and is a very active member of the community forums. Travis is currently enrolled in a CareOne Debt Management Planand in his posts he shares his personal journey to pay off his debt and the tips he's learned along the way. As a father and husband he provides a unique perspective on balancing debt, finances, and family. Compensated CareOne Blogger.

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  • While subsidized meals are attractive to our frugal family, we cannot afford it health-wise.  I could care less about the caloric total of school lunches, I am concerned about the lack of nutrition in the over-processed, overcooked fruits and vegetables served in cafeterias (my work's caf included!).  Forget the fact that we have food allergies (gluten, dairy, soy, the latter being impossible to avoid in processed and fried foods).  To preschool I send gluten free and dairy free versions of school provided snacks (ex: Envirokidz Gorilla Munch instead of corn pops, Mi-Del GF animal cookies instead of their conventional animal crackers,  Glutino or other GF pretzels to substitute for theirs).  Fortunately we haven't heard the complaint that our child wants what the others are having. Especially when he gets to take a sweet fruit or carrot sticks to enjoy too. The elementary school we have chosen (and will pay $$$$ for!) offers organic, allergy friendly meals.  They even ask parents to send organic fruits daily for the class' group pie or cobbler or salad. I am more worried about what will happen when we graduate to middle and high schools.  We are instilling good habits now (and clearly the kids know what they can eat and what makes them terribly sick),  but I am concerned about peer pressure and wanting to eat pizza on Fridays.

  • Thanks for your comment, jh - food alergies add a whole new dimension to considering school lunches.  I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!

  • The lunch at my kids' school is 5 bucks a day, so that doubles your calculations for me (2 kids). We're vegetarian so no expensive meats necessary and I buy things in bulk to save on packaging. I buy a big tub of yogurt instead of individual cups and just pour it in lil tupperwares for them with cut up strawberries. The juice I pour into a little reusable bottle every day so I go thru one big bottle every two weeks, if that. On most days they get salad (lettuce, cucumber, tomato, etc) with some kind of seafood or soybean protein (shrimp poppers, fish sticks, soy chk'n nuggets, etc.), and fruit for dessert (cut up mango, peaches, grapes, etc.) It's WAY better than pre-packaged/unhealthy lunch "meals" and cheaper than the lunch the school provides. It's not too much of an effort when you realize as a parent you want what's best for them. My kids are extremely happy, healthy and very smart, no doubt in part, to their great diet!

  • Hi Maria, those are awesome tips!    I especially like the idea of buying a larger container of something (which is almost always a better bargain) and self portioning...I've done some of that myself.  Your lunches sound great!

  • Your comparison is skewed very much in favor of expensive snacks- 43% of your weekly home budget is for crackers, granola bars, candy and juice.  You could reduce your home food cost significantly if you taught you kids to eat cheaper junk food.You could easily get a weeks worth of store brand sandwich cookies for $2, and that would save you $8 a week. (And no, I'm not counting granola bars as healthier. They might have some nuts or oats, but 2 cookies don't have any more calories or sugar than a granola bar.) You could also use bulk juice in bottles or thermoses instead of juice boxes (less trash, too).  And do you really use an entire jar of mayonnaise in a week, just for 2 kids sandwiches? Mine wouldn't use a whole loaf of bread of whole package of cheese either, though your kids might be bigger and eat more than one sandwich.

    If money were really a serious object, of course, the kids would get baloney or tuna sandwiches with no cheese, only cheaper fruits, and no desert at all.  I'm not suggesting doing that if you don't have to, but if money were tight, you could easily feed kids for a third of what you list.

  • Hi Eb, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.  Please note that I do actually indicate that there are several items on the list that would outlast a single week (package of sandwich meat, the cheese slices, the jar of mayonnaise, as well as the snack crackers).  So if I would do a multi-week analysis and average the cost per week, it would come in lower than the $28 I indicate above. I did take that "roughly" into account when I said that $28 for home made lunches was roughly equivalent to $24 for school lunches.  The bulk juice idea is a great one, and one that I could certainly use!  Thanks again for your comment!

  • I find that my kids love leftovers.  We're vegetarian but before we were, they would dig a cold meatloaf sandwich or chicken salad from the previous night's roast chicken.  Now that we don't eat meat, we use pasta or rice leftovers with veggies - sometimes cold and sometimes hot in a wide-mouth thermos.   Soups are also a good choice and you can really stock up when stores have sales.  Tomato soup with a little container of oyster crackers (very cheap) is warm, healthy and welcome.  It really cuts down on the things you have to buy *just* for lunches and who doesn't like using up leftovers and reducing food waste?

    I think you also need to factor in the cost of the packaging unless you mostly use plastic containers and reusable water bottles.  I also prefer to send them with water to drink for a few reasons:  less sugar for them, negligible cost and when it leaks because they fail to close it properly, the lunchbox and backpack don't become a sticky, disgusting ant-magnet.  And that last thing is more of an issue than I ever anticipated.  :)

  • Hi Michele, thanks for your comment.  I do actually use reusable containers for the food - makes for a bit more work with dishes, but also allows for more savings.  Great point with the son will drink water.  Still working on that daughter of mine.

  • I would like to see a study done someday comparing the overall health kids and adults who eat cafeteria lunches versus those who bring their own. I became a nutritionist after discovering the correlation between my health and the food that I eat in college. I spent the first three years of college eating from our various school cafeterias. I was constantly ill with some minor but lingering ailment or another; when not full blown sick, I still never felt 100%.

    It wasn't until I began making my own meals -- and controlling their nutritional value -- that I started feeling better. I realized I hadn't been "not sick" in three years. Nothing changed but the meals, and that's when the light bulb went off for me as far as nutrition.

    When you eat better, you are healthier -- and of course being healthy saves a ton of money in both the short and long run. We all know how much sick kids cost.

    I don't want to demagogue school lunches, but I am suspicious that they might be overly processed, overcooked, and generally less healthy than homemade meals. Which, if true, would make them costlier on the back end. But I don't have any data proof of my suspicions.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, DefiantKembro.  There are so many variables to consider that I think such a study would be difficult.  One such variable is how much effort a parent puts into a homemade lunch.  A person can put together a really nutritionally sound lunch, or not.    The school lunches in my area have guidelines with respect to calorie and fat content as well as hitting all the food groups.  That's a lot of thought being put into a school lunch....I'm guessing many parents don't put that much nutritional thought into home lunches.    It would definitely be an interesting study thought...

  • anytime you leave it to the government you will get not only a one size fits all but lower quality as its the fox guarding the henhouse when it comes to being an independent 3rd party to any infractions on the part of the government run schools

  • Besides health and cost reasons, I always packed lunch boxes for my kids, to give them a chance to socialize with their friends during lunch time (outside the structured classroom). I didn't want them using half of their break time, in a cafeteria waiting line...instead of getting some quality time with their peers!

  • I would not even waste money on those juice boxes, they are mostly sugar and water with fruit flavoring. Milk or plain water is better to acrry to school - you can always have the kid drink milk or real fruit juice at home. Granola bars, I wouldn't buy them - they are full of sugar, are processed, and are high in calories. I also wouldn't buy mayonnaise or processed lunch meat. Instead, prepare a small package of walnuts, almonds and dried cranberries. Buy a pint of organic yogurt and dispense into small containers each day. How about a package of steamed veggies like peas, soybeans, green beans or broccoli? Or some whole wheat pasta with tomatoes and basil, drizzled with olive oil and topped with skin free chicken ***? Even scrambled egg with veggies work. On one weekend day and another day in the middle of the week, I prepare small packages (nuts etc), dispense yogurt into containers, wash fruits, cook the veggies, pasta and grill chicken or fish for the next couple of days. I make sure kids help me throughout the process. Every night, before bedtime, lunch is assembled so there is no rush in the morning. Works just fine, and believe it or not, sometimes it is cheaper that buying processed and packaged food.

  • Thanks for your comment, Lizza - although I disagree that all school lunches are low quality.  I've eaten in the cafeteria with my kids - our school district provides very good choices for school lunches.  They've definitely come a long way since I wen to school.

  • That's a great point, Andrea - I've also noticed that the kids don't get a lot of time to eat, and if they do the hot lunch, they spend almost half their time in line.  A definite positive to bringing a lunch from home!

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