Why you should still pack a school lunch for your children

By Len Penzo, For Len Penzo Dot Com

Published: Fri, Aug. 15, 2014, 2:45 p.m. MDT

 Believe it or not, despite those  higher grocery bills, you're still better off bypassing that school cafeteria fare in favor of making your kids a brown bag lunch.

Believe it or not, despite those higher grocery bills, you're still better off bypassing that school cafeteria fare in favor of making your kids a brown bag lunch.

(tycoon751, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Editor's note: This article originally ran on the personal finance blog Len Penzo Dot Com. It has been reprinted here with permission.

This year, the price of lunch at my kids’ school is $2.75 per meal. That’s the same price as last year. As a result, I’m sure many busy parents struggling to make ends meet probably believe that’s a bargain for lunch — especially considering that grocery prices in 2014 have been rising sharply. Unfortunately, those parents would be wrong; at $2.75 per meal, a family with two kids will spend $990 on school lunches over the course of a 180-day school year.

Believe it or not, despite those higher grocery bills, you’re still better off bypassing that school cafeteria fare in favor of making your kids a brown bag lunch. It’s true: For most people, brown-bagging a sandwich, piece of fruit and carrot sticks or a serving of chips is less expensive than buying lunch.

Of course, as I’ve pointed out before, not all sammies are created equal: Just ask the Expensive Sandwich King, celebrity chef Martin Blunos, whose $184 cheese sarnie caused quite a stir a few years ago. The good news is, the results of my sixth annual brown bag sandwich price survey show that most folks will spend far less than that in 2014 — even for the most expensive sandwich on the list.

How the survey was conducted

As I have every year since conducting my first sandwich survey in 2009, I took a trip down to my local grocery store and recorded the per-serving costs of various ingredients for 10 of the most common brown bag sandwiches: peanut butter and jelly; bologna; tuna; ham and Swiss; roast beef and cheddar; egg salad; salami; American cheese; turkey; and bacon, lettuce and tomato.

As in my past sandwich surveys, for consistency in determining prices of the individual sandwich ingredients, I only selected items with the cheapest per unit costs, regardless of brand. To keep it simple, I also assumed all sandwiches would be made with wheat bread.

Survey results

Here are the results of my price survey, conducted Aug. 9, 2014. The first graphic shows the sandwich serving sizes and per-serving costs for each ingredient. It also includes the percentage increase or decrease in the per-serving price of each item from last year’s survey:

With that data in hand, and using my handy spreadsheet, it was no effort at all to determine the most economical sandwiches.

Here are the official Len Penzo dot Com rankings of the 10 most common brown bag sandwiches in 2014. Rankings are based upon total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive. As you can see, bologna and good ol’ PB&J share this year’s award for the most economical sandwich; each costs just 44 cents.

The next chart shows a year-by-year comparison for each sandwich since my first survey in 2009. As you can see, prices continue to climb. In 2009, the average price of the 10 sandwiches was 82 cents. Today, it’s $1.19 — that’s a 45 percent increase since 2009, and an all-time high for this survey.

I realize that some people don’t use any spreads at all, some folks enjoy two or three slices of bologna, and BLTs aren’t the only sandwiches that can have lettuce and tomato. The good news is, it’s all relative. If you make your sandwiches differently, use my shopping survey numbers in the top figure to adjust your sandwich costs accordingly.

Tips and observations

  • Pre-packaged ham, turkey and cheese all saw huge price increases this year. To save money, try cooking your own ham or turkey and slicing it yourself. It’s also cheaper to buy block cheese and slice it at home.
  • Sadly, the rising cost of tomatoes continue to plague BLT lovers like me; tomato prices have tripled since 2012. I know. The good news is homegrown tomatoes are not only cheaper, but they also taste much better than anything offered at the grocery store.
  • PB&J is usually the most economical sandwich in the survey — but not by much; since 2009, bologna has averaged only a penny more.
  • Don’t be afraid to buy store brand peanut butter. As my blind peanut butter taste test experiment proved, it’s just as delicious — if not more so. It’s also typically more than 20 percent cheaper than the national brands.
  • Providing my two kids with a brown bag lunch containing either a PB&J or bologna sandwich, a piece of fruit and a small bag of chips — rather than paying the school to feed them — will save me more than $400 this year.
  • For the second year in a row, the average cost of all 10 sandwiches on the list increased by 9 percent. And for the first time ever, not a single sandwich in the survey saw a price decline from the prior year. I’ll bet chef Blunos is happy about that.

Len Penzo is a personal finance blogger with a strong disdain for debt. His blog, Len Penzo dot com, has been featured as one of Kiplinger's Personal Finance Best Money Blogs in 2010 and 2012.

1. Mona
Beaverton, OR,
Aug. 15, 2014

Great article with easy to use data. Brown-bagging is good for the budget, and it also gives you control over what you are eating. We had a large family and I can't say that I miss fixing all those lunches, but it was well worth the trouble. My husband still takes a brown-bag lunch to work every day. He has saved tens of thousands of dollars while enjoying 40 years of PB&J!!

2. BYUalum
South Jordan, UT,
Aug. 15, 2014

Added comment: If parents could stand by the exit of the lunchroom of any elementary school and see the huge waste of food that is literally thrown away every single day, you would pack your child's lunch. Children can choose from various fruits, vegetables, and yogurt and sometimes put more on their trays than they can possibly eat. I see untouched apples and beautiful bananas, yogurt cups never opened, and many main items never eaten. You, as a parent, know how much your child eats. Purchase a cool lunch pail, and put in as much as the child eats. Have them put wrappers, etc. back in the lunch pail to assess what they have/have not eaten as a guide to know what to pack in the future.

I often think they should at least take untouched items and give them to the food bank. Nope! They go right in the trash. Lots of money and food wasted! Use common sense and save $$.

3. cs85
Orem, UT,
Aug. 15, 2014

The author should have compared what comes in a school lunch with what he says he would put in a brown bag lunch. Maybe the school lunch provides more food? Does the school lunch come with milk or juice? How much would the total brown bag lunch cost if it had all the extras of the school lunch? Then you could estimate a difference in total cost and decide if the convenience of the school lunch is worth that difference. As it is, the article gives in sufficient information to be really helpful and makes a conclusion without enough information.

4. jpjazz
Sandy, UT,
Aug. 15, 2014

This article demonstrates the cost for Len's school lunch, I have know idea where he resides. A quick check on the lunch cost at Jordan High, lists a cost of $2.00 for a full meal, reduced price for those that qualify is $0.40. I would think twice before packing a PB&J or bologna sandwich for my teenager.

For Wed Aug 20th:
Turkey with Gravy
Mashed Potatoes
Whole Wheat Roll
Green Beans
Fresh Banana
Mandarin Oranges

5. Red
San Antonia, TX,
Aug. 15, 2014


I've seen the school lunch. It is a chemical soup of ingredients. For sure not whole and healthy and for what you get it is a ripoff.

It is not the great lunches that we had growing up 40 years ago. It is all processed food and made to just heat up. It is nasty.

Make your own food from home and keep your kids healthy.

There is some information for you. All true. and more than enough to decide to make lunch from home.