Bring vs. buy: a cost analysis

One key element in the debate about school lunches is the cost. Parents (those who do not qualify for the free or reduced lunch program) pay a substantial amount of money for the high fat, calorie laden foods that are served in most cafeterias around the country, as well as for the convenient, processed foods found in the ever-popular Lunchables.

I did some investigating and found a study by the School Nutrition Association that states the average cost of lunch for an elementary school student is $1.86, $2.16 for a middle school student and $2.23 for a high school student; this does not include vending machine or a la carte items. (The full report can be viewed here). The average price of those is $2.08, which is the figure I’m going to use to illustrate my point. So, $2.08/day for 2 kids is $4.16. That’s $20.80 per week or  $83.20 per month. That’s a lot of money.

Given that figure, it’s no wonder parents think that Lunchables make financial sense, especially if they’re on sale for 2/$5 (or cheaper with a coupon).  But take a look at this–The Lunchable that I purchased for the guest post cost $3.19 (nonsale price and my state does not have tax on food). If I were to purchase one for each school day for my one child, that would cost me $15.95 per week. Many families have two (or more) kids; for two kids, that’s $31.90 for one week’s worth of lunch. Or, if you’re looking at it monthly, that’s  $127.60!

Let’s look at a weekly cost comparison of making and packing a homemade lunch (assuming full price for the Lunchables, school lunches and groceries). For $31.90, I can purchase a loaf of whole wheat bread, a 5 lb bag of apples, ½ lb of turkey, ½ lb of cheese, a bag of pretzels and a package of cookies for approximately $20 at my grocery store (beverage would be water, juice or milk, sent in a reusable container). I get more food, healthier food and I get to save almost $12 a week (compared to the Lunchables)! That’s a pretty good deal, financially.  And, if I make all the sandwiches and portion out the snacks once I get home from grocery shopping, it’s a good deal during the week when I’m pressed for time (lack of time seems to be a common justification for Lunchables or sending a child to school with lunch money instead of a packed lunch).

While the cost of the school lunch remains similar to the grocery costs outlined above, that’s just taking the standard lunch into account. With variable costs such as a la carte items or vending machine snacks, the amount of money spent on a school lunch can easily exceed $3/day. And while $.92 per day may not seem like a lot, over time, that money adds up.

Here’s a side by side cost comparison of all three choices for lunch (for a 2 child family):

  Lunchables School Lunch Packed Lunch
Daily $6.38 $4.16 $4
Weekly $31.90 $20.80 $20
Monthly $127.60 $83.20 $80

I will concede that these figures can change based on the amount of children in a family, the prices for lunches in individual schools and the ever-changing price of Lunchables. But when you think about the money you’re paying for the prepackaged Lunchables or the premade school lunch, is it worth it? Wouldn’t your money be better spent on quality, homemade food?


2 Responses to “Bring vs. buy: a cost analysis”

  1. Jennifer April 9, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

    It does not seem worth the trouble to make your children’s lunch since your savings are small, until you realize the HUGE difference in nutrition! (Basically, that a typical school lunch is processed crap with little nutritional value!)

    • janalynch April 9, 2010 at 6:10 pm #

      i agree…you cannot put a price tag on proper nutrition!

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