Two dollars and fifty cents may not sound like a lot of money, but it adds up ⏤ especially when your kid’s dropping that amount on lunch every day. According to the School Nutrition Association, the average school lunch in the United States costs $2.48 for elementary school kids, $2.68 for a middle school student, and $2.74 per high schooler. And while actual cafeteria prices vary based on state and school district, those numbers mean that the average American family with two kids spends between $892 and $986 per school year, depending on their grade levels. That’s a big chunk of change for a family on a budget.
Of course, packing a child’s lunch can be cheaper than buying meals at school, but that’s not always the case. While most estimates conclude brown-bagging it costs between $1.61 and $2 per kid daily (depending on food costs in the area and how many expensive snacks are included) one school district in Ohio crunched the numbers and found each home lunch averaged a whopping $4.88, or $878.40 per year and well above the national average for a school-provided lunch.
Interestingly, even at that high price, parents weren’t guaranteed the meal would be any healthier either, a common reason many choose to pack lunches in the first place. According to a study by researchers at Virginia Tech, parents were actually packing much unhealthier lunches ⏤ including candy, chips, and sweet drinks ⏤ for their kids than schools were providing. The reason, of course, is that a lot of school lunches are bound by the National School Lunch Program and thus required to meet certain nutrition guidelines. Mom and dad are not.
Nonetheless, for parents who want to save money on school lunches, healthy or not, making them at home is still their best option. To help ensure each brown-bagged meal we send to the cafeteria costs less than the average school lunch, the dads at Fatherly compiled our top money saving meal tips. Here’s what we recommend.
Invest In an Insulated Lunch Box and Reusable Containers. Ditch the Baggies.
Most kids want a rad new lunch box anyway but add up the cost of disposable paper bags over the course of a school year and you’ll quickly realize that they are well worth the investment. More important than the actual lunch box, though, is ditching the plastic Ziploc sandwich and snack bags. Not only are they terrible for the environment, but when you start using three or four for every lunch, especially at $3 a box, it puts a clear dent in the old budget. Instead, buy a Bento box with multiple compartments, washable plastic containers, or fabric sandwich bags. For soft foods like applesauce or pudding, you can also purchase cheap refillable pouches.
It’s All About the ABCs: ALDI, BJs, and Costco
There is a reason so many people buy memberships to bulk food stores: The savings is definitive. After mapping out your weekly or monthly lunch menu, buy as much as you can in bulk at stores like Aldi, Costco, or BJs. It simply doesn’t make much sense to pay grocery store prices for pretzels, cheese, or deli meat, when you can stock up at a discount, assuming you have space in the house to store it. As one dad said of Aldi: “It still blows my mind how much less food costs there with comparable quality on most things.”
In addition to simply buying in larger quantities, though, it’s also critical to skip the individual sized packages ⏤ be it of crackers, granola bars, or kid-sized containers of yogurt. You pay for the convenience here and they generally cost way more per ounce than buying a trough-sized bucket and doling it out. You didn’t just invest in an assortment of various-sized washable containers for nothing ⏤ fill them up at a fraction of the price.
Let Your Kids Graze on Snacks
Think of it as a tiny tasting menu for your sophisticated second grader. Rather than give kids one more costly main entree that they may or may not finish, pack smaller amounts of a bunch of different foods including fruits, vegetables, meats, and cheeses. Obviously, it’s important to make sure the meal is still well balanced nutritionally, but there’s no reason to shy away from it just because it’s all snacks. Not only do smaller portions cost less, but they ensure there will be less waste as well. In fact, if you really want to prevent food from getting dumped in the trash, let your kid help pick out the snacks, within reason. They can even help build their own homemade Lunchables while you laugh all the way to the bank.
Try Flavored Water Shots
Juices and fruit drinks are loaded with extra sugars that are bad for kids ⏤ water is not. Rather than buy individual juice boxes at a premium, go with tasty water flavoring shots at a deep discount. Obviously, these still contain chemicals to which some parents may object, but they’re free of calories, sugar, and carbohydrates, and that’s good. Even better, your kid will drink a ton more water. Just make sure not to avoid the ones with dyes and caffeine.
Buy a Thermos, Freeze It
A good insulated Thermos is essential. Not only is it ideal for keeping homemade soups (cheap) and leftovers (cheap) warm when there’s no microwave available, but you can also freeze water in them so they double as an ice pack to keep the food cold when there’s no fridge. By the time kids sit down to eat, their water should be thawed out and ready to drink. This helps alleviate the need for buying ice packs, which may not cost that much, but are still be an added expense. Similarly, freezing water in old soda bottles works too if you don’t want to buy a Thermos.
Get Creative With Leftovers
But what kid wants to eat leftovers, you ask? A lot if you start them early enough. Our preschooler’s been getting last night’s meal for lunch since she was in daycare. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t serve Monday’s dinner as Tuesday’s lunch, especially if they devoured it the first time. At least you know they enjoy it.
Go Full Vegetarian Once in a While
Not only does skipping lunch meat a couple of times a week save a ton of money, but as many nutritionists point out, it’s healthier for your kids too. Besides, processed meats are one of the worst foods parents can actually give kids.
Do the Math
And, finally, just like tracking expenses and keeping a family budget can help identify areas where you’re overspending, taking the time each month to calculate how much you’re actually spending on school lunches ⏤ right down to price per cheese stick and the container of pudding ⏤ is important. There’s even a handy online sandwich calculator to help figure out how much each PB&J on Wonder Bread is running you ($.43). Comparing how much your family is paying per meal compared to the cost of a lunch at your kid’s school (and the national average) can help you adjust your food spending accordingly.