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Our homemade school lunch frugal fail

During his years in elementary school, J packed his lunch almost every day. When he started middle school a few months ago, he wanted to buy; apparently the food was THE BEST EVER.

We started putting money on his lunch account but found it going really fast — and honestly it’s because we weren’t paying attention.

A glance at the specifics:

  • Regular lunch is $2.95. It includes a sandwich or main course, a vegetable, a fruit (often not fresh) and milk
  • Water is extra to the tune of $1.25
  • Additional items or snacks after the main course are extra, too

There was one day in particular where J spent $7.70 and we knew it was time for a sit down.

Expensive lunch day at school
$7.70 for lunch at school?!

The new rules were — water is okay, but take your reusable water bottle to lunch with you. Extra snacks were okay, too, but only once per week.

Although the spending went back to normal, I had this feeling that $2.95 was a lot for lunch, so we decided to do an experiment. And — spoiler — it turns out I’m not as frugal as I thought I was.

Homemade lunch, take 1

We went shopping at our local Italian deli and bought J items to pack his lunch — typical of one from his elementary school years.

  • Sliced turkey, pepperoni and cheese on a bun
  • Carrots
  • An apple
  • An additional snack, like pistachios

Nothing crazy, right?

When we got home, he wrote everything out, calculating the prices per serving and then the total for the lunch.

I was totally shocked — the total was $5.12 — almost DOUBLE what a regular school lunch costs.

Frugal lesson fail. (And ugh — all those years of packing in elementary school.)

We brainstormed what we could do differently including:

  • Bread or tortillas instead of a bun
  • Lunch meat that was on sale that week vs. another kind that wasn’t on sale
  • Seasonal fruit instead of apples
  • Popcorn, pretzels or peanuts instead of pistachios
  • Shopping at a different store

And then we decided to take another stab at it.

Homemade lunch, take 2

This time we shopped primarily at Aldi, but we still bought fresh bread and lunch meat at our local Italian deli.

The lunch consisted of:

  • Turkey and cheese on fresh bread (no extra hot ham)
  • Mandarin oranges instead of apples
  • Carrots — the same but cheaper
  • Dried apricots and peanuts instead of pistachios

The total came out to $2.55 — $0.40 cheaper than the school lunch. It doesn’t account for the time it takes to go to the store, buy the food, schlep it home and pack it in the morning, but I do think we’re ahead because the packed lunch is far superior to the school lunch in terms of freshness. We can also fine tune the spending by looking for other deals and buying in bulk (check out our series on spending if you haven’t already).

What’s the lesson?

I think there are a few.

Often we assume that “it’s cheaper to do X” (like pack your lunch). It’s not necessarily cheaper — you have to pay attention.

You’re in control of how much you spend. Finding a mix of foods J likes at an affordable price shows that we can be creative and fulfilled.

Taking a closer look and calculating the price per serving was a lot of fun. We had some great conversations, too. (Honestly, that’s the reason I do all of this.)

Do your kids pack their lunches? What’s the cost and what’s included? Share in the comments below or tag me on Twitter at @natbankofmom.

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