The School Lunch Conundrum

 Posted by on August 18, 2008  Add comments  Tagged with: , ,
Aug 182008

When I was registering Bee for school, I was shocked to learn that a school lunch for grades K-5 now costs $1.95 in my area. In addition, we must pay 40 cents a day for afternoon milk.

That’s $2.35 a day for 180 days, or $423 a year.

This is a lot of money, especially for Bee, who is Little Miss Picky. Even when I serve something she actually likes, she still eats like a bird. My husband and I often marvel that she manages to stay alive.

I discussed the school lunch issue with my husband, and we agreed that when we were in school, nobody brought lunch from home. However, we also agreed that on most days, Bee would probably dump the majority of her ridiculously expensive school lunch in the trash, and that kind of waste really bothers us. On the other hand, we naturally don’t want our baby to get picked on for being different. As an experiment, we decided to fork over enough money for a month’s worth of school lunches, to see if Bee would actually eat them.

Each month, the school sends home a lunch menu. Pizza and chicken nuggets were served on the first two days of school, so Bee was content. However, today’s lunch was Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, neither of which she likes. With this in mind, I sat down with Bee on Saturday and went over the lunch menu through the end of August. We found that there are only 5 days when something she likes will be served, so we decided to compromise.

We purchased a lunch bag, a small thermos, and two adorable miniature ice packs, for a total of $16.81. (For those interested in the little Princess ice packs, I got them at Wal-Mart for .97 each).

We decided that each night, I will read off the next day’s school lunch menu, and Bee can decide whether to eat it, or to bring her lunch. Today, she definitely wanted to bring lunch, so I packed half a turkey sandwich on my homemade honey-wheat bread, a small bag of Sun Chips, a half cup of unsweetened applesauce, a piece of oatmeal cake, and a thermos of skim milk.

Not only is this lunch much healthier than the salt and fat-laden fare that the school serves, but I estimate that it cost about 92 cents. If Bee brings her lunch from home half the time, I will save $1.03 a day, or $92.70 a year. I pinned the lunch menu to the bulletin board on my pantry door, and I’ve been keeping track of when Bee eats at school, so I know when to send more money for her lunch account.

If you’re interested in saving money by packing lunches for your kids, here are some ideas for lunches that can be made for a dollar or less. All items are either made from scratch, or purchased as cheaply as possible.

Sandwiches such as turkey, ham, tuna, and peanut butter and jelly cost between 12 and 25 cents.

A cup of Campbell’s chicken noodle or tomato soup in a thermos costs about 15 cents.

Homemade “lunchables,” with Ritz crackers and peanut butter, or sliced deli meat and cheese, cost 35 to 50 cents.

Any of these items can be included for about 15 to 35 cents each:

Homemade muffins
Veggie sticks or fruit slices
Canned, juice-packed fruit or unsweetened applesauce
Homemade cake, cookies or bars
Homemade chocolate, vanilla, or butterscotch pudding, made with skim milk
Homemade jello with fruit
Single serving bags of chips. (I bought a 6-pack of single serving Sun Chips for $1.66, or 27 cents each. A reader suggested buying a large bag of chips and portioning them out, which would be a cheaper option. I don’t do this because we rarely eat chips, and we wouldn’t finish a whole bag before they went stale).

When packing your child’s lunch, remember to pack heavy items, like the thermos, on the very bottom, so it doesn’t crush the other items. Also, wrap sandwiches tightly with plastic wrap to keep them from getting soggy, or falling apart. (I tried to use a reusable sandwich container, but I couldn’t fit everything in).

Bee was very excited to take her lunch to school today. When I dropped her off this morning, I was very relieved to see that another little girl in her class brought lunch from home as well, so she will have a lunch box buddy.

One less thing for me to worry about today.


  19 Responses to “The School Lunch Conundrum”

  1. Love this….we made the same lunch decision for this next year. We start school in one week! My daughter bought her lunch all last year – it is just not going to happen like that this year!

  2. That’s the first lunch I’ve ever seen that I’d describe as adorable. I’m looking at my lunch of the first thing I grabbed this morning on the way out the door – some kind of microwave noodle deal — and feeling immensely jealous *lol*. And definitely don’t worry about her being picked on for bringing her lunch. I’m in my twenties, and I know that when I was in elementary school (from the late 80’s right on through the 90’s) ALL the kids from kindergarten to about 5th grade brought lunch on a fairly normal basis. It’s not till middle school that kids start to notice who is buying and who is bringing.

  3. I am so happy this another away. It all seems so overwelming.

  4. Awesome post! I remember alot of kids in my school bringing their lunch. I would want to but my mom was too busy and we were on reduced lunch so it wasnt that expensive for her to just insist eat a tray lunch. We do the same as you, let them look at menu and decide which days to take lunch. Great idea. I loved the lunch ideas though. Thanks for those. I run out of ideas for those. 🙂

  5. Oh yeah, I forget. I also notice by posting their school menu up where I can see it, it keeps me fom planning chicken for dinner if they had it for lunch at school. cause who wants spaghetti for luch and then again for dinner? Not a licky daughter I assure. i know from experience.

  6. wow. that’s a big savings.

    My only question is … your school allows peanut butter? There are so many schools around here that have banned peanuts/peanut butter. Or they have a “peanut” table…so your kid is ostracized to this table if they bring anything peanut related.

  7. If school served cream cheese everyday, then Mary Anne would buy everyday because that’s all she eats! I have noticed that kids still use lunch boxes at least through 4/5th grade at our school. Thank goodness my daughter has no problem taking lunch from home…I would go broke if I had to give her $2.35 per day!!!
    PS I just love the miniature ice packs…could you share what store you purchased them from? Thanks

  8. Drama Queen always takes her lunch, since at the middle school level, fast food choices abound. I found an easy whole-wheat flat bread recipe online and she takes turkey wraps most days.

    I think most kids do take lunches now, even in middle school. Last night, I was reminiscing about the days when DQ would despair that she was the only child who had to have homemade cookies and couldn’t we buy them for once? Now, she loves that most of our food is homemade and in some cases home-grown. As she says, being green is totally cool!

  9. In all the schools I’ve had experience with here in Northern BC, all the kids bring a lunch or go home to eat (recently lunch hour was shortened, so this doesn’t happen as much). Hot lunch is served once a week.

    It isn’t until middle school (grades 7-9) that concession style lunches are available. Definitely not healthy.

    Bee’s lunch kit is too cute. She’ll do fine.

  10. I remember thsoe days well! And I know when my gandaughter starts to school, we will relive it again. She is the pickiest eater I have ever seen!
    I think you made a god compromise.

  11. The schools website has a link to the lunch accounts, you should get the info from the school for passwords, etc. Then you can see the balance there as well as set it up to get an email when you reach a certain balance, then you will know when to send more money. It will also send an email everyday until the balance gets above the amount you set it at.

  12. When my son was in school, he usually wanted to take his own lunch, so he could pick what he wanted. At his school, he always had the choice of PB&J, if he didn't want what they were serving. That's a super cute ice pack!

  13. Over here almost all the kids bring lunch each day. At our school we have the canteen open 2 days a week, but the majority of the kids still bring their own lunch (our rule with Zai is friday is canteen day!) I love the cooler bag & ice pack you have for Bee – very cute! Zai has a football ice pack for his lunch!

  14. Heather, you’re so funny. 🙂 I didn’t think you were ignoring me! LOL 🙂

    I know what happened…but I don’t know WHY. Your last 3 posts showed up in my spam folder! As I don’t check that every day, they sat there until today. As soon as I un-spammed, you were all set.

  15. Wow, this is amazing Heather! In Australia (or at least in South East Queensland) everyone brings lunchboxes to school. We don’t have cafeterias, but what we call the tuckshop. At our school here, the tuckshop is only open on Fridays and sells a fairly limited variety of foods. Saraya isn’t fussed, and prefers to bring her own lunch. Cute lunchbox for Bee!

    I love the sound of your applesauce cake with CHOCOLATE as well…… yum yum yum! Is the recipe on your economical eats blog?

  16. Lunches are $2.25 again this year. It’s gone up every year but this one so far (that is with moves to different states also). Having had one in high school and now having one in middle school, this is the same system we have used. But, we allow $20 per paycheck and they use their menu to decide where they will spend their $20 and pack their lunch the other days – they managed it themselves by the middle of elementary school. When you have 2 in school it would be more like $900 a year to buy!

    Some suggestions on being frugal with it (if you want) – try to use as many reusable containers as possible (they even have sandwich sized containers). BUT if you have a kid that tosses the stuff or loses it then forget it.

    The individual chips are much more expensive than buying the bigger bag and portioning (unless your kid won’t eat them that way). This is actually more important when you have more than one in school.

    If you use juice type boxes/bags remember to freeze them the night before and they should be thawed yet ice cold come lunch time. Works with the small, soft, water bottles also.

    If there is one thing on the menu that the kids like (say some kind of side) make sure to send extra “trade” cookies or something that your kid can use to bargain with another. Trust me, there are lots of kids that will throw their lunch away and this can work great. Might need to wait until they are old enough to be trade savvy.

    We start school next week and I’m not looking forward to the lunch part.

  17. Lunch is 2.50 at my kids’ school and I know that my girls will not everything. Our oldest happily took her lunch most days last year and will do the same this year. It seems like a lot of kids brought their lunches to school with them too. We are setting a limit on how many they can buy b/c they are so expensive.

  18. When I taught, the students who brought their lunch were usually the students who had the most involved parents. Not that lunchboxes = love, but it did show me that the parents cared enough to give their kids food that they liked. I would like to point out that a reusable sandwich container would be more frugal than plastic wrap or a ziploc everyday.

  19. Thanks to everyone for the lunch tips! You have some really great ideas.

    I did try to use a reusable sandwich container, but I couldn’t fit everything in because the applesauce container, thermos, and ice packs take up too much room.

    Also, I don’t buy a large bag of chips and portion them out, because my husband and I rarely eat chips, and we wouldn’t finish them before they went stale.

    Nancy, I know of no peanut bans here, but I have heard of peanut butter and other nut products being banned in other schools.

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