Is It Cheaper to Buy or Make Your Child’s School Lunch?

by Taylor Ivey
Cheaper to Buy or Make School Lunches photo

The decision to buy or make kids’ school lunches is not the same for everyone. Here’s how to determine the cheaper option for your family.

At the end of summer, as a parent, you begin to think a lot about whether or not you should send your students off to school with a home packed meal, or just bite the bullet and pay for them to get hot lunches at school. But then your frugal-minded side wonders if it is cheaper to buy or make your child’s school lunch.

To some, allowing their students to buy school lunches has become a means of convenience, especially when both parents are working full time. Some parents have chosen to pack their children’s lunches. This will allow them to have the ability to decide what their students eat. However, what all parents should look at, along with dietary factors, is the financial implications both decisions will have on the family budget.

Does you family qualify for reduced lunch programs?

Around the United States, a lot of school districts have started implementing reduced cost lunch programs. These programs allow students of homes with low financial means to purchase hot lunches at a fraction of the cost, if they have to pay anything at all. Some schools offer free meals to all students.

According to the School Nutrition Association study published in the spring of 2020 “Statistically significant differences in median food costs were found between homemade packed lunches ($1.55) and replicated school lunches ($2.11), convenience packed lunches ($2.12), and NSLP lunches ($2.15).”

If a family chose the school prepared meals at $2.11 they’d spend approximately $42 per month per child. By preparing the lunch at home $31 per month per child.  

That difference is one of the main reasons many families have decided to pack lunches for their students instead. However, how much can be saved by preparing your child’s lunch?

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How much can be saved by preparing your child’s lunch?

According to a little research done through WalMart, for the food needed to prepare a home-packed lunch that included a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, a small baggie of fish crackers, a water bottle, an apple, a small bag of carrots and a fruit roll up, a family would spend roughly $25 (obviously this will vary depending on the region the family lives in and the trend of food prices in coming months) on foods that could prepare up to two weeks (10 days) of meals. So $2.50 per day spent on meals.

In the two above mentioned scenarios, it is apparent the best financial decision the family could make would be to have their student purchase hot meals at school as that option would save them $0.39 per day. However, if the families were to live in a school district where the schools charged more than $2.50 per meal, it would be in the family’s best financial interest to send their student to school with home-packed meals. These scenarios can change even more depending on where the family shops and what kind of deals the family can get at the grocery stores with the use of coupons and shopper points.

How do you determine if it really is cheaper to buy or make your child’s school lunch?

With your students going back to school soon, your first job is to ensure your children get the nutrients and food they need throughout the day. However, it is also up to you to decide whether these nutrients can be provided in a more cost efficient manner by you or your student’s school. In order to determine this, the best thing to do would be to (1) know what your school district charges for hot lunches, and (2) do your own calculations and determine how much it would cost for you to make lunch for your student. In the end, your student will thank you for providing them with food, and your wallet will thank you for not leaving it empty.

Reviewed July 2021

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