The one problem with packing your child’s school lunch in reusable containers is the upfront cost of the whole thing. Good quality containers add up fast. Are you going to save money within a reasonable time frame?
Some of this depends on your situation and the particular containers you buy. I’m going to focus on safer, relatively eco friendly containers as best I can.
Naturally, if your financial situation is tight and you qualify for free lunches through the school for your child, you can’t save money over that. You may still want to choose to send your child with lunch if you can because you can better choose the foods you give them, and the lunches will be as healthy as you make them.
I’ll use local school lunch pricing for my comparisons to simply buying lunch at school, and I’ll look up prices to compare with buying disposable products. Your prices may vary. Food prices are very much an estimate, but I’m not talking about those horrid convenience lunches either that are even less healthy than what the schools provide. I’m assuming fresher and made at home as much as possible.
Lunch Bags and Food Containers
I’m going to start with the cost of lunch bags and food containers. I’ll add in food costs in a little bit.
A good, fairly eco friendly lunch bag can cost $10-20, more or less, depending on the brand you buy and the accessories it comes with. Right now, I’m assuming a fairly basic, insulated lunch bag.
I’ll go stainless steel for the containers. More expensive, but you don’t have to worry about what’s getting into the food from stainless steel, as you do with plastic. I chose the large Lunchbots container, which is about $20 regularly, but may be available on sale. Other versions cost less.
These containers aren’t for liquids, and as the weather turns cold in winter you may want to be able to send hot soups, so I’ll recommend also buying an insulated container such as a Thermos food jar for $15 or so. Yes, things are adding up already. They often do.
Now let’s look at the cost of equivalent disposable items. Paper lunch bags are pretty cheap – I found a pack of 50 recycled paper lunch bags online for under $4. I expect they’re available for less elsewhere, but I wasn’t able to get to the store. That said, unless you buy a huge pack, you will have to buy these more than once a school year as they don’t often survive the day.
Ziploc quart bags are also about $4 for 50. These can be reused, but kids are much prone to throwing them out and they aren’t likely to last through too many washings.
If you’re going to send hot food, you’d still need a thermos, so no advantage there to paper, and some disadvantage as it may have some trouble with the weight or size of even the kid size models.
At this point, I’m going more expensive than I have to on the reusable items and less expensive than I could on the disposables. I’ll discount the Thermos in the comparisons, as you’ll either choose to buy one or not, and it’s the same price in either scenario.
Cheaper versions of the reusable lunch bag run about $6, and my local dollar store carries a huge variety of plastic containers, sometimes in multipacks, so about $1 for a container or two.
Call things about $40 for the school year for the reusables on the high side. There are about 180 days in the school year, if you use only one paper bag and one plastic bag for each meal, you’d have to buy them four times, with some left over, or perhaps to be used those days you need an extra bag. This is pretty common with the plastic bags, as you don’t usually put a sandwich in the same baggie as the chopped vegetables or fruit. Call these supplies about $32, or a slight advantage pricewise over reusables… except that the reusables may be able to be used for more than one school year, depending on how much your child bangs them up or loses them. That’s not even getting into the debates about whether or not the plastic baggies are healthy for your child in the long run.
Now think that on the cheap side, you could get a reusable bag and containers in the same range as one round of disposables. They may or may not be BPA free, of course.
I’ve also skipped the cost of cold packs for your child’s lunch which can be important even if you go disposable otherwise. For food safety reasons, you should try to keep your child’s lunches cold.
Obviously, you have no container expenses if your child buys lunch at school.
School lunches here cost $2 a day if you aren’t on the free lunch program. That doesn’t include a drink, but I’ll be dealing with that in the next section.
I’ll assume that you’re sending about the same foods no matter which type of containers you use. Your costs will vary by season, your location and how much food you need to pack for your child’s appetite.
Now, many studies have shown home packed school lunches to be less healthy than those provided by schools, which I can only assume means many parents pack lunches with a lot of convenience and processed foods. In my estimates, I’m making a goal of avoiding those as much as possible, although my kids have been fond of a nice mozzarella cheese stick at times.
You do have to think about the kind of lunch you’re packing your child, or the school may be right about their meals being healthier. Just take a look at this flyer (PDF) from a school that compared their school lunches to what kids brought in. I have to say their photographed lunch look better than what I’ve seen in school lunches. It’s pretty sad to me that only 4 kids out of the 130 surveyed had a vegetable in their home packed lunch.
Do not buy prepackaged foods for your child’s school lunch if you can at all help it. That can often double the cost of the food item. That includes skipping the “baby” carrots in the one or two pound bags in favor of regular carrots. You can peel and chop them as necessary yourself. Same for sliced apples and such.
The main dish is where your cost will vary most widely. You can make sandwiches or wraps fairly cheaply, but be picky about the lunch meats you use. So many have a lot of preservatives and other unhealthy ingredients. The basic peanut butter and jelly sandwich is cheap and may be sufficient to some kids.
If your kids don’t mind vegetarian food, lunch may be a good time to go that route. Quinoa or couscous cooked and mixed with vegetables and seasonings is pretty affordable and healthy. They aren’t for all kids, but some will eat them happily.
Hard boiled eggs travel well too and are a good source of protein.String cheese can be pretty good too, with an average cost of about $0.50.
Costs for the main dish of your child’s lunch will vary quite a bit. A single egg may be under $0.20, depending on the type you buy and where you buy them. Most other main dishes will be more, so call it a range of $0.20 – $2.00. Remember that if you have leftovers that travel well and don’t need to be reheated, school lunches are a way to get them eaten.
Vegetables don’t have to cost a ton. A pound of carrots is usually well under a dollar in my area, and cucumbers can range from $0.50 to $1.00 each. But a pound of carrots is good for many lunches, and a cucumber can be sliced for 2-4 lunches, depending on its size and your child’s appetite for them. Broccoli, bell peppers and cauliflower are good lunch choices as well. Whatever you choose, let’s call it $0.10- $0.50 for a vegetable in the lunch.
Fresh fruit can be quite affordable, especially if you can stick with fruit in season. It doesn’t even have to be a lot of trouble if your child doesn’t mind you not cutting it up. My son needs sliced apples right now due to a temporary shortage of upper front teeth, but the rest of the time, he’d rather have them whole.
Bananas are most often $0.69 a pound in my area. With an average weight of 7 ounces, that puts one banana at about $0.30. Apples vary quite a bit more, going as low as $0.69 on sale in season, and up to about $1.69 out of season. Their average is also close to 7 ounces, so that’s as high as $0.74 each. Other fruits, other costs.
Taking the middle of the road here, that’s $1.10 for the main course, $0.30 for the vegetable, $0.52 for the fruit, or about $1.92 for the whole meal. Expect a lot of variation, your costs may be higher or lower depending on what your kids like to eat and what you serve them.
I usually skip chips, cookies and crackers in the school lunch, aside from very rare treats.
So no, you won’t be saving a whole lot, if you save anything at all. That doesn’t make it not worth your time and money if your school isn’t providing a very healthy lunch. Some have improved a lot in recent years, but other schools still provide rather horrifying meals.
A good reusable drink bottle can be pretty cheap or on the pricey side. I’ve seen stainless steel drink bottles as low as $3.50, although I don’t know about the quality. Too thin of stainless steel may not last that well. Klean Kanteens start in the $14 range and are quite durable. Insulated bottles will cost more.
A gallon of 100% juice costs about $3-4, depending on the type you get. Assuming a 12 ounce reusable bottle, that’s about 10 fillings of the bottle, so $0.30 – $0.40 per serving. You can cut down juice consumption and your cost by adding ice or not filling the bottle completely. 12 ounces of juice may be more than necessary, although lunch is the one time of day my kids get juice. It’s not a necessary drink as such. If you decrease the serving of juice, it can go as low as $0.15 – $0.25 a serving.
Milk is in a similar price range although harder to keep fresh for a lunch. I suggest freezing cubes of milk to put into reusable bottles so it stays cold without watering the milk down with ice. My kids tell me it works great. The hotter the weather, the more frozen milk cubes you add. Be very, very careful about this or your child’s lunchtime drink will be spoiled before they get to it. Not that drinking from the water fountain is the worst thing they could do.
You can also go super cheap with ice and tap water. Cost is near enough zero that I won’t bother calculating it.
Juice boxes may be 8-10 boxes for $3, depending on the brand. Do note that this is a smaller drink size, and that many juice box juices are not 100% juice, not to mention the tremendous waste. Shop carefully. Call it $0.30 – $0.38 a serving, but the serving will be 6-8 ounces. If your
Milk at my kids’ school is not included in the lunch, but can be bought for $0.50.
You aren’t always going to save money by packing your child’s school lunch versus buying lunch at school, but you will have more control over the quality of food they get. If you go processed or convenience, or skip the vegetables regularly, that’s not always a good thing.
That said, you can go frugal and healthy and save money overall on their lunches, even after buying supplies. It will take time to make up the investment in supplies, but especially if they last more than one school year, reusable lunch packing supplies can be a very good deal.
If you do pack a lunch, you can absolutely save over the costs of buying disposable supplies to send your child’s lunch in. Just how quickly the savings will add up depends on how much you spend on reusable supplies at the start, and if your child tends to lose them. Better put his or her name on it and find out where the lost and found is.
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