Trials and tribulations of lunch: Part Two

By Mir
September 6, 2006

The lovely Melissa provided the fodder for this second part of our riveting lunch-related series:

Mir— Thank you for you wonderful blog— I always look forward to checking in and saving some money! Now that school is back in I have a question for you…. I have two kids attending elementary school this year and they want to get school lunch. School lunch is $1.50 per kid coming out to $7.50 a week and with the two of them $60 a month. This makes me sigh and wonder why they have to eat so often! 🙂 I feel like our schools do a pretty good job with lunch and my kids eat it really well. Their sandwiches usually come back home not touched— so I worry that they are hungry all afternoon.

So is it worth it to fork over for school lunch or should we stick with the lunch boxes? What do you think? Thanks!

This is one of those eternal questions, right up there with do you believe in life after death. Bag it or buy it?

To my mind, there’s an easy list of considerations to run through in deciding whether or not buying lunch makes sense for your kid(s). Answer them all and you should have a fairly clear-cut decision on your hands.

1) Do you feel that the provided lunch is nutritious? In this case, Melissa says yes. Each of us needs to sit down with the lunch menu and make that determination for ourselves. Although there are state guidelines, I’m here to tell you that it’s not at all difficult for a school to meet the requirements and still serve utter crap. Sad but true.

Although I live in what is supposedly one of the best school districts in my area, I have been singularly unimpressed with the fare they are passing off as balanced meals. The end result is that my decision is pretty much made in answering this question alone; I allow my daughter to buy lunch occasionally, as a special treat. (My son has no interest in hot lunch.)

2) Can you afford the cost of school lunch, and/or do you feel that it’s a good value for your money? Again—to use Melissa as our guinea pig—$1.50 for a balanced meal including milk is pretty good. I estimate that the average packed lunch probably costs between $1 and $1.75, depending on what you pack. When you look at the monthly figure, sure, it sounds like a lot. Maybe sit down and calculate what you spend when you pack a lunch; you may be surprised.

Where we live, hot lunch for a kid costs $2.60. This represents an increase over last year’s price, which I already thought was too expensive. Again, it’s a no-brainer; I can pack for much less.

3) What will your child actually eat? Melissa says her kids like hot lunch but often shun the sandwiches she packs. The good news is that if they buy, they’re eating the food, which is great. The bad news is that apparently Melissa isn’t very good at packing lunches. Heh. This is slightly afield, but bear in mind that there’s no law saying packed lunch has to involve a sandwich. If your kids aren’t sandwich eaters, pack what they will eat. Buy thermos containers and send your own hot food, or send sliced cheese and meats and veggies (or whatever) without bread. Please don’t tell me they can’t bag it because they don’t like sandwiches. There are other options.

My daughter will eat pretty much whatever you set in front of her. My son’s picture appears next to the word “picky” in the dictionary. That would certainly be a factor in my decision if I hadn’t already ruled school lunch out due to cost and inadequate nutrition.

Lastly, here’s the one you may not think to consider:

4) Is time an issue? Schools across the country are shortening lunch periods. Regardless of the food involved, a kid who doesn’t have time to sit down and eat it is going to be hungry. I have been hearing a lot of stories lately about how the kids who buy never actually have time to eat. If your child is a dawdler, and lunchtime is short, hot lunch may be a poor choice.

There you go. Four questions to help you make your decision. Bear in mind, too, that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Maybe you decide to let the kids buy a day or two a week. Last year I had a standing deal with my daughter that she could buy twice a month. When the monthly menus came home, she would sit down and pick her two lunches and circle them, and then if she was lucky I would remember to check the calendar and remind her to buy. A friend of mine always lets her kids buy on Pizza Mondays. You’ll figure out what works for your family.

Bon appetit!


  1. Ahhh but how do you KNOW that your kid is eating the school lunch? Or the packed lunch?

    I spend a lot of time at the school and am amazed how little the kids actually eat.

    Then again, I think many of us overpack for them.

    A child’s appetite is a fraction of what an adult normally eats.
    They have not learned to clear their plate, “just because” yet.

  2. Here the lunches are $1.80, and this is the first year that both of my kids are in school. When I added up the price of buying lunches versus packing it (for 2 kids), I found out that it is cheaper to pack. But my daughter loves the idea of buying lunch at school and my son wants their chicken nuggets and pizza, so I let them buy every once in a while. (And I love those days because I don’t have to pack their lunch!)

    Another thing that you may want to consider, and this is all assuming that the lunches are healthy, is that your children may be exposed to different foods if they buy their lunches. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn to love something different. My son, for instance, will not drink milk at home (makes him gag – picky, picky, picky) but drank milk with the lunch he bought at school. SO there’s that to think about.

  3. My 2.5 year old is going to pre school for the first time this year and they serve them an early lunch just before pick up. It is $4!!!!!!!!! Which is an astounding amount of money. Especially for a 2 year old (though it does include a snack). BUT I am trying out having her buying lunch at least the first month or two in the interest of trying to expand her food horizons (which pretty much now consist of pasta and milk). I guess I may re-assess next month but that’s my theory for now.

  4. In our house, when the school menu comes home each month I allow my 10yr old to select which meals he would like to buy. On days he packs I give him a choice carrots or brocoli, ham or turkey, etc and he typically eats what he chooses. We just have to get creative and make that packed lunch interesting! Mrs Otto 2b your site(s) rock!!

  5. I would add one more factor: time on parents’ end. I don’t have the school lunch issue yet, but my son goes to a day care center and I have to pack his lunch and it is a chore that I despise. Mir, you are probably laughing at me right now, but it’s just one of those things I hate doing. So, depending on the price differential, I would likely find it to be worth the extra money for the convenience.

    bec 😀

  6. We homeschool, but I often need to pack lunches for picnics in parks, or when we are going from one activity to another. I ask the kids what they want to eat, and go from there. One likes hummus, one likes plain tofu, one likes salami or cold hot dogs, they all like chick peas in a baggie. I start with protein and move out – add some veggies with a dip, and some chips and a cookie. I try to have few sweets for the lunch, and save more sweets for later (um, when we aren’t around a lot of people).

    I also make lunch for my husband every day, but he has an “emergency” $5 in his wallet that he can use if the lunch at work is really good (they have about $4 lunches in the cafeteria, and sometimes the food is really good).

    I don’t know if any of that will help people with kid lunches, but thought I’d throw it out there.

  7. yes, what mir said….sit down with the kiddos and talk about different options for packing lunches, and then make a menu and give them choices. and letting them buy on pizza day, even though the pizza here sucks, is still the only thing they want! i worked in a school and was APPALLED at the waste! i would see kids eat the cookies, walk over to the garbage and dump the contents of their lunch box out. i secretly wanted to hide a camera and at the end-of-the-year party show the parents what those kids did. i even asked some kids why they do that or why they don’t tell their mom to pack what they like and they said they didn’t want to hurt her feelings…go figure…

  8. I second the not knowing what your kids are buying comment. Because I used to buy my kids lunches in advance, I’d give them each a check for $100 and just fill it up as it became necessary, it’s not as easy to check that they’re actually spending the money as it’s intended to be spent. Turns out my youngest was buying breakfasts as well as lunches – despite having eaten before he went to school – and financing his friends who didn’t have lunch money.

    Now both mine are in high school, and although I’d like to hope that they’re buying the deli sandwiches or salads they assure me they’re buying, there are days of ravenous after school appetites when I’m sure they’re skipping lunch and going straight for the dessert line!


  9. When mine were in elementary school, we used to go around and around about whether to buy or pack. One child eats everything, the other eats nothing, so it was always hit and miss. Luckily (!!?) they are both in middle school this year, and the lines for the good stuff (you and I would call it junk) are too long, so they are taking their lunches, and, as an added bonus, packing them too. I’m free from lunch duty!! It is fabulous.

  10. For parents who aren’t sure what their kids are buying, we have a tool here that is useful in that regard. Our middle and high schools have put lunch purchase records on-line so I can see what my son is actually buying (they also have a means of paying on-line, but there’s a pretty hefty surcharge). The service is great because I can just spot-check once in a while. Many parents don’t know it’s available — just check with your school.

  11. When I was in second grade we moved states and I wound up in a school district that served hot lunches. When you’re seven, this is the coolest thing ever, if I recall. But my mom and stepdad were a little strapped for cash at the time (not that they told me this, I just realized it in retrospect), and I was allowed to buy lunch once every two weeks. I plotted it in advance. (I was a dork!) The rest of the time I brown bagged it, but that was when peanut butter was allowed in schools….

  12. Have your kids pack their OWN lunches, within guidelines. Have them pick one thing from each category (fruit or veg–fruit cups or carrot sticks; protein–meat, cheese, or a hard boiled egg (really fun if they are dyed), starch–crackers, bread, etc). Kids are more likely to eat what they have picked out, and when the OTHER kids find out they packed their own lunches, they will be told how lucky they are to be allowed to do this. My son frequently took leftovers–cold spagetti (I’d never eat it cold, but it didn’t bother him), leftover chicken, Chinese, whatever–rather than assembling a lunch bag. I’d automatically put all the leftovers in those semi-disposable containers after dinner and he’d grab one in the morning. My daughter made her sandwiches in the evening while I cleaned up the kitchen. My brother used to take pb&j and carrots every day all through school. No variation, ever.

  13. Our lunches went up to $2 this year (only a $.25 raise but for some reason the thought of paying $2 per kid per day kills me) so we’re packing 4 days a week and buying 1. My son isn’t a sandwich eater either, he packs soup or mac-n-cheese.

    Plus my kids are still at the young “tell mom the truth cause we don’t know any better” stage and they all admited to getting just the main item and none of the sides (the school lets them choose). So why am I paying $2 for only a cheeseburger when I know they will eat carrots, a piece of fruit, and a turkey sandwich if I pack?

  14. Lunches are $2.00 this year, and I have to agree with your other reader that often very little actually gets eaten by many of the kids. I recall a school even having the kids throw UNOPENED cartons of milk away – just because the carton had been touched. WTH? (When I worked lunch I would take them home :P)

    I pack the kids lunches, try to be semi-creative but heck it is JUST lunch, so I make sure they get all the essentials and something fun and almost always a drawing or a note.

    Lunches suck here, whereas they have been very good elsewhere. Offered: corndogs, pizza, uncrustables, sub sandwiches, french toast sticks – UGH! A few times a month they can choose to eat the school lunch.

  15. When I was in school, my mom always sent me with money to buy lunch tickets (70s-80s), and I ate hot lunch all through school. Packing lunch wasn’t something she wanted to do, I can’t get up in the morning, and my step-dad is even more of a morning slug than I am 😉 My school district also had really good, nutritious lunches, so she felt good about doing so.

    It worked for us, but that was a different time and place. I now brownbag it 4 out of 5 work days (my best buddy and I get one day of going out for lunch a week), and I do find I miss the cafeteria 😉

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