Lunch Money: The Cost Of Convenience

By Sarah Deveau | September 13, 2010 AAA

Skipping fast food or restaurant lunches is the obvious first step to trimming the lunch budget. And since school-age children rarely want anything to do with leftovers, it can take a little creativity to find the right meal. As a busy parent, it's tempting to take advantage of the wide variety of inexpensive pre-packaged and single-serving lunch options at the grocery store. However, if your kid's school is a "litterless lunch" school, which means students are encouraged to bring their food in reusable containers only, you may not have that option. By choosing litterless lunches, you may discover that not only are your kids throwing out less packaging waste, they are eating much healthier food, and you are seeing significant savings. (For more, see 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)
IN PICTURES: 10 Ways To Cut Your Food Costs

But Single-Serve Packages are so Cheap!
Wastefreelunches.org states that a pre-packaged lunch costs about $4.02 a day, or $723.60 per school year, compared to $2.65 a day ($477.00 per school year) for a waste-free lunch - a difference of $246.60 per person per year. Though some pre-packaged single-serving products are clearly more expensive per serving than the bulk packages, other items might appear so inexpensive it's easy to assume you can't make it yourself for less. However, the made-from-scratch version is nearly always less expensive.

Cheese please!
Cheese and crackers ($1.77 per 100g) can be made at home for about $1.03 per 100g - and that's using real cheese. Using a spreadable cheese is even less expensive. Four servings a week for a year will cost $368.16, while making your own costs just $214.24, a savings of $153.92.

Also in the dairy aisle, single-serve yogurt cups make great paint cups for crafts, but there are only so many you can save before they start filling up your recycling bin. At 80 cents per 100g, buying larger tubs for 26 cents per 100g is definitely the way to go. One tub a week will cost you $102.44 annually, while 12 single serve containers weekly ring in at around $300.56 - a $198.12 savings.

Sweet and In-Season
A friend suggested buying a fruit tray every week to encourage my children to eat more fruit. It worked great, but seemed expensive, even if it did save time. Find a fruit storage tray with dividers from your local thrift store and try preparing your own each week. Depending on the fruit chosen, the price ranged from 54 cents per 100g (strawberries) to 10 cents per 100g (grapes). One tray a week (83 cents per 100g) meant we saved between $274 and $600 a year.

IN PICTURES: Top 6 Mindless Money Wasters

Sip and Save
Juice boxes might seem innocuous enough. After all, they're recyclable. But twice as much packaging also comes at twice the price - juice boxes cost $1.99 per liter, while larger containers cost just 99 cents per liter. Switching from juice boxes to large containers will save you over $100 a year.

Little Lunches
Stackable lunches, filled with processed deli meats and processed cheese (plus crackers and a mini chocolate bar) generally come in around $2.79 each. Making your own with fresh cheese ($1.20 per 100g), bologna (50 cents per 100g), crackers (85 cents per 100g) and mini chocolate bar (16 cents each) will cost you about a $1 each. Even if they're a rare twice-a-week treat, they'll cost you $290.16 annually, while making your own will cost you $104 - a savings of over $185.

A Little Goes a Long Way
When the savings resulting from choosing convenience over homemade are measured in pennies, it can be easy to think the savings aren't significant enough to warrant changing purchasing habits. But haul out your calculator and you'll find that just the few products compared here result in a $1,000 grocery savings annually on school lunches alone. How would you like an extra $1,000 to invest in your children's educational savings plan? (Not everyone has time to pack a lunch everyday. Check out the Top 5 Fast Food Value Menu Deals for tips on saving money on fast food.)

For the latest financial news, check out Water Cooler Finance: The End Of The Recession.

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