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School Lunches: Is It Better to Pack or Pay?

 by Patricia Lynn Henley   Posted on September 3 2013

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With the start of school, what to do about lunches is just one of the many decisions parents have to make.

For eligible low-income families, public school lunches are free or cost about 40 cents. Other public school students typically pay about $1.75-$3, depending on location. That seems relatively cheap for a meal, but as a daily expense it adds up, particularly for families with more than one student to feed. And, the charges for full-price lunches are going up.

The good news is, schools are complying with the federal Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010, which means the nutritional quality of school lunches is improving nationwide. Unfortunately, preparing and serving healthy meals costs more than the lunches served in the past. Many local school districts are increasing the amount charged for full-price lunches by 5 cents to 25 cents or more each year.

Lunch can also be an issue for families of students attending private schools. The cost of a school-prepared hot lunch might be included in the tuition, but at many private schools there's an additional charge for lunch (typically $500-$1,000 or more per student, per school year).

Several parent-bloggers boast online about saving anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000 each in a school year by packing lunches for their children. However, schools' prices are still low enough that most experts say it's more likely that a typical homemade lunch will cost about the same or slightly more than a school-produced meal. The advantage is that packing a lunch gives parents more control over their child's diet, and the menus can be tailored to a child's food preferences or allergies.

Quick tips for keeping down the cost of packing lunches include buying in bulk; avoiding single-serve packages; using recyclable containers; using leftovers from family dinners; and preparing foods like chopped vegetables or pasta several days ahead of time.

Applesauce or pureed fruit can be frozen in a container, which serves as a cold-pack for the rest of the food, but will thaw by lunchtime. A thermal container to keep food warm typically costs about $3-$10.

For children who yearn for the expensive, pre-packaged and heavily advertised lunches sold in supermarkets, many parents suggest filling a recyclable container with similar but healthier items, and cutting the bread, vegetables or cheese into funny shapes. Sites like and Redbook magazine offer ideas for easy, healthy lunchbox meals.

However, all this takes prep work, and organization. Packing lunches can become a major operation. For some families, it's the best way to go. For others, the convenience of buying a school lunch can't be beat.

Pack or pay? It's just one more question parents will have to answer for themselves this school year.

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