My kids have always taken cold lunches to school. I’m a vegetarian who cooks mostly veg meals, and many of the hot lunch options include foods that we just don’t eat. (And if you’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, or have visited your child’s school recently, you know that there’s a lot of fat and sugar and salt in most schools’ hot lunches–stuff that most kids just shouldn’t eat!)

The perception seems to be that fruits and veggies, organic foods, or whole grain options are too expensive, so people are forced to buy the cheap, high fat and low quality foods. My daughter started middle school this year and the kids have access to a la carte food items in addition to the hot lunch program. A few weeks ago she mentioned that some of her friends spend $4 or $5 a day on their lunches, eating burgers, french fries, mac and cheese, ice cream, and cookies, with no fruits or vegetables. I knew we weren’t spending that much, but I wasn’t sure of the actual costs. So out of curiosity, I did my grocery shopping and included the ingredients for a week of cold lunches so I could calculate the average meal cost.

How expensive is it, really, to put together school lunches with low fat, low sugar, whole grain, and fresh fruit options–some of them organic?

A typical lunch for my kids usually includes a sandwich, sometimes peanut butter (or another nut butter) and jelly; a piece of fruit or a serving of raw veggies; and an additional snack with grain and protein (crackers with cheese, for example). For this particular week, we chose:

  • three types of fruit, some of which were on sale
  • multi-grain and unsalted pretzels and crackers
  • organic peanut butter, no sugar added
  • reduced fat cream cheese
  • reduced sugar jelly
  • whole wheat bread

The sandwich was the most expensive part: $.64 for each kid. The fruit ranged from $.19 for a banana to $.55 for an apple; and a serving of pretzels or crackers averaged around $.30. To further reduce costs (and make lunches “greener”) we use reusable bags and containers for lunches instead of plastic sandwich and snack bags. The initial cost is higher, but we have used them for years and they pay for themselves within a few months. The average cost for this week’s lunch was $1.33 per kid. Of course in most weeks I don’t give them the same thing every day, but I figure that most of the time their lunches cost $1.50 or less. Even with veggie and cheese sandwiches, or sandwiches with cold cuts, the total lunch cost is around $2.

I don’t often include a drink with my kids’ lunches; my son, in particular, was filling up on the drink and not eating his lunch, so if he’s thirsty afterward he helps himself to water. Buying serving sizes of juice adds $.65 to each lunch, but you can cut this expense by using a thermos or other reusable drink container. (Buying serving sizes of anything adds a huge amount to the cost, so it’s always cheaper to buy a big bag and divide it up into servings.)

I also don’t include sweets in their lunches. I used to, but have since decided that I want them to eat as much “food” as possible in that 10 or 15 minutes of eating–the cookies and candy can wait for after school on special occasions.

This article talked about the reactions of the schoolkids in Jamie Oliver’s show. A survey of the kids at the school showed that they preferred the school’s offerings over his by a margin of 4 to 1. Some of them even stopped buying lunch. My first thought was, “I wonder how many of their parents would prefer the institutional cooking over Oliver’s healthful choices, too?” I’m guessing most of them—the researchers said they believed Oliver’s offerings “may be healthier than what children get at home.” Which just means that kids will eat what is familiar, so as parents and “home chefs” it’s our responsibility to make wise choices. Marion Nestle, a nutritional studies and public health instructor at NYU, agrees. “I don’t care whether they like pizza or not,” she says. “It’s not up to them to decide. It’s up to the adults to decide. It’s one of the things about being a kid: Too bad for you.”

I think kids may feel punished to begin with. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that! But the long term effects of eating a high fat, high sugar, high sodium diet will be a worse punishment. I should note that I am NOT a nutritionist, and I sure don’t have all the answers. But I do think it’s important for all of us to be looking at nutrition more carefully.

What do you think? Have you been watching Jamie Oliver’s show? Did it make you think about what you and your kids eat? Have you made any changes? Please share your thoughts!