My 5th Annual Cost Survey of 10 Popular Brown Bag Sandwiches

The price of lunch at my kids’ school is going up. Again. This year, a school lunch will cost $2.75 per meal — that’s 20% more than last year. I know.

Unfortunately, many busy parents struggling to make ends meet may think that’s still a bargain for lunch. It’s not.

At those prices, a parent with two kids will shell out $990 over the course of a 180-day school year.

In fact, with the new school year quickly approaching, one of the easiest ways to save money is to bypass the school cafeteria fare and make your kids’ a brown bag lunch at home. Whether it’s for school or the office, brown-bagging a sandwich, piece of fruit, and carrot sticks or a serving of chips will almost always be less expensive than buying lunch somewhere else.

Of course, not all sandwiches are created equal. For example, this year there’s a $61 club sandwich featuring Beluga caviar that’s being served at a five-star hotel in Hong Kong. And who can forget celebrity chef Martin Blunos’ $168 cheese sarnie?

Thankfully, the results of my fifth annual brown bag sandwich price survey show that most folks will end up spending far less than that in 2013 — even for the most expensive sandwich on the list.

How the Survey Was Conducted

As I have every year since conducting my first sandwich survey in 2009, I took a trip down to my local grocery store and recorded the per-serving costs of various ingredients for ten of the most common brown bag sandwiches: peanut butter & jelly; bologna; tuna; ham & Swiss; roast beef & cheddar; egg salad; salami; American cheese; turkey; and bacon, lettuce & tomato.

As in my past sandwich surveys, for consistency in determining prices of the individual sandwich ingredients, I only selected items with the cheapest per unit costs, regardless of brand. To keep it simple, I also assumed all sandwiches would be made with wheat bread.

Survey Results

Here are the results of my price survey, conducted August 3, 2013. The first graphic shows the sandwich serving sizes and per-serving costs for each ingredient. It also includes the percentage increase or decrease in the per-serving price of each item from last year’s survey:

With that data in hand, and using my handy spreadsheet, it was no effort at all to determine the most economical sandwiches.

Here are the official Len Penzo dot Com rankings of the ten most common brown bag sandwiches in 2013. Rankings are based upon total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive. As you can see, the most economical sandwich this year is bologna; a single sandwich costs just 41 cents. Bologna climbed two positions to displace last year’s crown holder, PB&J.

The next chart shows a year-by-year comparison for each sandwich since my first survey in 2009. As you can see, prices continue to climb. In 2009, the average price of the 10 sandwiches was 82 cents. Today, it’s $1.09; that’s an increase of 33%.

I realize that some people don’t use any spreads at all. I also understand that some folks enjoy two or three slices of bologna. And I know lettuce and tomato can be placed on sandwiches other than a BLT. If you make your sandwiches differently, you can simply look at my shopping survey numbers in the top figure and adjust the sandwich costs in the bottom chart accordingly.

Observations and Tips

  • Providing my two kids with a brown bag lunch containing either a PB&J or bologna sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a small bag of chips — rather than paying the school to feed them — will save me approximately $500 this year.
  • Although bologna topped this year’s list as the most-economical sandwich, over the last five years, PB&J has been the better buy — but not by much; since 2009, the PB&J has averaged just 39 cents per sandwich, a penny less than bologna.
  • Don’t be afraid to buy store brand peanut butter. As my blind peanut butter taste test experiment proved, it’s just as delicious — if not more so. It’s also typically more than 20% cheaper than the national brands.
  • Try cooking your own ham or turkey and slicing it yourself to save even more money. Likewise, it’s also cheaper to buy block cheese and slice it at home.
  • BLT lovers will be disheartened to learn that tomato prices doubled from last year. Remember, homegrown tomatoes are not only cheaper, but they also taste much better than anything you can buy from your grocer.
  • The average cost of all ten sandwiches on the list increased by 9% this year, thanks in large part to salami and albacore tuna prices which also more than doubled. Even so, prices for six of the ten sandwiches in my survey fell this year. Ham & Swiss, roast beef & Cheddar, and bologna saw the biggest price drops.
  • Speaking of tuna, earlier this year, a single one sold for $1.76 million. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that tuna salad has the dubious honor of being the most expensive sandwich in this year’s survey. That being said, compared to the price of a school lunch, a tuna sandwich remains a fairly economical option. Just don’t garnish it with Beluga caviar.

Photo Credit: hiwarz



Comments

  1. 1

    JD says

    I packed my kids’ lunches all through all their years of public school. It definitely saved some REAL cash, but my other big motivation was what our school board calls a lunch — usually chicken nuggets, pizza slices, cheeseburgers, fries and tator tots. Oh, and the rare days they had cooked veggies? They still has ice crystals in them, and I know, because I tried them myself whenever I went to eat with my kids once or twice a year. No salt or pepper on them at all was allowed either. Jails serve better food. Instead of that, my kids got fresh or home canned fruit, sandwiches in their choice of ingredients, soup or stew in thermos bottles, home made cookies or muffins, cheese, and juice or milk in their packed lunches. Cheaper and better!

    • 2

      Len Penzo says

      You’re right, JD. The food is nowhere near as good as home cooked.

      That being said, when I was a kid, I used to love the days when our school served pizza for lunch. It was made fresh right there in the cafeteria and it was pretty darned good stuff.

  2. 3

    says

    I wouldn’t feed my kids bologna if you paid me to do it…but I do make a mean PBJ. You’re right, they are totally economical and can be nutritious too…especially if you use higher quality jam and peanut butter!

  3. 4

    Frugal Pediatrician says

    I love the yearly survey! We eat a lot more homemade sandwhiches and therefore save money because of you. So much healthier as well!

  4. 6

    says

    Wow, prices are really spiking over the last few years. It is really not that much of a surprise based on all the additional money that has been injected into the economy over the last few years.

  5. 8

    Wendy says

    I tried to share this on facebook, but could only find a button to “like” it–which won’t draw nearly as much attention as sharing it would. Am I missing something?

    • 9

      Len Penzo says

      Thank you, Wendy. You can always copy the link and paste it directly into your Facebook “status” block.

    • 11

      Len Penzo says

      Um, nobody does. If you’re looking for the actual container size, you have to multiply the servings per container by the serving size.

      So the container size is calculated this way:

      5 oz. per serving * 3.3 servings per can = 16 oz can

      And to answer your next question, “Where the hell can you find a 16 oz can of tuna?”

      The answer is: Beats me! The package was actually a 4-pak of 4 oz. cans of tuna. Strange, I know. But it was the cheapest tuna in the store. :-)

  6. 12

    Cara says

    Do you really use 2 tbsp of both peanut butter and jelly? I don’t think I’ve ever skipped on the toppings, but don’t think we use more than 1 tbsp each, and even that is fairly thick on the bread.

    • 13

      Len Penzo says

      My wife does, Cara. I put less than that though.

      Because everybody is different, I have to be consistent and use some standard, so I stick with the serving size listed on the packages.

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