Meanwhile, the average cost of a school lunch this year is $3.81. For a family with two kids, that amounts to slightly less than $1400 during the course of a 180-day school year.
Oh, sure; $3.81 for lunch may sound like a great deal, but the truth is, despite those ever-rising grocery bills, people who choose to brown-bag a sandwich, piece of fruit, and carrot sticks or a serving of chips, are always going to spend less than the folks who buy their lunch at a restaurant, school cafeteria or fast-food joint.
On the other hand, not all sandwiches are created equally, as celebrity chef Martin Blunos demonstrated a few years ago with his decadent $184 cheese sarnie. The good news is, while food prices are climbing, the results of my 13th annual brown bag sandwich price survey show that most folks will spend far less than that in 2021.
How the Survey Was Conducted
As usual, I visited 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 (PB&J); bologna; tuna; ham & Swiss; roast beef & cheddar; egg salad; salami; American cheese; turkey; and bacon, lettuce & tomato (BLT).
For consistency, I only selected items with the cheapest per unit costs, regardless of brand. And to keep it simple, I also assumed all sandwiches would be made with wheat bread.
Here are the results of this year’s price survey, which was conducted on July 30th, 2021. 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’s 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 2021. Rankings are based upon total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive.
As you can see, at 43 cents, bologna and PB&J share the honor of being the most economical sandwiches in 2021. Bologna has now topped the list 12 of 13 times, and nine consecutive years; although PB&J has shared that honor with PB&J four times, and won outright once. In fact, the only time bologna failed to occupy the top spot was back in 2012, when it ranked second.
As for the rest of this year’s rankings, the only other positional changes occurred near the bottom of the list — Roast Beef & Cheddar fell two notches to rank ninth, while both Salami and Tuna Salad each climbed one spot, to the seventh and eighth positions, respectively.
The next chart is an annual comparison of each sandwich since my inaugural survey in 2009. This year, all but two of the ten sandwiches in the survey experienced a price increase. Somewhat ironically, with a 7% price cut, the perennial most-expensive sandwich in the survey — the BLT — is one of the two sandwiches that’s cheaper than last year. The other is Salami, which saw a modest 2% price cut.
In 2010, the average price of all ten sandwiches in my survey fell two cents from the year before to 84 cents — that was the all-time low. This year, the average cost of the survey’s sandwiches is $1.13; that’s 6% higher than last year and 20% more than it was in 2018. It’s also six cents less than the all-time survey high of $1.19 in 2014.
Tips and Observations
- Four sandwiches in this year’s survey cost less than $1; that’s down from five last year, and seven in 2018.
- After holding steady in 2020 — the price of bread climbed 8% in 2021 to $1.39. The last time a loaf was more expensive was way back in 2014, when it cost $1.99.
- For the second year in a row, just five of the 18 sandwich ingredients saw price declines from the year before; this year, it was bacon, lettuce, tomato, ham and turkey.
- Despite a 14% increase in the price of peanut butter in 2020, and another 7% gain this year, the cost of a PB&J sandwich is still a bargain at 43 cents.
- You’ll be paying more cheese this year: American and Cheddar is 14% more, while Swiss is 29% higher.
- After hitting all-time survey low last year, the price of a Roast Beef & Cheddar sandwich climbed 35% this year. Even so, at $1.67, it’s still a bargain.
- If you’re the type who is hooked on tuna, you’ll may be disappointed to learn that, a sandwich will cost you 19% more this year. The good news is they’re still 33% cheaper than they were in 2016.
- At just 69 cents and 72 cents, respectively, Turkey & Swiss and egg salad are still among the more economical brown bag options.
- After falling 37% since 2019, the price of mustard soared by 50% this year.
- The price of a BLT fell 7% this year to $2.66 — that’s almost 20 cents below its five-year average. It’s also $1.33 less than a Big Mac.
- Cooking your own ham and turkey and slicing it yourself is a great way to reduce your grocery bill. It’s also cheaper to buy block cheese and slice it at home.
- If you’re like me and love to put tomatoes on a sandwich, grow your own— you’ll save a bundle. Best of all, they taste much better than anything you can buy from your grocer.
- You can save upwards of 40% by purchasing store-brand products. As my popular blind taste tests have proven, their quality is often just as good — if not better.
Photo Credit: neil russo