If you’re like most people, it’s been hard not to notice the increase in your monthly grocery bill over the past two years. After a huge run-up in prices for everything from gasoline to food in 2022 – and despite the latest consumer price index showing that inflation in 2023 is currently running at an annual clip of “just” 3% – more grocery shoppers than ever can be seen visibly wincing when the final total flashes at the checkout counter.
Meanwhile, the estimated cost of a school lunch this year is $3.50. For a family with two kids, that amounts to $1260 during the course of a 180-day school year.
Oh, sure; $3.50 for lunch may sound like a great deal, but the truth is, despite food inflation and 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 faster than ever, the results of my 15th annual brown bag sandwich price survey show that most folks will spend far less than that in 2023.
How I Conduct the Survey
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 assume that all sandwiches are with wheat bread.
Here are the results of this year’s price survey. The survey date is July 28th, 2023. 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 2023. Rankings are based upon total ingredient unit costs, from least to most expensive.
As you can see, at 47 cents, the unheralded-but-mighty bologna sandwich has reclaimed the honor of being the Most Economical Sandwich in 2023.
That’s right; bologna is back!
Last year’s survey saw the bologna sandwich end a streak of nine consecutive years where it either topped or shared the least expensive sandwich honor. That was also only the second time in 14 years that bologna failed to hold at least a share of the Most Economical Sandwich crown.
As for the rest of this year’s rankings, there was plenty of turmoil among the top seven spots. In fact, six of the sandwiches changed positions, with only egg salad able to hold on to the same ranking it had last year (fifth). Salami saw the biggest gain this year, climbing four spots to get on the podium in third place. At the other end of the spectrum, Turkey & Swiss fell two slots into sixth position.
The next chart is an annual comparison of each sandwich since my inaugural survey in 2009. Unlike last year, when every sandwich in the survey except Ham & Swiss saw a price increase from the year before, this year five sarnies are cheaper than they were in 2022. Even so, the overall effects of food inflation on the surveyed sandwiches are striking.
In 2010, the average price of all ten sandwiches was 84 cents – that was the all-time low. This year, the average cost of the survey’s ten sandwiches is $1.56 – that is an all-time survey high. It’s also 9% higher than last year, 38% higher over the past two years – and 64% more than it was in 2018. Ouch.
Tips and Observations
- Like last year, five sandwiches in this year’s survey cost less than a buck; that’s down from seven in 2018. Even so, the impacts of food inflation were significant.
- After holding steady in 2020 — the price of bread climbed 8% in 2021 to $1.39. It climbed another 7% in 2022 to $1.49. This year, it climbed again; this time to $1.99. The last time bread was this expensive was 2014, when it also cost $1.99.
- Seven of the 18 sandwich ingredients saw price declines from the year before; peanut butter, salami, roast beef, tuna, eggs and mustard.
- Not all cheeses are equal: After climbing 24% last year, Swiss cheese climbed another 9% this year. Over the past four years, the price of Swiss cheese has more than doubled. Compare to American and Cheddar, which have remained fairly stable over the same period.
- After climbing 57% the previous two years, the price of a Roast Beef & Cheddar sandwich fell 6% this year.
- Are you hooked on tuna? If so, I’m sorry to report that tuna prices have not recovered from their massive 83% increase last year. The good news is the price did retreat 45 cents. However that wasn’t enough to keep tuna salad from being the second most expensive sandwich in the survey for the second year in a row.
- Speaking of massive price increases, the price of a Turkey & Swiss climbed 92% this year. You can thank the 350% increase in the price of turkey this year. That increase is attributable to the impact of bird flu.
- For the second year in a row, the BLT saw a large price increase. In fact, at $5.00, the price of a BLT costs almost twice as much as it did just two short years ago. The good news is it’s still 15 cents 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