Food and gasoline prices are up, the dollar and the stock market are down, and most of us are trying to save money anywhere we can. When it comes to kids' lunches, the best way to do that may be to have your child buy his or her lunch at school.
While that may be counterintuitive -- eating at home generally is, after all, the most economical path to follow -- the opposite of the maxim is true when it comes to school lunches. On a national level, a study by a professor at Eastern Michigan University found an average annual cost of $597.60 for bringing lunch from home, as opposed to an average of $334.80 for buying lunch at school.
The numbers are similar in Clark County. Here's an example: A sample menu from the Web site of the School Nutrition Association includes a turkey wrap with lettuce and tomato, rice-vegetable casserole, a Red Delicious apple, sweetened yogurt dip and milk. Priced out using foods from a local supermarket, the menu, packed at home, would cost $3.31 for elementary students, $3.89 for secondary (because of different portion sizes). At school, it would be $1.50 for elementary students, $2.50 for secondary.
The local elementary-level lunch price represents a 10-cent increase this year. On the secondary level, students will pay $2, $2.50 or $3, depending on the combo chosen. (That's the same as last year for high-school students, a 40- to 50-cent increase for middle-schoolers.)
For low-income households, prices are substantially lower. While required income levels to qualify for free and reduced breakfasts and lunches have not been posted for this school year, during the past year, a four-person household with an annual income of $38,203 -- or $3,184 monthly, or $735 weekly -- would qualify for reduced-price lunches, which are 40 cents at all grade levels. (Those who believe they may qualify can get application forms at school offices or in school kitchens; they'll be available a few days before school starts. Applications also will be available at the back-to-school fair at the Galleria at Sunset mall, 1300 W. Sunset Road in Henderson, during mall hours Saturday.)
Sue Hoggan, food service region supervisor/southeast for the school district, doesn't make any claims about which lunch option is less expensive.
"It's like anything," Hoggan said. "There's going to be parents who are very cost-conscious and can make a lunch for less. I think the biggest advantage to school lunch is every school lunch meets the nutrition guidelines that the government sets."
Which raises two more points -- one, that in order to consume all of the good nutritional components of a government-approved, government-subsidized school lunch, the child has to eat the entire lunch.
"We work with our vendors to develop products that meet nutritional guidelines but still appeal to kids," Hoggan said. "The challenge is getting the kids to eat them."
The second point is that while packed-from-home lunches generally do contain foods kids will eat, they often aren't nutritionally sound. A 2004 survey conducted for Smart Foods Healthy Kids, a newsletter for parents about kids' nutrition, found that girls get vegetables in their lunches an average of 21/2 times a week, boys less than twice a week. And while in the third to fifth grades girls start eating more salads, boys start eating more cake.
But if your kids' school doesn't serve lunch, or your child is adamant about bringing lunch from home, there are ways to ensure that lunch is both nutritious and economical.
"Certainly I think it helps to get kids involved in putting their lunch together," said Mary Wilson, a registered dietitian and extension nutrition specialist with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. "They're more likely to eat it."
Wilson suggests taking kids to the supermarket and giving them options, for example, as to which fruits they would prefer; "that way they're engaged in what they're selecting."
While whole-grain breads are the most healthful choice for sandwiches, Wilson conceded that some kids just won't eat them. Many manufacturers, she said, now make breads that provide fiber and nutritional benefits but are softer and lighter than whole-grain bread.
For a calcium component, she suggests packing yogurt into small containers, or packing string cheese.
While many kids like the novelty of prepackaged snack-style lunches, Wilson said they tend to be high in fat, and producing them at home is both more nutritious and less expensive.
"You can create those in your own little plastic containers," she said. "Sometimes kids don't like sandwiches. Being able to put together some finger foods they can snack on can be a positive thing. Coming in with creative ideas can make it more likely your child will eat their lunch, and I think that's the ultimate goal."
And don't forget food safety. Kids often don't have access to refrigeration, which makes old-standby peanut-butter-and-jelly -- always economical-- a good choice. Wilson also advises packing the lunch with a frozen ice block (maybe a container nearly filled with water and frozen) or frozen beverage to keep things cool.
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0474.