Should I Buy or Pack My Child's School Lunch?

Children eating snacks in elementary school classroom
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  • 01 of 05

    Considering Questions About Lunch

    The decision about whether to pack for lunch for your child or purchase lunch in the cafeteria depends on several factors, families will weigh those factors differently. The quality of the meal, convenience, cost, and your child's preferences all come into play. Here are a few things to consider as you make up your mind as about school lunch.

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  • 02 of 05

    Will Your Child Eat a Healthy Meal?

    Whether you have a picky eater or not, the first thing you’ll want to do is assess the school’s menu. Ask yourself:

    • Will my child eat it? There is simply no point in buying a lunch that your child won’t eat. And you won’t be there encourage them to eat, so if the menus don’t appeal to your child, don’t buy lunch.
    • Will the meal my child eats be a healthy one? Even if the school’s menu is basically healthy, your child may have the option to buy a la carte or choose nutrition-free vending machine items. Will he fill up on junk food and dessert? The answer will depend, in part, on whether lunch money is in an account at school or in your child's pocket; vending machines, of course, take only cash.

    There's no way to guarantee that your child is eating the healthy foods you're packing, but at least you can select your child's favorites to increase the odds. Younger children will have fewer opportunities to buy whatever suits their fancy, but as children get into middle school, they have more options.

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  • 03 of 05

    Is It Convenient?

    It seems like buying a school lunch would be the most convenient option; however, that isn’t always the case. If you have more than one child, buying for one and packing for another can be confusing. And if your kids only want school lunch on some days, it can be tricky to remember whether today is a packed lunch or bought lunch day.

    Also, school lunch programs don’t always make it easy on parents. Some want exact change, cash only, no cash, separate lunch money for multiple kids, or payment during a very small window of time.

    Consider how convenient it is for your child. If there is a long line for the cafeteria lunches, that could leave very little time for your child to eat. This is an increasingly important consideration as many schools offer just half an hour for your child to get to the cafeteria, buy food, eat it, and get back to class.

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  • 04 of 05

    How Much Does Lunch Cost?

    If your child receives free lunches because of your income level, the answer is obvious—it's always cheaper to go through the cafeteria line. But if you're spending money either way, the choice isn't as clear.

    Compared to eating out in a restaurant, school lunches aren’t expensive, but you can probably pack healthy bagged lunch cheaper. However, if you buy convenience foods, like individually wrapped cookies and chips, you won't save much, not to mention it won't be very healthy either.

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  • 05 of 05

    What Does Your Child Want?

    Last but certainly not least is this wildcard question. If you and your child agree, it could easily seal your decision to go one way or the other. However, if you and your child have opposite opinions, listen to your child's thoughts on this. Depending on the school culture, it may be cooler to buy or bring lunch; your child may also find standing on the lunch line makes it nearly impossible to grab a few precious minutes with friends.