Which Brown-Bag Sandwich is Cheapest This Year?

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 percent 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 beginning across the country, 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 some of the most common brown-bag sandwiches: peanut butter and jelly; bologna; tuna; ham and Swiss; roast beef and cheddar; egg salad; salami; American cheese; turkey; and bacon, lettuce and 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 cost, 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 Aug. 3. 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 with the use of 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 10 most common brown-bag sandwiches in 2013. Rankings are based on 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 percent.

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 first chart and adjust the sandwich costs 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 about $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 percent 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 10 sandwiches on the list increased by 9 percent this year, thanks in large part to salami and albacore tuna prices that more than doubled. Even so, prices for six of the 10 sandwiches in my survey fell this year. Ham and Swiss, roast beef and 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 with the price of a school lunch, a tuna sandwich remains a fairly economical option. Just don’t garnish it with Beluga caviar.

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Comments & discussion

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  • Susan Knapp

    This article caught my eye because today I brought tuna salad on lettuce with a boiled egg and dressing. Total cost was under $1.30 and I used the entire can of tuna. I don’t understand why, in this article, the tuna was priced at $5.99 and is expected to yield 3 servings. Canned white tuna here sells for about $2 and what I brought today I got on sale for 99 cents. Who pays $5.99 for a can of tuna? What am I missing here?

    • brokeGIRLrich

      I was surprised by that too. I thought tuna would be one of the cheaper options. I also feel like this might be set for more how you pack a small child’s lunch (one slice of meat, a single layer of tomatoes and cheese, etc), although the author did note to just adjust the amounts to how you create a sandwich for the correct final total. I really don’t buy that tuna is the most expensive of the sandwiches though.

  • Leslie Lorino

    Interesting article, however, there is also the nutritional aspect to consider. Bologna is not really top on my list of what I would like to feed my kids, however, occasionally I do purchase it. Also, wheat bread these days is not the wheat bread of old, which is why so many people are going gluten free, or at least wheat free. There must be other alternatives besides sandwiches to send with kids for lunch, homemade soups they can warm up or take a thermos, fresh salads (tuna, egg, chopped). I would certainly get tired of sandwiches every day. I take lunch everyday, sometimes just fruit or fruit and vegetables, a handful of nuts. I don’t imagine my lunches cost a lot. Certainly cheaper than buying a school lunch though, you are right, a bottle of water at my son’s school is $2.00. A sin.