The Price of a School Lunch the Year You Were Born

Children eating in a cafeteria

Cheapism / DALL-E 3

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Children eating in a cafeteria
Cheapism / DALL-E 3


These days, a school lunch costs around $3 per meal, and that's just for the standard option without your kiddo wanting to add on a brownie for every one of their buddies on the football team. At some schools, you can conveniently upload money to your student's online account, and they can charge items to it at their heart's (and stomach's) content. 

It's basically an alternate universe from when we were growing up. Those greasy rectangle pizzas with the cubed pepperoni that we still crave have been replaced with Little Caesars slices, and the days of making a cute snowman on your desk using your lunch money of two quarters and a dime have fizzled into a distant memory. The price of a school lunch has steadily gone up — here's what you might have paid for it over the years.

1950s school cafeteria
flickr / Kipp Teague from the Jones Memorial Library collection


Average price: 25 cents

Price adjusted for inflation: $2.89

During the '50s, private companies started to get their hands on school lunches, introducing protein-packed meals like meatloaf and sausage shortcake. Schools also started offering cold lunch options in addition to hot meals, including things like pork and apple salad, sandwiches, and cottage cheese. Boomers might recall chili and cinnamon rolls, lettuce sandwiches, and tuna casserole, too. In those days, you could grab lunch for a quarter, including milk (which was the only drink you had to choose from at the time). You'd be hard-pressed to find any internationally-influenced items on the cafeteria's menu — sorry, Taco Tuesday.

1960s school lunch


Average price: 35 cents

Price adjusted for inflation: $3.46

The 1960s welcomed pizza to school lunch menus, and cafeterias never looked back. During this decade, students could expect to pay between 30 and 50 cents for a school meal. The era also saw the introduction of initiatives like the National School Lunch Act, which aimed to improve the quality of school lunches and make healthy options more accessible to kids. Meals were still, for the most part, pretty basic, but nutritional awareness was on the rise.

1970s school cafeteria


Average price: 50 cents

Price adjusted for inflation: $2.96

The '70s saw more efforts to provide free or reduced-price lunches to low-income families through government programs; outside of those efforts, lunches cost between 50 cents and $1. Menu items continued evolving, with a mix of convenient "fast foods" like hot dogs, pizza, and tacos, and continued efforts to balance meals and provide healthy options. Still, the star of the show remained: those delicious square pizzas with pepperoni cubes on them.

1980s school cafeteria


Average price: $1.50

Price adjusted for inflation: $4.39

School lunches underwent significant changes during the '80s, influenced by broader societal shifts and government policies. This decade saw a continued emphasis on convenience and speed, with an increase in the availability of prepackaged and processed foods in school cafeterias. Popular items included chicken nuggets, french fries, and pizza pockets. 

Still, the push and pull of nutrition remained relevant, leading to efforts to provide healthier options such as salads, whole grains, and fruit. In terms of cost, school lunches in the 1980s were still relatively affordable, typically costing around a dollar or slightly more. Government programs continued to provide free or reduced-price lunches to low-income families.

1990s school lunch


Average price: $1.50

Price adjusted for inflation: $3.08

We picture two pieces of iconic school-lunch inspired comedy when we think of the '90s, and both involve Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. First, we think of the legendary SNL skit with the two dressed up as school lunch ladies. And, of course, we picture the cackling cafeteria worker in "Billy Madison" talking about how she made the sloppy joes "extra sloppy for ya." Both actually do a decent job of depicting what school lunch was like during the '90s, too. Pizza, sloppy joes, burgers, and the rise of the lunch lady, all of which contributed to some criticism over the quality of school lunches, specifically because of processed foods with high sugar and sodium levels. 

The decade also saw the introduction of programs like the National School Lunch Program's School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children, which aimed to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. In terms of cost, school lunches in the 1990s remained relatively affordable, not changing much at all from the prices in the '80s.

school lunch calendar in 2003


Average price: $1.75

Price adjusted for inflation: $2.83

In the 2000s, school lunches faced increasing scrutiny and reform efforts aimed at improving their nutritional quality. Amid growing concerns about childhood obesity and diet-related health issues, there was a push to provide healthier options in schools. Schools also began to offer more diverse and culturally relevant menu options to reflect the increasingly diverse student population. However, these changes were not without controversy, with some critics arguing that the new standards were too restrictive or costly to implement. In terms of cost, school lunches in the 2000s saw a gradual increase, with the average price rising to just around $2 per meal, although free and reduced lunch programs continued.