The lunchtime shop-bought sandwich was dealt a heavy blow by Covid, as city centres emptied and trips out were limited.
The return to the office and the lifting of lockdown restrictions have propelled it back on to the menu for millions of workers but the cost of living crisis, plus the fact that many people feel they saved a fortune on lunches, snacks and coffees during the pandemic, mean lots of us are looking for ways to make our money go further.
With that in mind, Guardian Money this week carried out a survey of lunchtime meal deals (typically a sandwich or salad, etc, a drink and a snack) from some of the main high street chains.
We were keen to find out the answer to these questions: What’s the most you can get for your money if you choose the most expensive items permitted? Which retailer offers the biggest potential saving? And because it’s important to have a lunch to look forward to, how do some of the bestsellers rate taste-wise?
The answer to the savings question, according to our (nonscientific) survey, is Tesco, where buying items through its meal deal resulted in paying 55% less for them than getting them separately. (It is possible Boots may be able to beat that as its meal deal is cheaper in most locations outside London.) In monetary terms, Boots was the winner, with a £4.21 saving.
Tesco has kept its meal deal pegged at £3 for almost 10 years, during which time most if not all of its rivals have increased the headline cost. For example, Sainsbury’s put up its lunchtime meal deal price from £3 to £3.50 in May 2021 (although it says it is offering more than three times as many choices as it was before the price change).
As of 19 January, the government no longer asked people in England to work from home if possible. That prompted millions to head for the office again – and triggered an immediate increase in people buying sandwiches, salads and the like. Meanwhile, the easing of restrictions on travel means more people are grabbing some food from a shop before they catch their train or plane.
Waitrose says its sandwich sales leapt 91% during the week beginning Monday 24 January, and that it also saw strong demand for sushi. A spokesperson says the retailer is also noticing a growing trend in people “upgrading” their homemade sandwiches – in terms of what they are putting in them and the bread they are using.
Some on tight budgets will have no choice but to continue bringing in their own sandwiches or something in a plastic container. Meanwhile, some would rather hand their cash to an independent sandwich bar or cafe. But many will welcome the opportunity to take a lunchtime stroll and pick up a meal deal from one of the big chains.
The maximum saving you can achieve is actually slightly bigger than when Guardian Money last took a close look at pricing almost seven years ago. That was in June 2015, and on that occasion, Boots was the winner with a 53% saving. Of course, some will argue that if individual items are overpriced in the first place, then these deals aren’t nearly as good as they might first appear.
What’s not in doubt is that the lunchtime meal industry is a highly competitive sector, which may be helping to keep retailers on their toes. The latest player to muscle in on the market is Amazon, courtesy of the Amazon Fresh food stores it is rolling out. At the one in London’s East End that we visited this week, it was offering a meal deal where, if you bought a main (options included a sandwich, wrap, salad or sushi tray), you could add a snack plus a drink for £1 extra. The range was comparable to what is on offer at other retailers, although perhaps with a few more “high-end” options.
Meanwhile, in the last couple of years a lot more vegetarian and vegan mains have been launched – from vegan BLT sandwiches to falafel wraps – plus more healthy snack options such as olives and fruit pots, and items tailored to people on specific diets.
However, purely in terms of getting the most bang for your meal deal buck, meat-based sandwiches, subs and wraps typically offer the best value. Look for things such as triple packs of sandwiches and sushi trays. We also found that sandwiches for people on a gluten-free diet were often quite pricey – perhaps £2.80 or £3 – but available as part of a deal.
On the drinks front, coconut water and smoothies from companies such as Naked and Innocent are good to grab as part of a meal deal because they can cost £2-£3 each when bought individually. Most people probably reach for crisps as their snack but there are usually higher-priced options such as yoghurt and granola pots or protein bars.
So what are the UK’s favourite meal deal items? According to Tesco, they include a chicken, bacon and stuffing sandwich, a 500ml bottle of regular Coca-Cola and a bag of McCoy’s flame grilled steak crisps. Boots says its most popular items are a chicken sandwich, Walkers Max paprika crisps and Coca-Cola.
It remains to be seen how supermarkets and other retailers will respond to the latest wave of food and drink price inflation, which was running at more than 4% in December. Crisps and soft drinks – key components of many a meal deal – are two products that have shot up in price.
A note on our findings: this was a snapshot survey carried out in various parts of London over two days this week. For each retailer, we visited two outlets. Products on offer and stock availability will vary by location and at different times of the day.
Cost of meal deal £3 in all stores.
Most expensive combination we could find £6.70: a gluten-free chicken and bacon mayonnaise sandwich (£2.80), Vita Coco coconut water (£2.75) and a Graze lemon flapjack (£1.15).
Saving £3.70, or 55%.
Observations There are apparently more than 10m possible combinations. These include a good number of items from Tesco’s Plant Chef range, including plant-based takes on traditionally meaty old favourites.
Cost of meal deal £3.50 in all its stores (it says prices may vary in some petrol station locations).
Most expensive combination we could find £7.40: a deep-filled BLT sandwich (£3), a Ginsters Cornish pasty (£1.50) and a Luhv Skin cold-pressed drink (£2.90).
Saving £3.90, or 53%.
Observations Top tip: if you buy a Ginsters pasty or slice as your snack today, you could have it tomorrow – thereby sorting out two lunches for the price of one. We were impressed with the Re:Nourish vegan soups range, as they looked classy, with interesting flavours. Students who are Totum or Young Scot cardholders can get a further 10% off.
Cost of meal deal £3.39 outside London, £3.99 in London and at airports.
Most expensive combination we could find £8.20: a chicken sandwich triple pack (£3.35), a Naked Green Machine drink (£2.60) and a Trek Power choc orange protein bar (£2.25).
Saving £4.21 in our test, or 51%.
Observations Lots of choice and plenty of vegan options. But in the two shops we visited, it wasn’t always clear which items were included in and excluded from the meal deal, and what they cost individually.
Cost of meal deal £3.50 in all stores.
Most expensive combination we could find £7.15: a gluten-free cheese and tomato sandwich (£3), an Emmi Mr Big iced coffee (£2.50) and a Nomadic yoghurt and oat clusters with chocolate pot (£1.65).
Saving £3.65, or 51%.
Observations Hot food, as well as hot drinks, are now included – things such as a southern fried chicken breast fillet or steak and potato slice. Breakfast and bakery items such as croissants, porridge and doughnuts have also been added, making it a meals deal.
Marks & Spencer
Cost of meal deal £5 (only available in franchise stores).
Most expensive combination we could find £7/£7.40. The reason for the two figures is that one store had space on its shelves for a reduced fat hummus and carrot snack costing £1.55 but there were none left, so we couldn’t buy one and had to choose another snack costing 40p less. We bought a chicken honey mustard pasta salad (£4), a bottle of Coca-Cola (£1.85) and an almond, blueberry and cranberry bar (£1.15).
Saving £2/£2.40, or 29%/32%.
Observations Lunchtime meal deals are only available in its franchise stores at rail stations, BP garages and in hospitals. You will not find them in M&S’s main outlets – a spokesperson told us the company had not offered lunchtime meal deals in these “for a number of years”. M&S says prawn mayo is still its top-selling sandwich.
Too Good to Go: You can bag a bargain – but it might lack magic
A bargain lunch and the chance to help the planet are an attractive combination to a Guardian Money editor, so when I noticed that the food waste app Too Good to Go had added lunch to the menu, I was quickly reaching for my debit card.
I often find myself in the Pret a Manger near the Guardian office at around 2pm, so when the coffee and sandwich chain popped up on the app last autumn, it seemed too good to be true.
The offer that day was £12 worth of hot food for £4 – I booked and paid in the evening and started to look forward to my lunch the next day. Would it be mac and cheese? Maybe a wrap? The prospect of the “magic bag” I had ordered kept me going that morning.
It was an unseasonably warm day, so no one was buying soup. I wouldn’t have bought soup given the choice. I wen to pick up my bag and headed back to the office. In it, I discovered three pots of soup – all different flavours – and two warm croissants, one with cheese and tomato and one with ham. It wasn’t what I’d have selected but pleased several colleagues and seemed reasonable value.
Last week I thought I’d try the app again – it was more like soup weather, and I was back in the office after several weeks eating fairly boring cheese sandwiches at home. I went to Pret and paid the same and got three pots of soup – all chicken and rice. And that was it. It was very pleasant soup – the colleagues I gave the other two pots to agreed – but I’d say that, for me, it added up to a false economy.
I asked other people if they’d used Too Good to Go for lunch. Several reported having had better luck than me – lunch boxes from independent cafes for £2.50, good salads from Chop’d. The best buys seemed to be food picked up at the end of the day and eaten the next, rather than the lunchtime offers.
One person said they had picked up a Costa bag one Sunday and been living off the tuna melts ever since after freezing them.
Near home and work there are a handful of outlets offering collection around lunchtime, including independent bakeries as well as some chains.
The choice is much broader if you are able to collect at the end of the day, and it seems like you get a better selection of food. If you’re up for a lunchtime lottery – and have colleagues who like soup – the app is well worth a punt.