No one ever said pre-packaged lunch kits were as healthy as mom’s homemade lunches but let’s face it, on those hectic mornings when you’re racing against the clock, a pre-packaged meal can sometimes come in handy. Just remember, however, that some lunch kit choices are better than others and that none provide a powerhouse of nutrients. Family nutrition expert Liz Weiss gives advice on how to give your child’s lunch kits a healthy makeover.
THE LOWDOWN ON PRE-PACKAGED LUNCH KITS
Your best bet when it comes to packing your child’s lunch is to limit their use and to supplement with other foods — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat dairy — to give them a passing grade.
EVALUATE THE OPTIONS
Lunch kits are notoriously high in fat, saturated fat, and sodium and notoriously low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Reading labels reveals that some products have nearly a day’s worth of sodium, half the recommended saturated fat for the day, and little to no fiber. None include fruits or vegetables and most rely on refined flour versus whole grains. One lunch kit recently caught my eye with its 600-plus calories, 33 grams of fat, 13 grams of saturated fat, 1,000 milligrams of sodium, and 0% vitamin C.
Parents should ask themselves the following questions when buying a lunch kit:
How often do I send my child to school with a pre-packaged lunch kit?
How much sodium does the lunch contain? It’s recommended that kids and adults consume no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium a day. Choose a lunch kit with no more than about a third of the suggested amount.
Is there a good source of calcium in the product? Children between the ages of 4 and 8 need 800 milligrams of calcium per day while 9 to 13 year olds need 1,300 milligrams. If your lunch kit provides little to no calcium, supplement with a glass of lowfat milk or a yogurt or cheese snack.
How much vitamin A & C does the lunch contain? Most contain very little. Some do contain 100% vitamin C but that’s typically from juice versus real fruit. Eating a minimum of five fruit and vegetable servings a day will cover a child’s bases for vitamins A and C and many others.
Is there any fiber in the meal? Most lunch kits contain between 0 and 3 grams of fiber. To put that number in perspective, new federal guidelines suggest that children 4 to 8 years old need 25 grams while older kids need between 25 to 38 grams daily.
Are there enough calories in the meal to call it “lunch?” Too many calories is clearly a problem in light of our nation’s growing epidemic of obesity. However, some lunch kits have so few calories (some have less than 200) that they’re more like a snack than a meal. In general, a child between the ages of 4 to 6 needs about 1,500 calories a day while an older child, 7 to 9, needs about 1,800. Consuming a lunch with anywhere from 400 to 500 calories is reasonable.
If a product claims to be organic, all-natural, or vegetarian, does that mean it’s better for my child? Indeed, the organic, vegetarian, and all-natural products don’t contain any artificial colors, flavors, preservatives etc so for many families they’re a sought-after alternative. By no means, however, do they guarantee the product will come packed with more nutrients than other lunch kits on the market.
LUNCH KIT MAKEOVERS
To weave extra nutrition into a lunch kit, parents can pack a super nutritious snack for the mid-morning break in addition to adding a few extra items to the lunch. If parents, at the very least, can conveniently pack along a fruit and a vegetable, their children will be well on their way to better nutrition. Consider some of the following makeover ideas:
Tuna Lunch Kits - Tuna lunch kits come with a 3-ounce portion of tuna, a packet of mayo and relish, and 6 crackers. Tuna provides good quality protein and some healthy omega-3 fats so it’s a great start. But parents can easily supplement this lunch to add calories (tuna kits have just 210), fiber, calcium, vitamins, and minerals.
Add » cup shredded carrot
Mix right in with the tuna for color, flavor, fiber, and disease-fighting antioxidants.
Pack a piece of fresh fruit or a convenient pre-packaged fruit cup.
Add lowfat milk
For added calcium.
Add whole grain crackers
For children with bigger appetites, pack along extra cracker just make sure they’re whole grain crackers.
Bagel Lunch Kits - A new line of pre-packaged lunch kits claims to be “A Complete and Nutritious Lunch.” Given the fact that none contain a fruit or a vegetable and all are low in fiber (with just 2 grams per meal), the claim is a bit of a stretch. Most of these meals, however, do have calcium with up to 35% of the daily value in some of them. To make the 3 Cheese Pizza bagel lunch kit more nourishing, parents can toss in a few extras.
Find a fun container and pack along a colorful salad made with pre-washed baby spinach leaves, grape tomatoes, carrots, chickpeas, and a canola or olive oil-based salad dressing.
Make the mid-morning snack count towards good nutrition with a piece of fresh fruit or a fruit cup.
NEW GENERATION LUNCH KITS
The company that sells one of the most popular brands of lunch kits has come out with a line of so-called healthier options. All provide 100% vitamin C (from fruit juice, not actual fruit) and are considered a good source of calcium. They too could easily be made over with better nutrition in mind. Take these chicken wraps for example.
Pack along a small container filled with salsa for antioxidants and flavor.
Add Bell pepper strips
Very thinly sliced red or yellow bell peppers are a natural addition to the wraps adding crunch, flavor, fiber, and vitamins.
Pack a piece of fresh fruit or a fruit cup.
HOMEMADE LUNCH KITS
The trick to getting kids to eat Mom’s lunch versus one of the many pre-packaged lunches from the supermarket is to make it fun, eye-catching, and delicious. To do that, use colorful containers and cool, individually wrapped foods such as nutritious cheese sticks, mini applesauce, and carrots with dip. The following four ideas take just minutes to prepare and provide children with the nutrients they need to learn and grow. Don’t forget to pack a water bottle every day so your children can grab a sip whenever they get thirsty.
Liz’s Lunchbox Idea #1:
Morning Snack — Carrot sticks with dip, 100% fruit juice
Sandwich — Turkey All Wrapped Up
Fruit — Mixture of green and red grapes
Milk — Look in the supermarket for lowfat milk packaged in drink boxes or small plastic bottles or fill up a thermos
Dessert — Three chocolate kisses
TURKEY ALL WRAPPED UP
Makes 4 Servings
The time-honored turkey & cheese sandwich gets a nutritious update with the addition of avocado, salsa, and a whole wheat flour tortilla. Wrap it tightly in sandwich wrap to keep the avocado fresh and green.
Four 8-inch whole wheat flour tortillas
1/2 ripe avocado, peeled, pitted and cut into thin slices
1/4 cup salsa
6 ounces thinly sliced roasted turkey
1/2 cup pre-shredded reduced-fat Mexican blend or Cheddar cheese
Arrange the turkey, cheese, salsa, and avocado down the center of each of the tortillas. Roll up tightly, slice in half, and you’re good to go.
Calories 190, Fat 7g, Saturated Fat 2g, Sodium 690mg, Carbohydrate 26g, Fiber 3g, Protein 15g
LIZ’S LUNCH IDEA #2
Morning Snack — Mini applesauce and/or popcorn, lowfat milk
Sandwich — Ham & Cheese Pinwheels
Fruit — Strawberries
100% fruit juice
Dessert — Two small cookies
HAM & CHEESE PINWHEELS
Makes 4 Servings
The ham sandwich has been the number one American favorite for more than a decade. To modernize this old classic, add carrots for cancer-fighting carotenoids and a whole wheat flour tortilla for heart-healthy fiber.
Four 8-inch whole wheat flour tortillas
½ cup light cream cheese, softened
1 large carrot, shredded (about 1 cup) or 1 cup pre-shredded carrots
½ cup pre-shredded reduced-fat Cheddar cheese
6 ounces thinly sliced lean deli ham
» cup honey mustard
» cup barbecue sauce
» cup hummus
Spread the cream cheese evenly over each of the tortillas. Layer each tortilla with the carrots, cheese, and ham. Roll up tightly and slice in half. Serve with your choice of dipping sauces.
Calories 290, Fat 9g, Saturated Fat 5g, Sodium 880mg, Carbohydrate 42g, Fiber 4g, Protein 19g
LIZ’S LUNCH IDEA #3:
Morning Snack — Lowfat cheese stick and/or apple slices, 100% fruit juice
Sandwich — Peanut butter & jelly on whole wheat bread
Fruit — Melon
Vegetable — Sliced red, yellow, & orange bell pepper slices
Milk — Look in the supermarket for lowfat milk packaged in drink boxes or small plastic bottles
LIZ’S LUNCH IDEA #4:
Morning Snack - All-natural squeeze yogurt and/or grapes, water
Pasta Salad - made with bowtie pasta, steamed broccoli, chickpeas, Parmesan cheese, and salad dressing
Fruit - Orange sections
Milk - Look in the supermarket for lowfat milk packaged in drink boxes or small plastic bottles or fill up a thermos
MOM’S LUNCHBOX SNACK FAVORITES
Fresh Fruit: It comes in its own wrapper, requires little or no preparation, and is naturally packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients (plant nutrients), and fiber.
Mini applesauce: Look for an all-natural brand and avoid the ones with added sugar and the fake blue, green, red, or pink coloring. What’s up with that?
Mini fruit cups and bowls: Fruit cups and bowls come in handy when your own fresh fruit bowl is empty. Read labels and choose products packed in fruit juice versus syrup.
Squeeze Yogurt: Go for the all-natural brands made without artificial colors and flavors.
Popcorn: Kids love the small, individually packaged bags of popcorn and moms love the fact that popcorn is a whole grain. Look for popcorn made without hydrogenated vegetable oils. (Popcorn isn’t recommended until the age of 4 because it’s a potential choking hazard).
Cheese Sticks: Part-skim mozzarella cheese sticks provide high-quality protein and calcium and only 1 gram of saturated fat.
Carrots with Dip: Little packets of baby carrots with a Ranch dressing dip are fun for kids and help to weave a vegetable into the lunchbox. A less expensive option is to pack a small bag of baby carrots with some dip on the side in a small container.
Make-Your-Own Trail Mix: Combine mixed nuts, raisins or dried apricots, mini pretzels, sunflower seeds, breakfast cereal, and a few chocolate chips into a resealable plastic bag.
Sweet Potato Chips: If your kids love potato chips, make the switch to sweet potato chips. They’re made with healthy oils and just one serving contains nearly a day’s worth of vitamin A.
Don’t forget too that when you rely on pre-packaged lunches, all that packaging ends up in a landfill somewhere. Making your own lunch from scratch and packing it in re-usable containers and a cool lunchbox saves both money and waste.
Recipes excerpted from: The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers -Broadway Books, January 2004.