- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 10, 2000

A simple way to ensure your child is eating a nutritious lunch is to pack it yourself.

However, parents need to remember that sometimes the most convenient foods are not the most nutritious, says Barbara Gollman, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

Ms. Gollman advises staying away from prepackaged, single-serving sizes of chips and cookies that are often actually two servings, avoiding juice drinks that are not 100 percent juice and forgoing soda.

And what about Lunchables, Oscar Mayer's popular, prepackaged lunch-in-a-box? The boxes may be popular, but they are expensive and nutritionally lacking, Ms. Gollman says.

"I think they are disgusting," she says. "There is not much 'food' in there. The pizza one is high fat. The portions are small. And the meals contain candy and drinks that are full of sugar. They are just not good choices, and they are way too expensive. For a lot less, you can get a divided box and make your own. Lunchables really play into the hands of lazy parents."

Claire Regan, spokeswoman for Oscar Mayer, says that Lunchables are one of the company's best-selling items.

"Lunchables are a great way for busy parents to treat children to their favorite foods," she says. "But like anything else, they should be eaten in moderation."

Ms. Regan also points out that several varieties such as the ham-and-swiss combination and the turkey-and-swiss combination are considered low fat. Some Lunchable combinations do not include drinks or dessert, allowing parents more control over the sugar in their child's lunch, she says.

Ms. Gollman suggests livening up a brown-bag lunch by using tortillas to create wrap sandwiches that appeal to children.

"Making a wrap is so simple, kids can do it by themselves," she says. "You can put in some deli turkey or cheese, and they even can assemble it at school. It is fun and quick."

If children insist on packing chips with the sandwich, Ms. Gollman recommends some of the lower-fat varieties, such as baked chips or crisps. She also likes the idea of individual-sized vegetable dips that need no refrigeration.

Other healthy choices include string cheese, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, fruit salad, bagels, even leftover pizza or pasta.

Dietitian Keith Ayoob, a professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says packing lunches is an ideal time to teach children about food choices. Just make sure you pack items that fall within the spectrum of healthy eating, he adds.

"Whatever the kids choose is OK," he says. "This way they still have control. Let them choose between peanut butter and jelly or yogurt, carrot sticks or cucumbers. Once in a while, they can choose cookies or crackers, but not every day."

When packing lunches, parents should also pay attention to portion sizes, Mr. Ayoob says.

"Keep in mind that a [recommended] portion of chips is a half-ounce," he says. "Many small bags are more than that. Look at the label and remember that for young children, small is the way to go."

Some basic safety rules should be kept in mind when packing a lunch, Ms. Gollman says. Since bacteria can grow in temperatures of 40 degrees F or above, it is important to keep lunches cold. This can be accomplished by packing the lunch in an insulated box or bag and by using a cold pack or frozen juice box as a cold source, Ms. Gollman says.

Food will also stay fresher and germ-free longer if you use cold ingredients, such as bread that has been frozen and tuna that has been refrigerated before it was turned into tuna salad.

"Any time you have a meat product, the food needs to stay cold," Ms. Gollman says. "Even vegetables, if they are not washed properly, can cause problems if they get too warm. If the lunch will be sitting for more than two hours, you need a cold pack."

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