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Lunchbox dilemma: Healthy or convenient?

Posted by Lylah M. Alphonse  April 20, 2010 02:04 PM

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I was watching British chef Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution the other night, and was struck by a scene in which he showed elementary school kids in Huntington, West Virginia -- recently named the unhealthiest place in America -- how chicken nuggets are made.

It was pretty revolting.

When Oliver's done demonstrations like this in England, the school kids are disgusted by the nuggest and reach for the grilled chicken legs instead. But when he tried the experiment in West Virginia, the way the kids, who gagged and gasped while he showed the what went into the nuggets, clamored to eat the final, uber-processed product. Here's the clip, courtesy of YouTube:

My kids, like most kids, like chicken nuggets. I don't have time to make my own, so the ones they get in their lunchbox are as "natural" as possible, but really, they're still fake food. And after watching this, I felt kind of bad about it. Which isn't Oliver's point at all; a once-in-a-while -- or even once-a-week -- chicken-nugget lunch isn't going to rocket kids into obesity. But coupled with studies that say working moms are raising unhealthy kids, it does ratchet up the guilt levels, no matter how healthy the rest of their lunches are.

In The Boston Globe's features section today (April 21), there's a great story today about kids and healthy eating, pointing out that parents don't need to be chefs in order to cook with their kids. If you're looking for a little culinary guidance, the Whole Foods Market on River Street in Cambridge still has a few spots open in its Kids Food Adventure with chef Jehangir Mehta, a free workshop for kids age 6 to 11. It runs from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, April 24; the goal is to make kids feel more comfortable and be more adventurous about food and cooking. For more information or to register, call the store at 617-876-6990.

So, here are the questions: Do you feel like you have to choose between healthy and convenient when it comes to packing your kids lunches? What healthy, packable, school-lunch appropriate offerings are your kids most likely to eat?

Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at April is Autism Awareness Month; you can read her posts about autism here.

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16 comments so far...
  1. I don't find that 'healthy' means inconvenient, but part of this was early training. My kids actually like and ask for salads, hummus on whole wheat bread, soup in a thermos, fresh fruit and the like. None of this is time consuming at all. My kids know that if they want a snack, they can grab fruit, cheese, or yogurt at any time. My kids bring lunch about 2-3 days per week. It never takes me more than 10 minutes to make their lunches, without resorting to a lot of prepackaged processed stuff. But again, they never got used to eating Lunchables or stuff like that when they were small, so getting them to eat healthy isn't a problem.

    Some people think that avoiding processed food is 'snobby'. I just saw it as saving myself work in the future. Any bad habit they get into when they are small will need to be broken later. Less work just to avoid the bad habit in the first place if you can.

    Posted by bms April 20, 10 03:52 PM
  1. I don't think healthy and convenient are mutually exclusive by any means. Cheap and healthy, maybe, but many healthy foods are quite easy to throw in a lunchbox.

    I should preface my comment with the disclosure that I don't have kids. But I do make lunches for my husband and I each morning. Granted, we don't have the taste buds of school aged children, but much of the food we eat I remember eating in my own school lunches as a kid: apple wedges with peanut butter, single serve yogurts, cold cut sandwiches on whole wheat bread, dried fruit or fruit leather, granola bars, sliced carrots and cukes, bags of grape tomatoes, low sugar puddings, pretzels....

    I remember on mornings that my mom got flustered trying to get us all out the door in time, she would pour breakfast cereal into tupperware containers, throw it in our lunchboxes with some fruit, and give us a quarter for milk to go with it.

    Posted by Sarah B April 20, 10 04:07 PM
  1. I used to pack lunch for my kids, but discovered that they were trading some of the healthy, all-natural items I would pack with other kids for junk. So now I just let them get school lunch. I do wish that schools had healthier options for school lunches. For many kids, school lunch is the only hot meal the child will get all day. It would be nice if it wasn't always pizza and burgers. I think that once kids get used to eating healthier, they'll like it!
    At the school I work at, I can't believe some of the crap the kids are served for lunch. Not to mention that at the school my son attends, there are so many allergies that there is a list of prohibited lunch/snack items!

    Posted by Melissa R April 20, 10 05:07 PM
  1. I never had kids but remember eating a lot of fruit, pbj's and flutternutter's on white bread. In grammar school we did not have a cafeteria so if we wanted to eat lunch we had to bring it. I commend what Jaimie is trying to accomplish. Watching the video was kind of gross when he had that big pile of chicken junk. I don't eat meat. The kids said that they would eat it anyway because they are hungry.

    Good luck Jaimie with Alice

    Posted by sophie08 April 20, 10 09:08 PM
  1. We make healthy lunches for our kids for lunch. Hummus or peanut butter sandwiches, pasta or quinoa leftovers, beans, vegetables, fruit, sometimes chips, sometimes cookies (typically those on the healthier side), nuts, etc. They're not allowed to share at school because of allergies. There is no expectation on their part that they will get anything else. My son's teachers are pretty impressed with what he's eating (he's almost 5) compared to other kids at the preschool. But, again, this is what he expects. So, like my daughter, they are happy to eat it. That's not to say they don't ever get "junk food"--it's just not expected on a daily basis. It helps that there are no food choices at their schools, and we have to send them with lunch.

    The stuff they serve my son for snack, however, is mostly junk. Partially hydrogenated graham crackers, HFCS, food dyes, etc. I haven't sent him with his own snack...but have thought about it. That seems like going too far.

    Posted by Beth April 20, 10 10:24 PM
  1. I agree with the others who have said that healthy does not have to mean inconvenient. Does it really take any longer to make a turkey sandwich than it does to throw some chicken nuggets in a container? My daughter doesn't eat sandwiches, but loves a bagel with cream cheese, or rolled-up lunch meat and some crackers, or hummus with veggies and pita wedges/chips, cold quesadillas, or certain leftovers (eaten cold, as the school does not have any provision to heat up lunches). Add some fruit and a milk, and some water and a snack, and I'm done. I'd love to have them buy the school lunch more, but although it has improved over the past few years, it's still a lot of junk.

    Posted by akmom April 21, 10 06:39 AM
  1. I have written an entire website about healthy snacking:
    It is easy when you plan - something we don't really have time to do - but I hope to inspire parents to make healthy snacks rather than reach for crappy packaged ones.

    Posted by Snack-Girl April 21, 10 07:58 AM
  1. My 3-yr old son brings his lunch to preschool twice a week (and is home with me the rest of the time), and is fortunately a creature of habit: grilled cheese on whole wheat (the school will keep it in the fridge until lunch and then heat it in the microwave), grapes, and pretzels every time. Having to respect allergies in the classroom (I assume that my children will never bring a pbj to school) is hard, since a pbj on whole wheat is an excellent lunch for a kid (or grownup). But there are lots of simple options mentioned in previous comments that can keep the sodium-laden scary lunchables at bay, and can train kids' palates away from salty processed foods. And as long as it's healthy, what's wrong with eating the same thing most days of the week? A little treat in the lunchbox and the promise of buying a favorite school lunch once a week should help to balance things for a kid who'd prefer the dyed and salted options their friends have.

    But I'm with Beth on the preschool-provided snack issue: my son apparently eats his weight in crackers that, while trans-fat and dye free, aren't something I'd offer at home, aren't what I'd choose for him to be eating for a snack. And that doesn't begin to address "special snack" days - birthdays, special events... They're not too frequent, but I have to wonder about the ingredient list when my son comes home saying "we had doughnuts for snack today!" I do my best to offer a filling, healthy breakfast, even if it means eating in the car on the way to school, and then offer lots of healthy options in the afternoon to make up for the crackers and whatever else. It's been hard for me to let go of knowing what he's eaten for part of the day, but I suppose it's all part of the parenting process. It's my job to offer healthy, tasty food MOST of the time and let go of the rest.

    And I will say that, on the days when he and I lunch together, I'm more likely to have some fruit with MY lunch since I expect him to eat fruit with his lunch.

    Posted by matthew'smom April 21, 10 08:35 AM
  1. Here is a great blog by a teacher whose resolution in 2010 is to eat the school lunches every day. She keeps track of all the meals and comments on how they affect her.

    Posted by Kaleigh April 21, 10 11:27 AM
  1. When my son was in day care and they were allowed to heat up a meal he ate great always a homecooked meal. I would cook the better part of Sunday evening and portion off meals and freeze them. Then each day pick one out and send to school for a reheat. It would also work for our dinners. I am a single working mother and although it is not alway easy to set aside the time to do it does make all the other meals super stress free.

    Now that he is in public schools no reheating so the meal is usually cold and usually pb&j (teddys natural PB with flax seed) on wheat with healthy and yummy snacks - fruit, carrots, nuts, cheese, yogurt, chips or homemade cookies.

    The kids can not trade and I hope he's not throwing anything out, he says he likes what is packed and I always include him in the process so I trust he is being truthful.

    Like I said it is not always easy buts its really not hard either.

    Posted by singlemom April 21, 10 11:38 AM
  1. I don't think you have to choose, but it does take a little more effort to cut up fruits and veggies, make sandwiches, etc. We get around that by making some of the lunch the night before so we're not all running around the kitchen in the morning.

    My kids eat whatever we put in their lunchboxes (sandwiches, veggies, fruit, applesauce, yogurt, whatever) but I expect it's partly because what we expect them to eat for lunch is basically what they eat at home every day, too. And if they sometimes eat something that's a treat or less than ideal, we don't freak about it.

    Posted by anita April 21, 10 11:58 AM
  1. The shocking state of school lunches has required me to prepare and pack healthy lunch box meals for my 3 kids since my oldest started preschool 15 years ago. Parents need a simple and affordable way to be sure their children will eat a healthy lunch, but we can't wait around for the school districts to get the funding and programs
    in place for change to happen in the schools. Our kids need good nutrition today, and packing a lunch box is the only sure solution available right now.

    My website offers lots of easy (and healthy!) lunch ideas here: and we offer a super affordable, green, and easy Lunch Box System to make packing all those meals fast and convenient at

    EasyLunchboxes is now proud to be a Participating Company of the Green My Lunchbox Campaign, ( a national campaign asking 15,000 families to pledge to pack a waste-free lunch to eliminate 1 million pounds of waste going to landfills (based on the estimate that on average a school-age child using a disposable lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year - - Kelly Lester, mom & CEO,

    Posted by Kelly Lester April 21, 10 03:04 PM
  1. I have a picky eater - and no, it's not early training. The allergy restrictions, combined with the no reheating, combined with the limited time available for lunch (25 minutes to line up, wash hands, go to caf, sit down or go through lunch line, clean up - and oh yeah, you are encouraged to finish early and get extra recess time) have me going stark raving mad.
    I read the blogs, but still feel like I fail at lunches most days.

    Posted by Lizzie April 21, 10 06:53 PM
  1. I do think it easier to pack an unhealthy lunch than a healthy one but it is definately possible. All the junk is prepackaged, you grab and bag and throw it in. My daughter, 6th grade, has gone through a great healthy eating phase and wants me to pack cucumbers, red peppers, pea pods in her lunch. I do (with a peanut butter sandwich or a bagel) but that's work. The most difficult part is keeping that type of fresh food in the house without running to the grocery store mid-week.

    My son will only eat school lunches and boy it is tough to find healthy choices. Our highschool seems to have greatly improved the choices, I'm hoping that will trickle down to the lower schools soon.

    I just wish the schools would offer better choices which would make it easier and healthier all around.

    Posted by Jayne April 22, 10 10:54 AM
  1. That Jamie Oliver video clip showing American kids chicken slurry turned into 'nuggets' -- and having them all eat it anyway, even though it was disgusting -- was really sad.

    1. School lunch is one of 3 meals a day. Make sure your kids are getting a good breakfast and a very good dinner with vegetables and some protein in it. That way even if the lunch you pack gets only partly eaten or traded for something you wouldn't approve of, eh -- 2 out of 3 isn't so bad.
    2. I pack fairly small lunches, because I hate wasted food. So usually my kids finish the lunch and come home hungry for a snack. If there's something left like the carrot sticks, it's the first snack they get, before they can have another snack.

    We don't eat McDonalds because it doesn't taste good. Now I'm going to show my kids (Kindergartener and 4th grader) this video clip and show them why it tastes so bad.

    Posted by Mary O April 22, 10 11:23 PM
  1. We just recently got Kelly Lester's Easy Lunchbox System and while we were doing very well with lunches before, now we're having a whole lot more fun with them. My kids LOVE them and I swear it is making it easier for us to pack things in the morning - there is something about seeing the tray in front of you and knowing what fits in it that makes it easier. We use her two smaller tray openings for fruit and veggies and then the larger one for a sandwich, roll-ups or a wrap. Sometimes we reverse things and do a mini bagel sandwich in one of the smaller compartments and a big fruit salad in the larger one. The system comes with a great lunch pack that has room on top of the lunch for a snack (I usually do a piece of fruit or a snacky thing like pretzels or trail mix in a fabric bag) and pack a Sigg water bottle. My kids' school has made things easier for us by not allowing trading and we talk A LOT about nutrition at home. As parents, we share how it is hard to make the right choices and how struggle with it too. I also try to do a small treat in each lunch - whether it is a small hershey kiss or a healthy cookie - just something. Check out my website for lots of lunch ideas too ( and the blog section to learn more about the easy lunchbox system.

    Posted by Amy Dawson April 28, 10 09:40 AM
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about the author

Lylah M. Alphonse
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe Magazine staff and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling a full-time career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day, and about everything else at Write. Edit. Repeat. When she's not glued to the computer or solving a kid-related crisis, she's in the kitchen or, occasionally, asleep.

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