Shari Bilt, a dietician with New York Weill Cornell Center in New York City, points out that meals like Lunchables are convenient, require no preparation, and they're appealing to kids.
But, she says, if you look at them more closely you'll see that their portions of meat and cheese are small. That will leave many kids hungry in the afternoons, so they'll go for junk food.
Even more important, Bilt also notes these lunches are high in saturated fat, the kind that's bad for your heart. They're also high in sugar and salt and provide no dietary fiber or fresh fruits or vegetables, all things kids should be eating.
Says Bilt, "A baloney and cheese Lunchables has as much fat as a McDonalds cheeseburger and fries, as much sugar as three peanut butter cups and as much salt as six individual size bags of chips."
Some of the lunch packs come with a drink and desert, that also poses a problem. The drinks included are usually high in sugar and low in nutritional value. Worse yet, it means kids aren't having milk with their lunch. Milk is an important part of a child's diet. And they're not cheap, either. The ones with a drink and candy cost between $2.39 and $2.79.
The calorie range of 350 to 550 isn't bad for elementary school kids, Bilt says. But, she adds, it's where the calories are coming from that matters.
As an alternative, Bilt suggests a turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, carrots and some low fat cookies. This meal has about 450 calories but only 7 grams of fat and and it includes 8 grams of fiber. Bilt suggests you use plastic containers like Tupperware that are divided into sections, much like those pre-packaged lunches have.
"The truth is," says Bilt, "if you want your child to eat a healthy lunch, you'll have to spend some time preparing it. Prepackaged food is all processed, mostly with salt, and it's not very healthy."
Claire Reegan, of Oscar Meyer, which makes Lunchables, responds: "Lunchables make lunch easy for busy moms and fun for kids. They should be eaten in moderation. No one suggests they should be eaten every day, no more than an adult should eat a steak dinner every day. But as an occasional choice, they're perfectly fine. All foods should be eaten in moderation. For moms who want to go that route we do offer low fat versions."
Bilt says the low-fat versions are better, but you can take it a step further by adding some items of your own, "They have some tuna salad prepackaged with crackers. You can add your own whole wheat crackers. If your child likes something crunchy and sweet, add low fat granola with raisin or other dried fruit, prepackaged yogurts or pudding snacks. They're healthier for kids."
For more information, visit the USDA's Food and Nutrition Information Center.
Try CyberDiet for nutritional facts and meal planning.
Or, Nutrition Action Healthletter, published by Center for Science in the Public Interest.
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