It's September, which means parents everywhere are loading the fridge with healthy food, vowing that this year they will fix their kids a tasty, nutritious, made-with-love lunch every day. This usually lasts about a week, and then, minutes before the school bus arrives, they find that all they've got to offer are a couple of overripe tomatoes in the crisper. Sometimes that premade tray of ham, cheese, and crackers has to suffice.
According to Business Week,prepackaged lunches are a $750 million-a-year industry, and the category is dominated by Kraft's Oscar Mayer Lunchables, whose 44 varieties (at last count) command 85 percent of the "lunch kit" market. Despite some efforts to make them healthier, most of these meals are high in fat, sodium, and harmful additives.
Nutritious alternatives are practically nonexistent. Applegate Farms, a leading organic food packager, made a brief foray into the market in 2003, but, according to the company, discontinued the products when mass-market retailers turned up their noses. Some local options exist: Fresh Direct delivers tasty-looking all-natural lunchboxes to its customers in New York City. And some California branches of Whole Foods offer store-made lunchboxes, featuring items like all-organic sandwiches and fresh fruit. Recognizing this hole in the market, boutique organic baby-food company Homemade Baby, plans to start selling a line called Homemade Kids in Whole Foods stores nationwide sometime next year.
Until then, we have to make do with the meager offerings currently for sale at the local grocery store. Are Lunchables and their fellow prepared meals that much worse than a homemade lunch? I put them to the test.
I chose nine prepackaged lunches that reflect the marketplace: Four different varieties of Lunchables, varying from simple cracker-stackers to complicated assemble-your-own meals; two varieties of Norwegian Jake's lunch wraps, marketed as a healthy alternative; and three other brands. I omitted lunches that were clearly not targeted at children: Starkist Lunch-To-Go, for example, or South Beach wraps.
I then assembled a tasting panel of 10:Cameron Stracher and Christine Pakkala,plus their children Simon (10) and Lulu (7), whose astonishingly finicky eating habits will soon be made famous in Cam's upcoming book Dinner with Dad: One Father's Epic Struggle to Make Dinner with His Family;Abby Greenspun, a nutritionist in private practice, and her children Aaron (10) and Jesse (8); Joyce Gibney, a certified holistic health counselor (and a mom); me, whose tastes run surprisingly parallel to a 10-year-old's; and my wife, Alia, who is a grown-up.
Panelists were asked to discuss and rate, on a simple numerical scale, each lunch's look and convenience as well as its taste. Joyce and Abby, our nutrition panelists, discussed and rated the nutritional content of each meal—or lack thereof. (Occasionally, they were forced to give negative scores to accurately reflect a meal's true horribleness.)
I then converted their ratings into grade point averages on a traditional academic 4.0 scale. I calculated each lunch's final GPA using the following ratio: A combined look and convenience score accounts for 20 percent of a meal's final GPA; taste accounts for 30 percent; and nutrition accounts for 50 percent.