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.
Here are the results, from those that should be put on academic probation, to those that passed—barely.
Lunchables Mess With Your Mouth Chicken Dunks Contents: Breaded chicken nuggets, Sour Tongue Tasting Fizz, ketchup, Starburst, Capri Sun 100-percent juice Look/Convenience GPA: 1.73 Taste GPA: 0.35 Nutrition GPA: -0.80 Weighted GPA: 0.05
No Lunchables product got me as excited as Mess With Your Mouth Chicken Dunks, which feature a "sour fizz" powder to sprinkle on chicken nuggets after they've been dipped in ketchup. But like many things I've anxiously anticipated in my life— Boogie Nights, smoking cigars, the 1983 Milwaukee Brewers team—the chicken dunks were bitterly disappointing. Limp and soggy, the cold chicken lumps were made less appealing by the fluorescent purple fizz powder, which added no real zing but instead an unpleasant sourness and a grainy texture. Kids and adults agreed: These are gross. "Minus 5 million," Lulu said when asked for her taste score. "No, minus 5 billion." (I interpreted that as a zero.)
Our nutrition panel was appalled by the very existence of this product, giving it a negative score not just for what it was but for what it taught kids: to sprinkle candy on an already unhealthy meal. Joyce was succinct: "Anyone who gives this to their kids is guilty of child abuse." The low nutrition score and the group's unanimous hatred were enough to help this product approach taste-testing absolute zero.
Lunchables Maxed Out Ultimate Nachos Contents: Tortilla chips, mild salsa, nacho-cheese dipping sauce, nacho-cheese seasoning packet, bottled water, Kool-Aid tropical-punch flavor powder, Air Heads candy Look/Convenience GPA: 2.13 Taste GPA: 2.23 Nutrition GPA: -2.00 Weighted GPA: 0.10
While the kids went crazy for Lunchables nachos, immediately sprinkling cheesy powder on the chips and dipping them in salsa and cheese sauce, and I thought the nachos were cheesily delicious, the more adult adults pooh-poohed the cold cheese sauce and found the salsa bland. And this meal—with 580 calories, 27 grams of fat, and half a day's worth of sodium—received the lowest nutrition score of all. The only healthy thing in the lunch, the spring water, was spoiled by the addition of sugary Kool-Aid powder. This lunch offers a prime example of the dangers of trusting the taste buds of kids: "These Air Heads are amazing," said Simon, scoring the meal's dessert a 10,000 for flavor. "Look, it's all sugar," he added rapturously as the adults looked on, aghast.
Norwegian Jake's LunchBoxers Peanut Butter & Jelly Contents: Flatbread wraps, peanut butter, jelly, part-skim string cheese, Nestle Crunch mini, Wet Nap Look/Convenience GPA: 0.13 Taste GPA: 1.69 Nutrition GPA: 0.40 Weighted GPA: 0.73
Attractively packaged, the Norwegian Jake's line—based in Michigan and extending its brand reach through 35 states—seems like a healthy winner on first glance. Its label promises an appealing-looking PB&J wrap. But each tortilla has to be painstakingly covered in squeezed-out PB&J. "By the time you put it all together, the bell would ring," groused Simon.
I thought the wrap tasted fairly good, like a reasonable facsimile of a peanut butter sandwich. But no one else was overly excited about it. The nutrition panel viewed this meal as a missed opportunity. While the tortillas have an aura of healthiness about them, it's misleading: They're not whole wheat, and they're loaded with hydrogenated oils. The meal packs in nearly 26 grams of fat—50 percent of the U.S. recommended daily intake —plus whopping amounts of sodium and sugar. "This is what drives me crazy," Abby said. "They take a healthy food and they make it junk."
Lunchables Turkey and American Stackers Contents: Crackers, cheese, turkey, chocolate Oreos Look/Convenience GPA: 2.33 Taste GPA: 1.18 Nutrition GPA: 0.00 Weighted GPA: 0.82
No one felt that strongly about this meal, except our nutrition panelists, who were amazed at how Oscar Mayer can foul up a simple tray of turkey, cheese, and crackers by adding crap like starch to the cheese to keep slices separated, hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup to the crackers, and sodium nitrite and ominous-sounding "smoke flavor" to the turkey. Nineteen grams of fat, 9 grams of saturated fat, 900 mg of sodium: It all adds up to a meal none of the kids liked that much. Only Simon gave this meal a decent taste score, because he likes Oreos.
Norwegian Jake's LunchBoxers Pizza Contents: Flatbread wraps, marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, Nestle Crunch mini, Wet Nap Look/Convenience GPA: 1.73 Taste GPA: 1.94 Nutrition GPA: 0.00 Weighted GPA: 0.93
"Definitely too complicated for school," Cam announced as he watched the kids struggle to open the tortillas, cheese, and pepperoni to assemble these pizza wraps. Although the kids seemed excited about the process, likely because the prospect of "pizza" was in sight, only Aaron ended up liking this meal; the other kids found it "weird" and "cold," asserting that it tasted measurably worse than cold pizza. Most of the adults, however, found the pizza wraps fairly palatable. The pepperoni in particular was singled out for praise, though not by Joyce, who noted that "pepperoni's a killer," adding fat, salt, preservatives, and nitrites to the meal. Abby was annoyed that the marinara sauce contained high fructose corn syrup.
Armour LunchMakers Cracker Crunchers Cooked Ham Contents: Crackers, ham, cheese, Nestle Crunch mini Look/Convenience GPA: 2.87 Taste GPA: 1.46 Nutrition GPA: 0.40 Weighted GPA: 1.21
More or less indistinguishable from other cracker-stacker meals, Armour's LunchMakers shared the same problems as those lunches. Hurting Armour's taste GPA: The cheese was "very bland" and the ham "not tasty." Hurting Armour's nutrition GPA: Nestle Crunch bars are "delicious." (Dedicated tasters that they were, the kids tasted every Nestle Crunch bar, in case minute differences existed in the Nestle Crunch bars used by different prepackaged lunch companies. Turns out: No.) The nutrition panel wearily ran down the now-familiar litany of sins: corn syrup and hydrogenated oil in the crackers, additives galore in the ham. After choking down a bite of this lunch, Simon groaned, "We need exercise." We took a break, during which the kids, suffering some kind of junk-food-induced delirium, gleefully chomped on whole, raw cucumbers.
Lunchables Ham & Cheddar Lower Fat Stackers Contents: Crackers, ham, cheese, Capri Sun flavored juice-drink blend, Jell-O fat-free pudding Look/Convenience GPA: 2.73 Taste GPA: 2.35 Nutrition GPA: 0.60 Weighted GPA: 1.55
Despite the meal's tepid initial reception—Jesse declared that it smelled, upon opening, "like barf"—most of us thought the meal was pretty tasty and deemed it the best of a bad lot of meat-and-cheese cracker-stackers. It is also marginally less unhealthy than its counterparts, with 11 grams less fat than other, similar meals. But, as Joyce pointed out, "Wherever there's low fat there's lots of sugar." And indeed, once again the meal's crackers contained high fructose corn syrup. While the fat-free pudding was grudgingly approved of, despite its high sugar content, the nutrition panel went apoplectic over the sugar-packed Capri Sun.
Uncrustables Peanut Butter & Grape Jelly Sandwich Contents: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread Look/Convenience GPA: 3.60 Taste GPA: 3.17 Nutrition GPA: 0.80 Weighted GPA: 2.07
Uncrustables are crustless white-bread packets—imagine a PB&J empanada—kept frozen at home, popped in a lunch bag in the morning, and eaten thawed at lunchtime. Though some felt the peanut butter was a little too sweet, and some of the kids complained it was overstuffed with jelly, overall the meal was a hit—even our nutrition panelists, who could barely bring themselves to touch other products, each happily ate half an Uncrustable. I, myself, with the culinary sophistication of a 10-year-old, thought this tasted like the PB&J of my dreams—fluffy white bread, gooey peanut butter, sickly sweet jelly, and no crust.
Our nutrition panel, however, saw some serious problems with this meal. While the peanut butter contained no corn syrup, the bread and jelly did. And both panelists were concerned with the amount of preservatives. (A recent New York Times Magazine story about school lunches hair raisingly notes that chef Ann Cooper, who is currently overhauling the Berkeley public school-lunch program, keeps an Uncrustable on her desk, where "it looked exactly the same months later.")
Kraft To Go! Contents: Triscuit crackers, colby-jack cheese Look/Convenience GPA: 2.80 Taste GPA: 2.41 Nutrition GPA: 2.40 Weighted GPA: 2.48
The simplest lunch proved by far the most popular with the nutrition panel. The whole-wheat Triscuits, with no hydrogenated oils or added sugar, were singled out for praise (though Joyce noted that it wouldn't kill Kraft to use reduced-salt crackers). And though it was high in fat, the meal contained real cheese, not a processed cheese product.
The kids declared the smallish serving of cheese and crackers "not enough" for lunch—"Maybe if you add a hot dog?" Simon said hopefully. But for the parents, this meal's size—and its lack of sugary drink and dessert—made this one of the few they would consider purchasing, noting that Kraft To Go! would serve as a nice component to lunch. Add some fresh fruit and veggies, maybe some low-fat yogurt, and Kraft To Go! is part of a healthy meal.
Given the poor scores all of these lunches received, are any suitable in a pinch? Yes, said our experts, if you use the healthiest of them as one piece of a nutritious lunch. Abby also noted that it's valuable to remember that these products represent one meal in a lifetime of eating. It's much more productive to build long-term healthy eating habits in kids than it is to obsess about one meal.
As for me, my daughter isn't school-age yet, but when she is, I plan to pack perfectly organic, locally grown, nutritionally balanced lunches for her every day. Don't be surprised, though, if I keep a box of Uncrustables buried deep in the freezer—for emergency use only, of course.