Food Fight

Parents and their kids wrestle with what should be packed into a school lunch.

August 24, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

When he opens his lunch at Prospect Mill Elementary School in Bel Air this year, what would fourth- grader Sean Powell like to see?

"A pizza Lunchable with a certain kind of dessert [cookies or chocolate pudding], and a snack and a drink," the 9-year-old said.

How often is he likely to get it?

"Like, once in 100."

Instead, Sean and his mother, Kathleen Powell, have negotiated a midday compromise. When he brings his lunch - about half the time - it's more likely to contain a turkey sandwich on white bread, a package of Pringles or Doritos, an apple or clementine oranges, juice and maybe a granola bar for dessert.

Nutritional guidelines may have changed over the years, but the typical lunch remains basically the same. And therein lies the struggle for parents who pack their kids' daily fare all school year - and for the students who confront both desirables and duds in the lunch box.

Many local kids and parents who pack say that they've long ago worked out a familiar formula that varies little from day to day. Lunch, they say, is not the time for experimentation or pushing boundaries. Yet many parents want to follow recommendations from nutrition experts that they slip in more vegetables and grains and cut down on sugar.

That's not easy. In a poll conducted this month by America Online's Kids Online Service, 48 percent of 12,000 responses cited pizza as a favorite choice for lunch. Forty-four percent wished for a soft drink, too.

But in interviews around the Baltimore region, students said they almost always end up with a sandwich when packing lunch.

Frequently it's that old standby, peanut butter and jelly. Prepackaged lunch kits, such as Oscar Mayer Lunchables, also were popular.

News about the nutritional content of school-cafeteria lunches is leading some parents to pack lunch more often.

Jessica Virden of Kent Island said she makes lunch for her 13-year-old son Devon "so I can make sure he gets a fruit and a whole-wheat bread." Devon, a pupil at Stevensville Middle School, said he's happy to find a tuna sandwich with a plum or a mango and chocolate pudding - though he occasionally longs for a hamburger.

Although kids usually know what to expect at lunch, they're not above trading away part of that carefully arranged meal to get something they like.

A 2004 survey of 1,000 children 8 to 12 and 1,000 mothers, performed by KRC Research for Lunchables, found that 73 percent of kids throw away part of their lunches each week and 36 percent trade something away.

In the AOL poll, the most popular items to trade were raisins and nuts (46 percent) and carrots (22 percent). In return, 43 percent of those responding wanted money for ice cream and 19 percent would seek a cookie.

Sean Powell sometimes trades to get the pizza he likes. "If somebody has something really good," he said, "I might be willing to offer the dessert."

John Padgett, who is going into fifth grade at Catholic Community School in South Baltimore, said he occasionally exchanges his chips for a different variety or his strawberries for grapes, "just to have something different." His sister Lauren, 7, might swap her chips for peanut-butter crackers.

John, 9, said his father, who packs his lunch, encourages him to communicate his desires. "He says, `If you ever see something in somebody else's lunch that you like, I'll get it." On Fridays, the children often get their favorite Lunchables as a treat: pizza for Lauren, Chicken Shake-Ups for John. While many parents think the standard lunch of sandwich, chips, fruit, juice and dessert is nutritious, Arlene Swantko, a registered dietitian with offices in Owings Mills and Columbia, says it still probably has too much sugar. One quick improvement: At least sometimes, she recommends, replace the juice box with a bottle of water.

Aware of criticism that its lunch combinations don't pass nutritional muster, Lunchables this year introduced several new or revamped products - including pizza - with reduced fat and sodium.

But even Swantko, whose children are grown, says parents need to be realistic about how far they can go in making lunch more healthful.

"The kid can't be made to feel weird at school," she says. "Realize that maybe that's the meal of the day where you're going to have to give in a little."

Parents should offer more variety - and more of the grains, vegetables, fruit and protein children need - at breakfast and dinner, Swantko said.

Another reason to pack a familiar lunch is that increasing academic demands at schools leave less time to eat. The KRC survey found that 71 percent of students had a lunch period of less than 30 minutes. Forty-eight percent said they typically spent less than 15 minutes actually eating the midday meal.

That's why Lesa Barnes of East Baltimore tries to make sure her 6-year-old son will be eager to consume what she sends with him to Brehms Lane Elementary School.

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