Packing a reasonably nutritious school lunch -- a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread, say, plus a sliced orange and a carton of milk (lowfat with an ice pack) -- doesn't have to take a lot of time. But Americans love saving time almost as much as they enjoy saving money. So the allure of Oscar Mayer's Lunchables to today's harried parents is obvious enough. Put a bunch of cardboard or plastic boxes in the grocery cart and you don't have to give lunch another thought.
But that convenience comes at the expense of children's health. The best Lunchables are only better than any other because they are smaller, thereby doing less damage. Most of them are based on some combination of fatty meat, cheese and refined white flour, plus synthetic drinks and snacks.
The meat in Lunchables is so thoroughly processed that one is tempted to put the specified meat in ironic quotation marks:
The "breads" and "crackers" and "pizza crusts" in Lunchables are primarily white, refined flour, plus some eye-crossingly long combination of oils, sugars, leaveners, conditioners, preservatives, colorings and flavorings. "Partially hydrogenated," a phrase that has become considerably hard to find in the supermarket, is still found on the ingredients lists of several Lunchables.
The "deep dish pizza" makes Domino's look like haute cuisine. Start with a spongy, Frisbee-shaped piece of "crust," squirt in some ketchup-like sauce and then sprinkle on some shredded "mozzarella cheese product." Complete the project by implanting the five little pepperoni disks composed of pork, mechanically separated chicken and beef. And then eat the whole concoction cold. No crust, no melted cheese and not a pizza. While Oscar Mayer's non-ironic slogan states, "It doesn't get any better than this," one is tempted to substitute the word "grosser" for "better."
Nutritionally, Lunchables are generally too high in sodium. A typical elementary school-aged child should consume about 1,200 milligrams of sodium per day. But Ham + Swiss with Crackers variety Lunchables, for instance, contain 1,130 milligrams of sodium (from the salty ham, cheese and crackers), nearly an entire day's worth. Various other varieties contain upwards of 800 milligrams of sodium.
Many Lunchables provide a disproportionately large share of a child's daily saturated fat quota. Half a dozen of the three dozen or so Lunchables, such as the Ham + Swiss with Crackers and the Turkey + Cheddar with Crackers varieties, have at least half a day's worth of saturated fat.
Though a few Lunchables now come with little tubs of cubed fruit (hooray, Oscar! -- even though the mandarin oranges were grown in China and packed in Thailand), the great majority come with junky "treats." Lunchables Deep Dish Pizza with Pepperoni includes Mini Cheese Nips and Chewy Chips Ahoy! Cookies. The "berry snacks" in a couple of Lunchables consist almost entirely of sugars that are artificially flavored and then colored with the potentially harmful artificial Red 40 dye. The snack contains more citric acid than the microscopic amount of concentrated pear juice (the closest thing to a berry in the product).
Lunchables must be selling like hotcakes (note to Oscar: please don't market a hotcake variety!) or there wouldn't be so many varieties. They all could be made healthier by cutting the salt, using more whole grains, including real meat and poultry and replacing the candies and cookies with apple slices, carrot sticks, a sprig of grapes and raisins. But the company tells me that it's doing as good a job as circumstances permit -- "circumstances" being that most healthier ingredients don't have the necessary months-long shelf life, and, basically, kids like Cheese Nips more than carrots. If the only Lunchables that Oscar Mayer can market are unhealthy, so be it.
If a big advantage of Lunchables is that they require little thought on the part of parents, a big downside is that they teach children that food shouldn't require much thought, or that eating needn't be preceded by thinking. And that's what makes Oscar Mayer's cardboard-clad "meals" particularly tragic. Besides coarsening kids' palates, they teach kids that shrink-wrapped convenience is the norm, that taking the time to make a sandwich or peel some fruit is a problem that needs an industrial "solution" like Lunchables and that you don't have to think about what you eat at all.
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