Of all the meals a parent prepares in a busy week, perhaps none is as dreaded as the school lunch. "Packing lunches is not the same as when we were young," says Bernice Barnes, a mother of two school-aged children in London, Ont. "It used to be that you'd just get a peanut-butter-and-jam or banana sandwich. But now with nut-free policies and days where schools enforce a litterless lunch, it's a lot of work to make sure the kids get a healthy and balanced lunch with foods they like to eat."
These days, with ongoing concern over childhood obesity, more parents know their kids need to eat healthier. That's the trend Peter Cavin has noticed at his store, the Country Grocer, in Victoria. Parents, he says, come in asking for ideas about what they can pack for lunches. Popular items include fruit and veggies, rice cakes, granola bars, peanut butter, jam, juice boxes, cookies, fruit cups and snack puddings. "This is an important time of year for our business," says Cavin, noting that he starts switching the merchandising focus from summer to back-to-school by mid-August.
But while some parents may be on the lookout for healthy lunch items, sadly others either don't know why they should, prefer convenience over nutrition or give in to kids' pester power. A survey of children's home-packed lunches at two Ontario elementary schools last year found 85% had no vegetables and almost every one had at least one sugary treat (some had up to five). Only one in five lunches included milk. Most of the rest had a sugary fruit-flavoured drink.
It's not all parents' fault. They're pressed for time and probably not eating healthy lunches at work either. Plus, it's a lot easier to squeeze unhealthy snacks into a lunch box than healthy ones. "A lot of parents don't understand how to incorporate food safely into lunch boxes and so they are afraid to pack milk products," says Natasha McLaughlin, a registered dietitian with Sante Optimal Health in Moncton, N.B. "And, of course, new nut policies in schools make it difficult to include a lot of foods. It can make parents discouraged."
Jennifer Dales, who has a son in Grade 2 in Ottawa, is discouraged by the number of unhealthy products promoted as lunch-box items in grocery stores. "My biggest beef is all the sugar, whether in packaged food or fruit drinks," she says. "I find that the stores typically have whole aisles full of junk that I wouldn't feed my son. Grocers could help parents more by displaying lunch-box ideas that are convenient and appealing to kids, but healthy, too."
Yet the food industry is doing more to make all products–including those targeted at kids–nutritionally sound. According to a recent Food & Consumer Products of Canada's survey of its members, most manufacturers are reformulating or bringing out new products with reduced or eliminated trans-fatty acids and saturated fats, lower sodium, fewer calories, less sugar and carbohydrates, added whole grains and fibre and added vitamins and minerals.
A new report from Packaged Facts finds the U.S. kids' food market is expected to boom in the next five years as manufacturers try to get out from under the blame of the childhood obesity crisis. About 40% of the packaged retail products targeting kids (worth $10 billion in the U.S.) had a "better-for-you" element. Many new products are labelled "natural" or "organic", have added calcium or vitamins, and claim absence of artificial ingredients.
"We know that moms have difficulties when it comes to feeding their kids food they like that is also good for them," says Richard Parkinson, director of marketing for Del Monte Canada. "We are trying to answer that challenge with our products, such as our fruit bowls and tins, as well as our newest fruit snacks, which are 100% peanutfree and completely natural." Last year, Del Monte launched mini Fruit Twists and Fruit Stripes.
Other food companies are introducing healthier versions of products targeted at kids. Dare Foods, for example, recently launched Bear Paws crackers that are low in saturated fat and a good source of nutrients such as calcium, niacin, thiamine and folate. The bear-paw shape appeals to kids, and since the crackers are made in a nut-free facility they are safe to include in lunch boxes.
Yogurt, another popular packed lunch item, now comes in a wide range of different brands, flavours and formats. Danone has several entries in this segment, and most recently introduced two new brands aimed at the younger set: Crush and Coolision. "To get through the barrier of mom and kids, you have to reconcile the healthy side and the coolness of the product," says Anne-Julie Maltais, external communications manager for Danone.
Crush comes in a squeezable package so it can be eaten without a spoon–a novelty kids like–and contains twice as much calcium and 30% less sugar as other yogurts–a benefit parents appreciate. Coolision, intended for tweens, also comes in innovative packaging: two tubes attached to each other. "These two new products were instrumental in reversing last year's decrease of the kids' segment, which fell 13% as of April 2010," notes Maltais, adding that by April 2011, kids' yogurt showed 18% sales growth.
Grocers are also trying to emphasize healthier products, especially in the produce department, says Steve Sharpe, owner of Sharpe's Food Market in Campbellford, Ont. "We promote fruit and vegetables as snacks and, since we are within walking distance of three schools, we promote our fast lunch options, including premade sandwiches from our deli department."