What’s for lunch?

What's for lunch?

With back-to-school season in full swing, busy parents are
trying to find convenient yet nutritious ways to hand their kids a
healthy lunch. And that has the attention of food
manufacturers.
With back-to-school season in full swing, busy parents are trying to find convenient yet nutritious ways to hand their kids a healthy lunch. And that has the attention of food manufacturers.

Kraft Foods Inc., General Mills Inc., Campbell’s Soup Co. and ConAgra Foods Inc. are some of the food companies trying to show that packaged food can deliver on price, convenience, taste and health. From Kraft’s Lunchables to ConAgra’s Chef Boyardee, food manufacturers are reformulating their products in an effort to lure more parents.

Some parents, with memories of what packaged foods looked like in their childhoods, need more convincing. Nutritionists are more skeptical, and some doctors say that substitutes and fillers in reduced-calorie foods can be worse for kids than full-fat versions.

Still, the demand for convenient packaged food that can count toward daily fruit or vegetable requirements is increasing. Experts say that’s driven not just by moms and dads but by kids.

The major packaged-food companies have launched products with reduced fat, calories or sodium for fall.

Darin Dugan, senior director of marketing for Kraft’s Lunchables, said that while kids will opt for tastier options just like everyone else, they’ve also got an eye on what’s good for them.

“Moms and kids are looking for fresher, more wholesome, less-processed lunch options,” he said. “While kids aren’t as nutritionally aware as moms, kids will tell you they know foods that are good for them and not so good for them.”

Lunchables recently underwent sweeping changes to packaging and advertising, which came on the heels of product reformulations that cut calories, fat and sodium and also removed high fructose corn syrup from most of the line. The result has been dramatic sales gains that the company describes as about 10 percent. According to grocery scanner data from SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm, Lunchables sales increased 6 percent over the 52 weeks ended August 8, to $578 million. IRI data doesn’t include Wal-Mart or club stores.

Lunchables is just one example. While Gen Y parents may have had baloney on white bread, chips, a juice box and a snack cake, for instance, their kids may be more likely to have sandwich on wheat bread, fruit, pretzels or yogurt, and maybe a piece of candy.

For fall, in response to the shifting mandate, ConAgra’s Chef Boyardee brand is promoting whole-grain pastas, while General Mills’ Yoplait is advertising Go-Gurt,a yogurt that can go into a lunchbox frozen and be thawed by lunch time.

Campbell’s is pushing its fruit-and-vegetable drinks, V8 V-Fusion, which offer a full serving each of fruits and vegetables. The idea is to sneak vegetable nutrients into children’s diets with a sweet-tasting beverage.

Some doctors and nutritionists argue that this strategy misses the point. The foods are, in short, side-stepping opportunities to eat whole foods that have fewer calories and more fiber, they say.

Geeta Maker-Clark, a family physician with NorthShore University HealthSystem, said she sometimes views the processed-food industry as “the enemy” of her work.

“They market in such a way as to make the food seem irresistible and impossibly convenient for parents, and they really sort of create a situation in which it’s easier and cheaper for parents to choose what they’re offering versus something that’s clearly going to benefit their children,” she said.

Highly processed food, she added, can be particularly dangerous for children with inflammatory conditions like asthma. “(It) can worsen their problems,” she said. “And I don’t think most people know that.”

Better-for-you updates of classic processed food are generally focused on reducing fat, calories and sodium, and sometimes removing such ingredients as high fructose corn syrup. Products that meet established criteria may be promoted within grocery stores as a “better for you” option.

In the absence of universal guidelines, the packaged-food industry created a “Smart Choices” labeling system, in an effort to denote healthier foods. The FDA shut down that program last fall and is in the process of establishing a federally-regulated standard.

From a business perspective, however, healthier makeovers often seem to boost sales. For instance, Lunchables discontinued its Maxxed Out line, which had larger portions and higher calories. Lunchables also launched a sub-segment dubbed “Lunchables with water,” which features white-meat chicken and turkey, crackers with whole grain, mandarin oranges, unsweetened applesauce or sugar-free Jell-O, and, of course, water.

Northfield-based Kraft has also revisited packaging and advertising. Kraft ditched movie tie-ins on packaging, and nutritional information is more prominent. Most Lunchables trays are now clear, because moms said they wanted to be able to see the food inside. Because the plastic trays aren’t recyclable, Kraft moved to avoid “green” criticism by partnering with TerraCycle to convert used Lunchables containers into lunch boxes and pencil cases.

New ads focus on kids’ potential, and an updated logo stacks the words “Lunch” and “ables.” One advertisement, depicting a young boy doing a chalk drawing, says, “Even da Vinci started somewhere.” The ad is promoting a cheese-pizza lunch, with a side of mandarin oranges.

Katie Nahrwold, a mother of four who lives in Kenilworth, Ill., said she sees lots of Lunchables boxes when she volunteers in the school lunchroom. She added that some parents get it for their children as a Friday treat.

“I think it’s easy for working parents just to grab and go,” she said. She buys the meals occasionally when in the grocery store with her kids at lunchtime, but they often eat the treat and leave the rest. “It reminds me of those old TV dinners,” she said.

Juliet Berger-White, of Evanston, Ill., said she doesn’t buy Lunchables because her daughter wouldn’t like everything in the container. It’s easier for her to assemble a lunch piecemeal. For the first day of kindergarten, she packed a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, pretzels, organic baby carrots, a plum, water and an organic juice box. Most days, Berger-White adds a small treat, like a piece of chocolate.

“I think it’s fair to say we have to strengthen our relationship with moms and with kids,” said Lunchables’ Dugan. He added that changes to the products are altering parents’ perceptions in Kraft focus groups. Of the families tracked over the last year, 68 percent said Lunchables quality has improved, and 89 percent like the new package.

“Moms told us they really wanted to see the food,” Dugan said, adding that “kids like what we’re doing, and they understand that the move to fresher, less-processed foods is the right thing to do.”

Nutritionists are still skeptical. “I always applaud when companies reduce calories, sodium and fat,” said Toby Smithson, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. She added, however, that Lunchables’ sodium levels “still tend to be high,” and while improvements are a good thing, “we’re not quite there yet.”

For some families, home-made lunches are the only way to go. Maker-Clark said that for her children, ages 7 and 5, she has a handful of lunch options that create variety and make her kids feel good about eating healthy. One day may feature a whole-wheat pita with almond butter, banana and unsweetened coconut flakes, celery with peanut butter and raisins, or cheese and crackers with grapes and a hard-boiled egg. Sides may include berries or Stonyfield Farm’s YoBaby yogurt.

“School lunch is a great opportunity,” Maker-Clark said of getting kids to eat healthy. “If they’re having a great lunch, and (other) kids see it, they have a sense of pride around what they’re eating. That’s worked for my kids. They take pride in their great lunches, and so they tell other kids about them.”

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