Pre-packaged kids meals try to swap fat for fresh

Pre-packaged kids meals try to swap fat for freshBusy parents know there's a reason prepackaged lunches for children are a $750 million dollar industry, what we might not be aware of is that the convenience could be killing our kids.

Last year, non-profit organization,The Cancer Project, confirmed what many would like to ignore: those quick, lunchtime fixes come with a dangerously high price. Along with cute mini hot dogs, bite sized pizzas and "stackable" crackers and cheese comes an unwelcome side order of saturated fats, high sodium and cholesterol -- serving up increased risk for childhood obesity, diabetes and possibly colorectal cancer.

Did you hear that? It was collective parental guilt ratcheting up a few notches.

According to The Cancer Project, the prevalence of overweight children ages 6 to 19 has tripled over the past two decades, and the organization pointed to data revealing that, "obese children as young as 10 have been found to have arteries equivalent to those of an average 45-year old." This month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that nearly one-third of American kids are overweight or obese.

Market leader, Oscar Mayer'sKraft Lunchables were hit hardest by last spring's news earning the top two spots on The Cancer Project's "Worst Packaged Lunchbox Meals" list for its "Maxed Out Lunchable" line. However, in spite of warnings, consumer appetite for convenience remains insatiable.

In fact, our kids are gobbling up pre-packaged meals more than ever. The NPD Group reported that the average child ate 25.4 pre-packaged lunches from March 2009 to March 2010, an increase from 22.3 meals per child three years earlier.

In an effort to ease consciences and do their bit in preventing pre-adolescent hardening of the arteries, Kraft Lunchables and Norwegian Jake's LunchBoxers have added "nutritious choices" in an effort to blend convenience more closely with good nutrition.

In an article by Sandra Pedicini for the Orlando Sentinel,Pre-packaged kids' lunches get healthier, a Kraft spokesperson reported that almost 70% of moms surveyed said Lunchables have improved over the past year. The company touts its menu makeover as, "Lunchables like you've never seen before." Featuring "wholesome" foods, whole grains, spring water, applesauce and real turkey breast (what was it before?), the leaner lunch adds up to 370 calories, 8 grams of fat, 590 grams of sodium and 4 grams of fiber.

Recently, however, when parents discussed the new and improved Lunchables on "mommy" blog site,, opinions were divided. "The new healthier Lunchables [have] nearly 3x the DAILY recommended amount of sugar, half the recommended sodium and so many chemicals," wrote commenter Amy. "There is a health crisis in America with diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and cancer on the rise. Much of it is attributed to the standard American diet. Our kids are so unhealthy, they have a lower life expectancy than we do ... just like we wouldn't give a cigarette to a kid, we shouldn't give them highly-processed food."

OddWomanOut defiantly disagreed. "I guess I'm going to Hades and my kids are gonna keel over any day." she wrote, "because my boys love Lunchables ... every kind ... pizza, chicken, ham, turkey, nachos, you name it they like it. You known what else, I feed them the frozen pbj's too. (Go on and gasp now ... heck, maybe a few of you should just stop reading now) I also give my kids fruit snacks, Go-Gurts, cookies, cake, ice cream, Poptarts, burritos, and pizza rolls. You know what, now that I started naming all of it and thinking back .... I ate the same foods when I was a kid and guess what, I'm still alive and kicking."

In response to Amy's comment, this mom responded, "Life expectancy of our children has less to do with their diet and more to do with society as a whole and the life styles lived today. That doesn't mean because of diet. Now excuse me while I put my OREO ice cream bowl in the sink."

It's a national food fight, and several new companies are entering the fray. On July 29, Lakeland, FL-based Publix, with 1,020 grocery stores in the southern United States will debut its own version of pre-packaged kids meals from its deli section. Priced at $3.99 each, Publix lunches cost more than Lunchables (ranging from $2.65 to $3.50), but it boasts organic milk, baby carrots, Multi- grain wraps, wheat bread and low-fat YoKids yogurt. Publix spokesman told the Orlando Sentinel it believes parents will pay more for quality.

Pasadena, CA-based grocer Trader Joe's and El Segundo, CA-based Fresh & Easy markets on the west coast also offer pre-packaged lunches in their deli sections. Even retail giant, Walmart is taking a bite of the action selling pre-packaged lunch kits at 2,100 stores.

As we head closer to going back to school, parents around the country must decide once again what "brown bagging it" means for their family. It's certainly something to chew on.
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