The lunchmeat dilemma

The lunchmeat dilemma

The news hit us like a ton of sausage.

A recent study compiled by Harvard researchers found that eating processed meats, including lunchmeat, greatly increases your risk for heart disease and diabetes.

This throws a wrench in our school lunch prep. Not for my son, who has taken a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to school every day since kindergarten. He is in fourth grade. We’re now approaching the 900-PB&J sandwich threshold.

My daughter, a much more adventurous eater, grew tired of peanut butter long ago and moved on to other sandwiches -- turkey, ham, salami, etc. We’ve avoided prepackaged meats and those horrid Lunchables, but thought buying fresh deli meat was a good option.

But those processed meats, researchers tell us, are loaded with salt and chemical preservatives like nitrates -- two to four times as much as unprocessed meat --  which may be contributing to the higher health risk, according to the American Heart Association. Previous studies have also linked consumption of processed meats with several kinds of cancer.

 So now what?

 What can you send in your children’s lunch that’s easy to pack, doesn’t involve reheating, can be eaten in 15 minutes, is healthy and THEY WILL EAT? I see a gamut of lunches in the school cafeteria, from Oreos and Doritos (bless me, Father, for I too have sinned) to broccoli and cauliflower. And I can tell you which ones get eaten and which don’t.

Here are some more practical tips from the experts:

-- First, invest in some good containers to expand your options. Insulated lunch bags are better than brown bags or plastic lunch boxes because they keep foods cold and, thus, safe. You can also find small insulated containers for soup and other hot foods. Small plastic containers can be used for dressing or other dips. And freezer packs are a must.
-- Use leftover cooked meat in sandwiches instead of processed deli meat.
-- Try roll-up sandwiches using a whole wheat pita. You can go vegetarian or regular, again using cooked fresh meat instead of processed.
-- Consider alternative sandwiches, like egg salad (it’s not that hard) or strawberries and low-fact cream cheese. Top a cheese sandwich with sliced apples and honey (so they won’t turn brown).
-- Yogurt or cheese are good sources of protein, and you can combine them with something crunchy like an apple or a granola bar for bulk. String cheeses are a good low-fat option.
-- Try baby carrots and cut-up vegetables with a container of hummus (yes, my kids like it -- sometimes). If they don’t like cauliflower or broccoli, try fresh red and orange peppers, which are a bit sweeter.
-- When shopping for meat, check the labels. If the first ingredient is something you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce, avoid it, says University of Illinois Professor Margarita Teran-Garcia, a pediatrician who also holds a doctorate in nutrition and genetics.
“You want to buy something that says ‘chicken.’ If the first ingredient is water or soy, it’s a no-brainer. You’re not buying chicken,” she says.

Teran-Garcia researches how environmental factors contribute to obesity in children who have a genetic predisposition. She says it’s much easier to install healthy eating habits in children than to try to change them as an adult.

A key is to get your child involved, whether it’s packing school lunches or choosing the right snacks.

Start the night before on lunches, because “that morning time is crazy,” says Prof. Barbara Fiese, director of the UI’s Family Resiliency Center.

After dinner, make use of leftovers, open the fridge or pantry and lay out choices. Ask your children to put two things together they’d be willing to eat the next day for lunch. It’s a way for them to create their own menu, Teran-Garcia says.

With older children you can plan for the entire week, which can reduce stress and help with the grocery shopping.

Don’t be afraid to let them try weird creations, experts say. They may want to put ham and bananas together, or like my daughter, cherry tomatoes, cottage cheese and sprinkles (something she saw on TV).

Kids’ palates will accept things adults can’t handle, Fiese says. Their taste buds are very different and change over time, so they need to explore, says Teran-Garcia.

The key is that you control the choices. Remember, you’re the parent, and you have the power, says Teran-Garcia.

“If you don’t have Oreos at home, they won’t get Oreos,” she says. “Who’s in control of buying the groceries?”

Be sure to rotate the kinds of food you offer to give them a “rainbow of options,” so they can mix and match.

If you’re trying to cut salt or sugar, move your child away from a bad habit, or just encourage variety, start with “baby steps,” she says.

Put some peanut butter on celery sticks as a substitute for half of a PB&J. Find unsalted or low-salt multigrain versions of their favorite snack crackers (i.e., Goldfish), and mix them in with the real thing, gradually changing the proportions over time.

Use that same trick with raisins and fruit snacks. Substitute pretzels or a baked snack for potato chips. Or mix multigrain chips in with less-healthy varieties. Plain Sun Chips, not the cheesy kind, are a good choice, Teran-Garcia says. Orange powder is not good for you.

“Let them realize that if their fingers are stained, their tongue and their guts are stained,” she says.

See today's News-Gazette for some healthy lunch recipes from and

News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth can be reached at 351-5226,, or on Her column appears every other Tuesday in The News-Gazette.

Photo: Whole-wheat wrap sandwiches with low-fat cream cheese, spinach and your favorite filling are a healthy substitute for deli meat.


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Zeleni wrote on March 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Vegan Lunch Box is another helpful website for healthy eats for the kiddies: