Guest blogger: Lunchables: The Other School Lunch

Lunchables: The Other School Lunch
“Mom, can I have that? Pleeeeeease?!” If you’ve ever gone grocery shopping with a kid, it’s more than likely you’ve heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s for cookies, sometimes it’s for ice cream and sometimes it’s for Lunchables. But what’s a Lunchable?
Lunchables were introduced by Oscar Meyer in 1988. Originally marketed as a convenience food, they have since become standard fare in many lunchboxes across the country, with varieties such as pizza, nachos, chicken nuggets and ham and cheese. At first glance, Lunchables seem an acceptable alternative to school lunches. After all, the rolls are made “with whole grains”, there’s a fair amount of protein in them and they seem like complete meals. And they are fun to put together; much more fun than a sandwich or soup. But upon further inspection, and while Lunchables appear fun to eat (as the slogans “Make fun of lunch” or “Lunch your tummy right” imply), there is actually very little nutritional value to the product.
Having never eaten a Lunchable myself (I’d always been too scared of them), I decided it was time to do so (for research purposes). I purchased the Turkey and American Cheese Cracker Stackers. It was hard to decide which one to buy—the section with the Lunchables is fairly large and there are a lot of choices! I decided to purchase one that seemed “healthier” and more like a traditional lunch. But the Lunchable told a different story when I unpacked it. The food, which was comprised of Ritz crackers, little circles of processed turkey, American cheese, Capri Sun and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, looked a bit like the plastic food my daughter uses to play with in her kitchen. Not exactly something that just screams healthy (or edible).

 The food is also ridiculously monochrome. The crackers are beige, the turkey is some sort of white/beige combo, there’s yellow cheese and brown candy. The only splash of color is the not picture juice (red) and the Peanut Butter Cup wrapper (orange). Not exactly the rainbow hues recommended by the USDA.
In addition to looking pale and tragic, as well as inedible, there is almost no nutritional value to the food. See for yourself:
You’ll notice that 35% of the daily recommended amount of sodium is in this box (to the company’s credit, this is down from 75% when Lunchables were first introduced), along with 28% of the daily recommended fat and almost no vitamins. There’s also only 1 gram of fiber; according to an article by Dr. Mary Gavin, fiber is a key element to a healthy diet since it helps with the sense of fullness without adding calories, as well as aiding in digestion.   
How about those ingredients:
That’s a lot of ingredients for crackers, turkey, cheese, juice and one piece of candy. I can’t even pronounce many of them! I don’t feel good about feeding children ingredients I can’t pronounce or spell without assistance. Given the exhaustive list of ingredients, Lunchables don’t exactly seem like the type of food worthy of the “Sensible Solutions” label. Yet in 2005, for certain Lunchables, that is exactly what happened. (Scary.)
Then there’s the taste. My husband, my daughter and I all gave parts of the Lunchable a try (I’m a vegetarian so I passed on the turkey). I found that the cheese tasted awful and had a rubbery texture while the cracker tasted like some sort of cracker/cardboard box combo (and I generally like Ritz crackers). My daughter was initially skeptical of the food (she actually asked “That’s turkey, right?”) but, like most kids, she enjoyed it overall. My husband, however, had the best reaction. After he was done sampling the Lunchable, he said “If I was starving and at a 7-11, I would choose a candy bar or a hot dog over one of these” (and this is from a man who eats scrapple).
Lunchables have long come under fire for their lack of nutritional value and contribution to childhood obesity. In fact, in 2004, the UK distributor of Lunchables removed Capri Sun and candy from the product and replaced them with orange juice and strawberry yogurt; the US has recently done the same, but only on a select variety of products (Wikipedia). Although that new line of products has made some strides in reducing the calories, sodium and fat, there is still some debate as to whether or not the new products actually qualify as “wholesome“. Check out this breakdown of the new Turkey and Cheese sub (part of the “wholesome” line); it’s pretty eye opening regarding what we as a society are now considering “wholesome” food.
I understand that, on the surface, Lunchables are enticing. They are easy, convenient, effortless, and come in varieties of foods that kids like to eat (nothing bothers a parent more than packing lunch only to find out it went straight to the trash or got traded away). But if you take an objective look at the nutrition information and the quality of the food, is that convenience worth it?
For more information on Lunchables, visit the product’s website. You’ll be glad you did.
 Jana Lynch is a regular mom who’s concerned with what her kid eats. You can follow her disasters, adventures and try some of her recipes, all of which can be found on her blog, The Empty Kitchen.
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78 Responses to Guest blogger: Lunchables: The Other School Lunch

  1. Bets April 6, 2010 at 2:45 am #

    I was in Elementary school when these came out. I was a kid who brought a lunch packed by Mom every day for lunch because she didn't let us have school lunch. I don't know that I've ever asked her why, but it makes sense. (Maybe this is why I have a fear of going through the lunch line where I teach now … I don't know HOW to!)

    I remember having a Lunchable for a "treat" once or twice. We also got the tiny variety packs of cereal, only for special treats. For some reason I liked them … but when I got a bit older & started teaching summer school to preschoolers, I became disgusted by them. Who wants cold pizza or nachos (that were never warm at some point)? That seemed strange. On top of that, the amount of trash in one box always shocked me!

    I've loved reading everyone's comments on this topic … great post!

  2. Kelly Lester April 6, 2010 at 3:05 am #

    So glad to read that everyone is so grossed out by Lunchables. Scattered Mom above said that she bought a sectioned container and makes her own healthy 'momables'. My company, EasyLunchboxes.com sells such a container and it's so easy to create a healthy and eye pleasing version of this kid-centric excuse for meal. For moms of kids with dietary restrictions who can't even eat a Lunchable, my EasyLunchbox container is a real find. Read what Heidi, who blogs at 'Adventures of a Gluten Free Mom' writes: http://bit.ly/bfgJVS -Kelly Lester, mom and CEO Easylunchboxes.com

  3. Anonymous April 6, 2010 at 3:18 am #

    I can tell you the first mistake you made was buying the one w/ American cheese (YUCK! is that even cheese?).

    I used to convince my mom to buy me lunchables once in a while and I remembered liking most of them, I typically stuck to the cheese/cracker/meat combos, maybe the nachos and a pizza only if I there was a microwave around. With a side of veggies or some fruit it did't seem so bad. Plus they are so expensive for what you get. Nowadays as an adult I find myself making a similar snack myself much cheaper and less processed. I've always wanted "convenience foods" to be more balanced, (the rare occasion they are they cost to much for me to afford) Even switching mac n cheese to whole wheat pasta is a start.

  4. Anonymous April 6, 2010 at 3:28 am #

    I had to force my mother to read the ingredients and nutritional information in order to get her to STOP buying these for my daughter and even then it was a fight*. And really? My daughter didn't really like them anyway! She said the cheese was rubbery and had no taste and the meat was to greasy and salty. All she was eating was the crackers and the dessert. NOT a good meal at all. My daughter is much happier without them.

    *My mom claimed she was buying them in order to be a good grandma who spoiled her grandchild.

  5. M April 6, 2010 at 6:00 am #

    I vaguely remember seeing lunchables a few times at home, but they were by no means standard. I usually packed myself a lunch consisting of some combination of a green apple, a salad (with mostly iceberg lettuce), yogurt, saltines, saltine peanut butter crackers or homemade mushroom rice. I liked my lunches much more than what was served in high school (frito pie and curly fries!), but I really wish I had enough knowledge to realize many of the choices I made could have been way better. I don't even buy saltines now because many of the ingredients are on my list of things to avoid if at all possible, the rice was white and the salad was less nutritious than it could have been. The kind of yogurt I ate kinda grosses me out now because of the weird crap in it. Yogurt doesn't require weird ingredients to be delicious. I know why I had confusion about food when my mom recently declared that by eating beans she was getting her vegetables for the day.

    I recently tried a lunchable out of some weird lapse in reasoning – I think it was the pizza one. Once I started tasting the components and reading the box, I wondered what sort of insanity over took me at the grocery store. The sauce was insanely sweet and I couldn't bring myself to actually eat the pepperoni. To say the least, I think I can do without eating one again.

    As an adult, I have to admit the power of a nice container for making a lunch more enjoyable. I love my togo ware and I get so many compliments on it (I'm sure many other bento like containers or dedicated nice "lunch ware" can have the same power). Even the process of preparing it is fun as you pack the layers and little containers, creating satisfying and visually appealing meals with all colors of the rainbow.

    I was not what anyone would consider a stupid kid in school, but I understand why I had to put a large amount of work into figuring out what to eat as an adult. I had some of the right ideas, but many foods are deceptively or confusingly labeled. Especially in college where all types of food were freely available and already prepared, it was really easy to skip eating enough veggies and fruits in place of carby monochromatic meals.

  6. Becca Boo April 6, 2010 at 7:25 am #

    Mom would never buy lunchables for me or my brother when we were in elem school. Even though we begged. She would instead do a homemade lunchable with leftover turkey, ham, roasted beef, (or the occasional baked fish!) with ritz or chicken ina bisket crackers and farmers cheese. Not to mention the fruits and veggies with either peanut butter or nutella spread along with it!

    I tried my first (and last) lunchable when I was in high school. Was promptly sick and still cannot face the potential of eatting one of these overly preserved commercial food items.

  7. Mamie April 6, 2010 at 2:26 pm #

    Agree with everything that's been said about the poor nutrition and taste of lunchabe-type products. Furthermore, they generate a tremendous amount of packaging waste: cardboard box + plastic tray + drink pouch + candy wrapper, none of which is easily recyclable in an elementary school setting.

  8. Anonymous April 6, 2010 at 4:40 pm #

    I loved lunchables when i was in elementary school, my mom never made my lunch so i always had one. I think because of this i got a not so healthy start in life, but i can now eat lots of low quality foods as long as they taste alright (i.e. airplane food and such). Besides the mediocre taste i think what i really loved was being able to put things together. Make your own pizza, taco, put together your sandwich, its like a game, haha. Lunchables arent the healthiest thing out there, but they definatley appeal to kids in many many ways, and i'd still eat one today (if they had a vegetarian option and i was desperate)

  9. ReesieKitty April 6, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    Last month we decided to make a major 'food change' and I have been making bento box lunches for myself, my fiance and my 10 year old son. I was inspired by the Lunch In A Box blog and although I was a little unsure at first, I am here to tell you, they are MUCH easier to make than you think!

    Kids like the finger food, little compartment aspect of Lunchables. Bento boxes are like the healthy, homemade version. Since my son started bento-ing, he is eating twice as many veggies (no exaggeration) and told me that his pirate skull & crossbones bento box is 'way cooler' than anyone else's lunch.

    I asked him about Lunchables, and he said he used to think they might be good, but now he doesn't want one because he really likes his bento!

    I get frustrated with people thinking that stuff like Lunchables are good because they 'save time'. I work full time, five days a week. I cook dinner at least 5 nights out of the week, with two days for leftovers or pizza or going out. Believe me if I can manage to make bento lunches, anyone can!!

    Everyone in the family has gotten involved with the creation of the bento- it's been good on so many levels!

    So if your kids crave Lunchables, make them a 'home-style' one with healthier ingredients and add in some fruit and veggies and bento it up! I think more moms would be as surprised as I was to see how much their child LOVES it and how many healthier things he is willing to try!

  10. Serena April 6, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    I hated Lunchables when I was in elementary school. I thought they were gross, I always hated the cheese and they were never filling. And the pizza ones were disgusting. It was like eating a cold cardboard pizza. The nacho ones were the only ones I could stand but I didn't really care for those ones either.

  11. Anonymous April 6, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    Everything in moderation…my children have a lunchable once or twice a week but I also include fruit and/or yogurt with it. They are healthy and not overweight. I do wish that they would replace the candy with veggies like carrots or celery.

  12. Mama Badger April 6, 2010 at 8:50 pm #

    Ugh, lunchables. My LG is only 2 and already these are showing up at school. I thought about it for a short while, until I read the ingredients and saw the cost. What kills me is that some parents at our daycare will give their kids one of these instead of buying a school lunch (which is more nutritious and half the cost).

    For those to cast dispersions on crackers and cheese as "snacks", that's silly. If my LG wants to have cheese and healthy crackers with some yogurt or fruit and call it a meal, I'm ok with that. Not every meal has to be the image we grew up with of a sandwich or bowl of soup.

  13. Anonymous April 6, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

    I can tell you from history, that the lunchable are actually very good. I used to love it when my mom would buy them for us, and couldn't wait until luch to eat them. Any kid with a lunchable, was the envy of everyone else at school. When switched schools in 6th grade, I was afraid that what was normal and popular at my old school wouldn't be at my new school. Luckily, I had a lunchable that day-never felt more welcome! People actually asked ME if I would sit by them at snack and again at lunch! And as far as nutrition goes, the lunchables were always on the large side, so normally you eat the entree, and maybe the side (that's wherre your jealous friends come in). 450 for a lunch in high, but who can ever finish one of those HUGE one(nachos I'm talking about you!). When it comes to Lunchables, buy the ones that come w/out the side for a healthy kids lunch

  14. Anonymous April 7, 2010 at 2:06 am #

    Like others, we do "homemade lunchables"so we can use real cheese instead of American, 100% juice, whole grain crackers, etc. Also as others have commented, we add a side of veggie sticks and a small cup of fresh fruit to add some vitamin A & C. I hate the chopping involved but the appeal of Lunchables for my kids is putting the little bites of things together so I humor them now & then.

    I really don't understand the "cheese & crackers are a snack! not a meal!" comment. Kids & I had tuna salad w/chopped veggies on crackers, fruit and baby carrots for lunch yesterday. Filling & delicious. Yeah, most bread is going to be healthier than most crackers but otherwise that comment's like saying "an omelette is a breakfast! not a dinner!" If cheese & crackers for lunch freaks you out, my mother-in-law's raw turnips and sardines for breakfast would completely blow your mind. Think outside the (lunch)box!

  15. Gina April 7, 2010 at 4:23 am #

    Lunchables are on our list of junk food – simply not even a consideration. The concept is great…snack lunch for kids…and we do that often in our family. We'll buy organic almond crackers, real cheese (not orange american slices), fresh fruit (not in a cup of syrup), edamame or chickpeas, nuts and cut vegetables. The kids like the assortment and I like knowing they're getting a variety of foods…and colors!

    Lunchables plays to the busy parent's need for convenience. I get that. It's a misperception that good, fresh, wholesome meals can't be convenient. They can be! It helps to plan ahead but it's worth it. Meals aren't rushed at our house and we have just as little time as any family.

    I wish farmers and growers had the big marketing budgets that food processors do so that they could convince families how convenient, healthful and easy fresh foods can be.

  16. Kendra April 7, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    @Amanda

    I too remember these when they had an Andes mint. I loved those mints as my grandma used to get them for me when we'd spend the day together, so I used to ask my mom for Lunchables. She bought them occasionally. They didn't seem that bad to me healthwise, not great, not horrible, a treat (for me) like any other packaged food. I'm kind of shocked to see that they now have candy and a sugary drink. My mom also always packed me an apple with my Lunchable and probably a Capri Sun, too. I like the idea of yogurt and fruit or carrots in here, a great convenience for an occasional fun school lunch treat, but certainly not an everyday food. Yikes.

  17. Anonymous April 7, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    I am actually a preschool teacher and I beg my parents not to send lunchables as lunch for my kidos. First of all…MOST of the kids nible on a a cracker or two…maybe eat a bit of meat…none of the cheese (they alllll say it is nasty) and try to go straight for the candy. I have an iron clad rule…if they don't eat the "heathly" stuff their parents send….NO CANDY or Desert. Period. It is appalling to see what mom sends in lunch these days. Really! My own recent experience in the Lunchable isle at Target? My girls both beg for them…and beg. I tell them very calmly that I will no buy them that junk and that I can make them a "homemade" lunchable myself ….blah, blah, blah. Well, this lady that was standing nearby actually rolled her eyes at me and said that was being ridiculous to her husband. Another psycho mom food nazi. If I could have said what I was thinking!!!!! That is part of what's wrong with the world!!!!!

  18. lucy April 8, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    Re the ingredient list for Ritz mentioned by an earlier poster (Apr 5): I was interested to note that it's different from the ones I buy. I live in Canada, so some of our products are different from those you get in the US. Here we get "100% whole grain" Ritz crackers which really do have only "whole grain wheat flour", it is the first item in the ingredient list, with no mention of "wheat" (i.e., white) flour. They are darker and crunchier and very grainy compared with regular Ritz. They also have some Ritz that say "with whole whole wheat" which are similar to the ones described in the comment above, more white flour than whole wheat! They are too soft and crumbly so we don't get those.

    Of course they all have a lot of salt, etc, so obviously not something you would want to give your kid too often, only as an occasional snack.

  19. Ferguson Family April 9, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    I used to buy these on the regular for my kids until one day one of them didn't finish their turkey and I popped a piece in my mouth. I almost threw up! I could not believe how nasty that "meat" tasted. Could it really be considered food? BLECH! AND, as so many others have said, for the cost and the amount you get- WHAT A WASTE!

  20. Anonymous April 9, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    like many of the previous commentors, i too ate lunchables as a child, and i loved them. of course, at the time there were no drinks included in the lunchables packs, so my mother sent me to school with milk money. and fruit to accompany the lunchable. that way, everyone got what they wanted – i got the "cool" lunch, and she got the comfort of knowing it was balanced out by dairy (real dairy, not processed cheese) and produce. even as an adult, i would pick up a lunchable perhaps if it was one of limited choices. frankly, i don't see how this differs any from adults eating frozen diet foods or buying the (adult-intended) deli creations subs (pre-packaged sandwich contents you assemble yourself). if it a treat, and not a daily occurence, i think sending kids to school with lunchables is just fine…as long as they are getting the other nutritional needs in their diets (milk, juice, fruits, veggies). sure, they look and taste a little bit gross, but at least you know your child isn't throwing away his/her lunch!

  21. Anonymous April 9, 2010 at 7:07 pm #

    I agree lunchables are junk food and have never bought them for my children. One of my kids had a teacher in elementary school who insisted on healthy snacks. She laid out exactly what she considered healthy and junk. Some of the parents made snide remarks behind her back but all towed the line and I wonder why more teachers don't do this. Consider it an education for some parents as well, who I'm sure love their children dearly but may be a little ignorant on nutrition.

  22. Anonymous April 11, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    I've never tried Lunchables, and I cringe every time my son asks (begs) me for them. I believe he likes the "snacks" that are in them-not the main food items. I usually only buy them once in a while, as a snack-they are not, in my mind, an appropriate substitution for a meal.

  23. Anonymous April 11, 2010 at 11:49 pm #

    In your salisbury steak blog from a few days ago, you mention that you are not a vegetarian, because some lady called you a "vegetarian hippie." Plus, you eat the meat, or at least taste them in your lunches everyday. So why, in this blog about Lunchables, do you say that you are a vegetarian so you did not eat the turkey?

  24. Mrs. Q April 12, 2010 at 2:29 am #

    This was a guest blogger. She is a vegetarian and I am not.

  25. Anonymous April 17, 2010 at 3:45 am #

    My friend asked me to tend her son after school once. He was getting his homework out of his backpack when I noticed an uneaten, unopened Lunchable. He told me that was his lunch and he couldn't open the Lunchable! The plastic was too difficult to open! He also couldn't open the the straw to fit into the drink box. I wonder if that's why kids are throwing them away(as the poster noted above), they can't get the darned package open! By the way, this kid was starving and scarfed down a sandwich. I vowed never to buy Lunchables for my kids.

  26. Miranda April 19, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

    Ughhhhh…I haven't been out of childhood too long. I can still remember wanting to puke at that slimy, cold turkey.

  27. Anonymous April 24, 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    I can't believe my parents let me eat these. They are absolute junk. They are full of sodium, sugar, saturated fat, even trans fat! If a person cares about their child's health they should do them a favor and feed them a nutritious lunch. Lunchables are worthless- devoid of anything natural, filling, or wholesome. How hard is it to pack a veggie, nut butter, or lean meat sandwich on whole grain bread. Not hard. The cost is also less. Throw in some fruit and or veggies and your kid is good to go. Lunchables are only "convinient" if you call having a generation of overweight diabetics "convinient". Next time you think about buying a lunchable look at the label. If you're not appalled, then there's a problem.

  28. Anonymous June 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm #

    I'm sorry to say I still like them and I'm 32…but I usually make something similar on my own because I just want the meat, crackers, and cheese, and not the candy bar or juice.

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