Lunch Strategies for Parents Who Pack

JANET WINGER recalls the time she volunteered as a chaperone for her son's fourth-grade class trip: ``We were at the aquarium, and everyone got out their sack lunch. Well, I was shocked at what was going on: There was a lot of trading and a lot of dumping.

``It was a real eye opener,'' continues Ms. Winger, a mother of three from Clarendon Hills, Ill., who packs her children's lunches every school day. Although her son ate all of his own lunch that day, she interrogated him the day after. ``Andrew, I'm making this, are you going to eat it? You're not going to throw this out or trade it are you?''

Insider trading in the lunchroom is nothing new, but the practice could be starting earlier than ever before. ``My little one, she has a terrible problem trading,'' says Andrea Adams, an environmental engineer from Sturbridge, Mass.

Her daughter Kelly is 18 months old.

``She'll just lay out her whole lunch [at day care], and she will give people cookies, and they will give her things in return.'' Mrs. Adams packs lunches every day for Kelly and Michelle, her 8-year-old daughter. Michelle's idea of trading is some red grapes for some green grapes, she says, and that's OK.

Adams speaks for many parents who pack when she says ``you really have to be committed. It is so much cheaper, and you know what food your children are eating - hopefully.'' As with any meal, she adds, ``if it takes longer than 20 minutes to make, I don't make it.''

Obviously the key is finding out what your children like to eat, Adams says. Create five or six different lunches, then mix and match. ``It's more successful if you have a lot of little things rather than a few big things.''

For Winger, packing lunch for each of her three children - aged 10, 14, 16 - means finding food that is economical as well as universally liked. Everybody seems to agree on sandwiches, she says; turkey is a favorite. But each likes different fruit. They all love chips - that's never a question.

Winger, a single mom, tends to buy in bulk to keep costs down. Variety comes in the form of different breads (oat bran, split-top wheat, white, etc.) and fruits (according to season.) The nonessentials - especially the costly ones - take a back seat.

According to a 1993 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 18 percent of schoolchildren bring their lunch from home. In light of the recent push for the National School Lunch Program to be more nutritious (and more in line with the government's current dietary guidelines, commonly known as ``the pyramid''), many parents have expressed interest in making homemade lunches more nutritious as well.

``One thing we like to convey is that snacks can be fruit and not necessarily something that's packaged,'' says Jennifer Douglass, a spokeswoman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group. ``What's difficult about lunch is it's often centered around sandwiches, which can have a lot of meat, mayonnaise, and cheese,'' Ms. Douglass says, adding that parents may want to consider less-fatty options such as vegetable pita sandwiches or using mustard instead of mayonnaise.

Let fruit be the daily sweet, she suggests. ``A strawberry can be the most incredible treat.... Now and then, put in something that's not as `healthy' as usual - that way it's special.''

CSPI sponsors a project called ``Kids Against Junk Food,'' (KAJF) which has more than 1,500 members - kids between 5 and 18. In December, members spoke at the USDA hearings to promote healthier school lunches.

The Eisen family of Annandale, Va., is particularly active in KAJF. Members Judith, Jacob, and Jordana Eisen all take their lunches to school.

``I always try to come up with new and interesting things,'' says Mrs. Eisen, their mother. One of her successes is a whole-wheat tortilla, covered with refried beans, grated low-fat cheese, and chopped tomatoes - all rolled up like a jelly roll. You can do the same with peanut butter and jelly, or cream cheese and cucumbers, she says. Cut-up vegetables with hummus or yogurt dip are also popular with her children. Sometimes she makes homemade granola bars or ``nutritious'' cookies, though her latest passion has been experimenting with a new bread machine.

JUDITH EISEN, 13, says her ideal lunch might be something like this: Tuna on whole-wheat bread; apple juice in juice box or bottle; an orange, apple, or some other kind of fruit; maybe a low-fat granola bar; carrot sticks; and pretzels.

``Most of the girls at school bring lunch. Most of the boys buy lunch, eat the junk-food part, and throw the rest away,'' Judith says.

Judith's sister, Jordana, 8, notes that some of her friends do some sort of combination of bringing and buying lunch. ``Their parents usually go to work early, so they have to pack it themselves or they just bring money and buy [lunch]....''

What about trading?

``Yeah, the kids all trade, sometimes candy,'' Jordana says. ``That's not very good. They should eat their own lunch.''

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