There is a scene from The Wire, the Emmy award-winning television show about life on Baltimore's mean streets that aired on HBO from 2002 to 2008, that, as a dietitian and a mother, I will always remember.
In the scene, Wallace, a 16-year-old boy who is responsible for taking care of numerous younger kids in the projects, is making lunches for his young charges. The children line up, opened paper bag in hand, and Wallace throws in an apple juice and a bag of chips. Lunches made! Genuine care in his eyes, Wallace is doing the best he can, considering his circumstances.
Turns out Wallace's packed schools lunches are not too far from the norm.
New research, funded by the Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center and the National Institutes of Health in the United States, has found only 27 per cent of packed lunches from students in grades 3 and 4 meet the following standards: 30 grams or one ounce of protein, � cup of fruit (not including juice), æ of a cup of vegetables, 15 grams or � cup of grains and a cup of milk.
The most interesting aspect of this study was the fact it was limited to data from mostly white, higher-income participants. Eighty per cent of the mothers had a college education or higher. There goes the theory more affluence and higher education makes better food choices.
It appears time-crunched families, regardless of income and education, are choosing convenient, packaged foods that do not need to be heated or refrigerated.
Protein sources from a main entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, or even from yogurt, cheese, or peanut butter, were missing in 25 per cent of the lunches. In fact, 25 per cent of these lunches did not have a main entrée, 67 per cent of the lunches were missing fruit and 89 per cent were missing a vegetable.
What was found were high-calorie, packaged foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.
In 42 per cent of the lunches, the most common snack foods were chips, cookies and candy. Snacks that included fruit were found in only 30 per cent of lunches, and snacks that included dairy products were found in only 10 per cent.
Kristie Hubbard, a research associate at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, said these findings were similar to results of other studies of children's packed lunches from around the world, which have found high-calorie packaged foods and beverages are more common than fruits, vegetables and dairy.
So what can you do to ensure your kids get the proper fuel they need?
Take time on the weekend to talk about lunches with your family. Put together a list of lunchtime favourites. Discuss concerns about messiness, smells and refrigeration. A schedule will help everyone take turns making lunches. Pack lunch the night before to avoid morning rush. Have a dedicated area in your fridge and cupboard for lunch fixing and supplies. Bake and freeze whole-grain muffins, loaves and cookies on the weekend.
So what should go into your kid's lunch?
Aim for plenty of veggies and fruit. Veggie sticks, or vegetables added to a sandwich, cooked into a soup, stew or pasta dish are all great choices.
Include easy-to-eat fruit such as grapes, apple slices, mandarins or unsweetened fruit cups. Add milk, yogurt, cheese, a yogurt drink, or fortified soy beverage.
Vary the grain product to include whole-grain breads, tortilla wraps, crackers or bread sticks. Add an entrée with protein. That could be last night's whole-wheat macaroni and cheese, vegetarian chili or soup, heated up and put into a wide-mouth Thermos. Otherwise, a sandwich is great with some lean meat, fish, poultry or meat alternative such as an egg, peanut butter, hummus or other legumes.
Taking time from an over-scheduled life to share some basic life skills with family should not be minimized. It is one of the best things you can teach your kids.
Rosemary Szabadka is a public health dietitian for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.