Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Packed Lunches

I realized last night that my eldest daughter's lunch habits have changed in the last few weeks.  Not sure what tipped me off, maybe it sunk in as I was writing yesterday's entry that I had just bought TWENTY cans of tuna.  Then I started thinking about where all that tuna was going, and it occurred to me that where it was going was into my dear darling daughter, who I love more than life itself and would die to protect.  Hmm.

Now I'm sure that you've all seen all of the same scary headlines about mercury in tuna that I have, and you have probably also heard that study after study has shown that people who eat more seafood seem to have lower rates of just about every disease you can name.  In fact, some health authorities are now urging people to aim for not two, but four, servings of seafood per week.

But back to my eldest, who I love more than life itself.  She used to eat school lunch sometimes, if she liked what was on the menu.  After the scandal two years ago involving a videotape of sick cattle being prodded inhumanely to slaughter, we banned school lunches involving beef.  We had not eaten any industrially raised beef at home for a few years before that, but it took an actual video of just what kind of meat was being sold to schools for us to decide that taking the next step wasn't extreme.  Beef is often on the menu up to four times a week in our district.  That's how subsidized industrial beef is; red meat is the most economical protein schools can prepare.  So, my girl was eating hot lunch about once a week.  About two months ago, after several gag-inducing experiences with hot lunch, she finally decided that she was totally done with buying hot lunch at school.  I was thrilled by this decision, and more than happy to pack lunch everyday in exchange for peace of mind.

Now, however, we find ourselves in a bit of a rut.  "What would you like for lunch today?"  "Tuna."  How about egg salad."  "No, I don't really like that anymore."  "How about PB&J?"  "No, I really don't like that."  And on and on.  I didn't mind at first, because I recently discovered, via blood test, that my vitamin D is very low (which is, apparently, very common in the Northern US in the wintertime).  I have been concerned about my kids' vitamin D levels and have been giving them supplements, but actually I was taking supplements, and still ended up with not enough vitamin D.  Vitamin D is found naturally in very few foods; the best natural source is fish.  Vitamin D is also found in animal fats, such as lard, liver, natural cheese, butter, and egg yolks.  The vitamin D levels are considerably higher if these foods come from animals which were raised on pasture (because their own exposure to sunlight raised their own stored vitamin D).

But back to my eldest, who I would throw myself in front of a bus to protect.  When she first started craving all this tuna, I remember thinking that maybe her body was trying to supply itself with vitamin D.  Tuna really is nutritious stuff.  Still, I think it's unwise to rely so heavily on one food, especially one that might contain some level of mercury.  We buy chunk light tuna only, which is low in mercury, but still, mercury is best avoided.  It certainly contains BPA, too, since all cans these days are lined with a plastic containing BPA. 

I checked for current recommendations on tuna consumption and found information provided by both the FDA and the National Resources Defense Council.  According to the FDA, my eldest can eat up to 12 ounces of fish including chunk light tuna a week.  That's more than two cans.  Sweet!  We're good!  But wait, the NRDC says that a child of my daughter's weight should eat no more than 5 ounces or so of chunk light tuna.  That's one can.  Maybe we're not so good.  And wait a minute, wasn't it the FDA that said that BPA was nothing to worry about, and then changed their minds?  I think I'm going with the NRDC recommendations.

Which means my eldest and I are going to have to do some brainstorming about alternatives to tuna.  I'll have a head start though, because we went through this same process when we banned school beef.  I've got tools, namely, a handy chart put out by the Laptop Lunchbox people to get your creative lunch-planning juices flowing (you have to scroll down to get to the chart, but there are lots of good ideas on the way down, too).  The only thing I don't like about the chart is that many of the fruits and veggies they recommend are only in season in the summer.  At this time of year, I'm packing a lot of dried fruit, because the fresh ones, other than citrus, are so crummy.  If you have a thermos, you can add soups to your repertoire, too.  My daughter especially likes pea soup (made in about 5 minutes from frozen peas), carrot soup, and black bean soup.  You can also send all kinds of saucy pasta dishes in the thermos.  I like to warm the thermos by pouring some hot water from my teapot into it and letting it sit until I'm ready to put the hot food in.

I also made a list, back in the banned-beef days, of healthy, frugal kids snacks that aren't processed and full of stuff you can't pronounce.  I think I got many of the ideas from Nourishing Traditions, some from the More-With-Less Cookbook, and maybe a few from my own head?  Here goes:

nuts and seeds - sunflower, pumpkin seeds, pecans, peanuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, macadamia nuts, trail mix made from any/all of these plus dried fruit and maybe a few chocolate chips

popcorn (we like ours with nutritional yeast which tastes good, is loaded with B vitamins, and reminds me of Cinemopolis in Ithaca)

peanut-butter popcorn

veggies and dip (we really like Annie's brand sesame goddess dressing for dipping)

dried fruit, all kinds

yogurt pops - put flavored yogurt into popsicle molds

cottage cheese and crackers

hummus and pitas or crackers

quesadillas, or tortillas with refried beans

baked tortilla chips or pita chips

celery with nut butter

apple slices with dip (I have seen homemade Nutella-type dips but haven't tried making them yet)

jerky (nonindustrial)



hard-boiled eggs, deviled eggs

healthyish cookies - oh, come on, every kid needs a cookie once in a while


chocolate-covered bananas, strawberries, dried apricots, etc.

So, what do you pack for kid lunches?  How about for your lunch?  


  1. I think most people tend to get in food ruts--eating the same foods repeatedly. There are probably very few who go to the extreme that your oldest and I do. When I used to pack my lunches, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple every day. My co-workers made fun of me, but I didn't care. That was what I wanted. Now I am home for lunch and trying to stop escalating cholesterol counts so the peanut butter is mostly gone, but I still have very little variety in what I eat on a daily basis.

  2. Alison said: Thanks for the great list. One of our favorite take along foods is the avocado. No refrigeration needed, this superfood has its own bowl, and it's great on crackers, bread, or rice crackers or scooped with raw peppers or carrots. I think wraps and burrito are great for lunches and I think of them as blank canvases for a variety of flavor profiles: italian, mexican, mediterranean, asian, middle-eastern ... I've made squash-filled, squash & bean filled, pizza, cream or goat cheese lined with assorted fresh or cooked veggies and assorted leftovers. Salad dressings (thai peanut, e.g,) or flavored mayos like wasabi-mayo, chipotle-mayo, lemon-garlic mayo can help define a flavor direction. I think of pasta/rice/grain salads as the same blank canvas, too. One of my favorite salads is a grated carrot salad with scallions, currants or raisins, and XVOO & balsamic vinegar. Our co-op makes one with a more neutral vinegar and adds grated coconut. I love to add either atop peanut or almond butter crackers or as a sandwich or wrap layer also with a nut butter. A PB&J alternative.
    FYI BPA-free canned goods are available. Eden Foods and Westbrae-Bearitos have BPA-free products. Eden has been BPA-free since 1999 and pioneered BPA-free cans. I've written to a few more of the natural food brands I purchase to find out about their can linings.
    We don't have tremendous variety in what we eat weekly, either. It varies more by season it seems.
    Hi Donna, I'm curious why the PB had to go for cholesterol? I don't mean to pry, but I didn't think it played a role in cholesterol levels since it's plant based. Thanks for clarifying.

  3. Mmmm, I love the carrot salad idea, especially combined with nut butter. For me, anyway. Part of the problem for Ella is that she has had kids make comments on her lunch. I think a lot of times they have been simple curiosity, not meanness, but she doesn't like to stand out. Can you believe, for instance, that some kids have never seen a kiwi? So a lot of the foods she enjoys, she won't bring for lunch. Curried salmon salad and crackers for instance - I actually can't believe I ever got away with that one. She used to bring green salad pretty often, but someone said that her favorite dressing (Annie's sesame goddess) looked "yucky," and that ended that.

    Re BPA in cans: I am glad that companies like Eden are using a different lining for their cans. As far as I know, nobody is doing that for tuna. I would still like to limit canned processed food when possible, especially in light of Consumer Reports testing that found BPA even in products (including Eden) that were supposed to be BPA-free (in Eden's case, the BPA came from their ingredients, not from the cans, which makes no sense to me, why doesn't Eden use their own tomatoes for their convenience products?) - http://naturalfoodsmerchandiser.com/tabId/119/itemId/4269/Consumer-Reports-testing-finds-BPA-in-canned-foods.aspx

  4. Alison said ...
    So, I heard back from Bionaturae re: BPA. They say the FDA has not approved any BPA-free linings for tomato products tho they are many potential replacements in the pipeline. So, we need to complain to the FDA, too, to prioritize this. I see that Eden tomatoes are not in BPA-free cans, I assume for this reason. Bionaturae did note they offer glass packaging for some products and their lab tests show a very minor amount of BPA, but there is some present.
    I also heard back from Crown Prince (the tuna we buy). Except for some smoked oyster products I don't buy, their cans do contain BPA. I wrote back that it wasn't good for consumers to have *another* reason not to eat a nutritious food like tuna. And at CP's price point, another 14 cents for the BPA-free can wouldn't hurt their sales at all, I wouldn't think.

  5. Thanks for checking into that, Alison. Calling companies and encouraging others to call companies is probably the best way to get things to change.