Am I the only person who was disappointed to learn that August's "big news
" from healthy school lunch company Revolution Foods turned out to be the launch of a purportedly healthier Lunchable? Their version of that revolting
lunchbox staple is "made from high-quality, natural ingredients without artificial colors, flavors or preservatives", according to the press release
for the new Revolution Foods Meal Kits. That is certainly an improvement over the original Kraft brand Lunchables, which regularly appear on "worst kid foods" lists
. Still, as the Center for Science in the Public Interest's director of nutrition policy Margo Wootan told the New York Times
, "I wouldn't call [a Revolution Foods Meal Kit] healthy, though it is nutritionally improved."
Other reviews have been equally tepid. The Calorie Count website rated
the turkey and cheese Meal Kit a D+, noting that it was high in sugar. Former biology and health teacher Ted Kallmyer, writing on Diet Blog, listed
his objections to that same Meal Kit:
"About 40% of the total calories is coming from fat and not the good kind.
"Sugar is a dominant ingredient. It’s in the meat, in the crackers, and in the fruit snack.
"Almost 1/2 of a kid’s daily recommended sodium intake. They say 18%, but they are clearly basing this on an adult’s 2000mg recommendation."
What's in a Revolution Foods Meal Kit? I bought a turkey and cheese Kit (net weight 3.19 oz.) for $3.49 at Safeway. Inside the cardboard box were the 4 meal components, each individually wrapped in plastic.
The cheese packet held several small pieces of 1/4" thick cheddar - the total slightly larger than a standard business card.
The turkey was eight rounds, each 2" in diameter and tissue paper thin.
There were nine 1.5" square crackers, and a "fruit snack" that, at 4" x 1.5", was almost the same size as the cheese.
There is no way this is a "meal" for any but the lightest of eaters; at best it is a "snack." If you pile all the food together, it is barely the size of a deck of cards.
At $3.49, the Rev Foods Meal Kits were the most expensive option among several types of "on the go" prepackaged snacks at Safeway the day I shopped. Similar cold-cut-and-crackers packs made by Oscar Mayer
were priced about $1 lower. Several types of Lunchables
, all of which looked to contain more - if more highly processed - food than the Meal Kits, were on sale at 2 for $6. For now, the Meal Kits are available only at some stores in Northern California, Texas and Colorado.
Perhaps you are wondering, as I did, why anyone would be willing to pay $3.50 for what appears to be about $1 worth of cold cuts and crackers and fruit leather?
The perceived "need" for a prepackaged lunchbox filler is based on the oft-repeated conventional wisdom that "busy parents don't have time" to pack school lunches or snacks for their children. Yet a July 2013 article
in CNNMoney reports that "the average work week has gone from over 38 hours in 1964 to under 34 hours in 2013 -- a drop of nearly 12%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics." In addition, the article also states that Americans reported having 42 hours per week of "free time" in 2012, up from 35 hours per week in 1965.
So, with a shorter work week and more free time than parents in the 1960s had, why are parents today being told that they can't - and don't need to - find time to pack lunch for their kids?
One has to wonder if the message that parents are "too busy" to pack lunch for their kids isn't coming from the processed food industry, the same folks who regularly remind us that "families are too busy to cook dinner", as they promote
take out fast food.
The truth is, no one is really "too busy" to do anything - pack lunch, cook dinner, read to their kids. We all make choices about how we spend our time, and if we prioritize a home cooked dinner, it only takes 30 minutes to roast chicken drumsticks or cook pasta, and leftovers can go into lunchboxes, averting the next morning's "too busy to pack" dilemma. Or, we can choose to prioritize spending our free time on the internet, checking social media or watching cute cat videos, and then justify a take-out dinner or premade lunchbox filler because we are "too busy" to do it ourselves.
But why buy a premade lunch kit from a store when it's embarrassingly easy to create your own? Just stack two slices of turkey and cheese, cut into quarters, and put into a reusable plastic container along with a handful of whole grain crackers. Add an apple or some strawberries, instead of the "strawberry fruit snack" that comes in a Revolution Foods Meal Kit (ingredients: concentrated apple puree (contains ascorbic acid) and apple juice concentrate, strawberry juice concentrate, natural flavor, natural color, pectin, glazing agent)
, and in less than one minute, voilà - a homemade meal kit that is both less expensive and more nutritious than the store bought version.
Plus, it's so simple that a first grader can do it, so even kids whose parents truly are "too busy" to pack their lunchbox can partake of this elementary school favorite.
Revolution Foods' cofounder Kirsten Saenz Tobey said
in the Meal Kit press release, "We are committed to changing the way kids eat and making great-tasting, real food available for all, so we will continue providing "better-for-you" options for parents and kids."
Whenever I see a product that claims to be "better for you", it reminds me of PepsiCo, which uses that phrase to describe one of its three product lines (the other two being "good for you" and "fun for you".) Interestingly, the "good for you" product line
, including Pepsi-owned brands of orange juice and oatmeal, are significantly healthier than the "better for you" line
, which comprises products like baked chips and diet sodas, that are still essentially junk food, albeit with less fat or calories than the original versions.
Baked potato chips and diet colas are "better for you" only in the sense that it is "better for you" to be hit in the head with a brick only twice, rather than three times. These products would more accurately be called "less bad for you", but then that probably wouldn't appeal to consumers - or PepsiCo shareholders - as much as "better for you."
The same holds true for Revolution Foods' Meal Kits. There is a difference between being "less bad for you", and actually being "good for you", and while Meal Kits may be less bad for kids than Lunchables, they don't rise to the standard of actually being "good" for kids, the way a bag of snap peas and baby carrots, or a piece of fresh ripe fruit is "good" for them.
Teaching kids that it is desirable and fun to eat "on the go" isn't good for them either. Researchers call eating while doing something else "distracted eating", and it has been linked
to overeating, while its opposite, called "mindful eating", leads to making healthier food choices. Every time we give our children an "on the go" eating experience, we are also delivering the message that the activity we are rushing off to - soccer practice, errands, whatever - is more important than taking the time to sit down together and savor a meal with our loved ones.
Researchers have found
that children who eat with their families are less likely to be obese and more likely to eat healthy foods, so products that encourage more "on the go" eating experiences would appear to be not "good" for children, but rather "bad" for them.
I understand that some amount of "on the go" snacking is inevitable, and I've even promoted
it myself, but most kids' diets are not lacking in crackers and deli products, but rather in fresh fruits and vegetables. That's what parents should be offering for snacks, but that is exactly what these grab n go products, including Revolution Foods Meal Kits, lack.
The "fruit snack" included in the Meal Kit is only distantly related to actual fruit. It is a candy-like product made from apple puree and fruit juice concentrate, which the USDA considers
an "added sugar". Without the fiber found in whole fruit, which slows its digestion, the sugar in the "fruit snack" is free to rush into a child's bloodstream all at once. Researchers have concluded
that fruit juice and puree are both a less satisfying snack than whole fruit, and also may trigger inappropriate insulin release. What's more, the sticky quality of a "fruit snack" makes it adhere to teeth, promoting
In the end, it doesn't matter whether a Revolution Foods Meal Kit is "better for you" than a Kraft Lunchable. The real question is, why would anyone bother spending so much money on a "meal kit" that could be made at home in seconds for a fraction of the price? If you think that cold cuts and crackers is an acceptable lunch or snack, teach your child how to use a butter knife or cookie cutter to make their own meal kit, then add some baby carrots and a piece of fruit.
Or, if your child attends public school in San Francisco, a freshly prepared Revolution Foods hot lunch, complete with fresh fruit (not "fruit snack"), vegetables, and milk, is available every day in the cafeteria for just $3 - or 14% less than a Meal Kit.
Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.