School lunch may be healthier than packed

chow_082915-455188015Generally, which is healthier for kids, a packed lunch or a school lunch?

Obviously, this could go either way, depending on the content of the actual meal. But according to at least one study, school meals might have a significant edge.

The research, published in 2014 in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, compared 1,314 lunches of preschool and kindergarten students in three schools in Virginia. About 43 percent of the lunches were packed lunches, and 57 percent were school lunches. Like most schools, the schools in this study participated in the National School Lunch Program, and the research was conducted after that program upgraded its nutrition standards in 2012-13.

The researchers found that packed lunches had more vitamin C and iron and less sodium than the school lunches, but the packed lunches were also higher in calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar and were lower in protein, fiber, vitamin A and calcium. Packed lunches were less likely to contain fruits, vegetables, unsweetened juice and milk and were more likely to include chips, crackers or other savory snacks, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Although many kids balked when schools started serving healthier meals, a 2014 study in the journal Childhood Obesity found that 70 percent of elementary school leaders reported that students had warmed up to them.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the trick to making sure your children’s lunch is a healthy one is to make sure it provides a good balance: some lean protein, a whole grain, a fruit, a vegetable and a dairy product. Take a look at the school menu and talk with your children about what they like and don’t like in the school lunches, or if they’d prefer to bring a lunch from home. If the school lunch doesn’t appeal to your kids, talk with them once a week about what they’d like to carry with them. It’s important to get kids’ buy-in: No matter how nutritious a lunch is, it won’t do any good if a child won’t eat it.

The nutrition academy offers these ideas:

  • Pack easy-to-eat foods: strawberries or an easy-to-peel tangerine instead of an orange, for example, or carrots, cherry tomatoes or bell pepper strips instead of a salad.
  • For sandwiches or wraps, choose whole grain options and lean meat or cheese.
  • Make it fun. Cut sandwiches into stars or other unusual shapes. Celebrate special days by packing an all-orange lunch for Halloween, for example, or an all-red lunch for Valentine’s Day.
  • Ask if your children trade food with friends at lunchtime. That will help you determine what foods they prefer.

For a beverage, consider packing a small bottle of water with lunch. Earlier this year, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that about half of children and teens aren’t getting enough hydration, and nearly one-quarter don’t drink any plain water at all. Children tend to think cold water tastes better than water at room temperature. Adding a frozen water bottle to your child’s lunch pack will help keep the lunch cold and will thaw by lunchtime, providing a nice cool drink.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Community Nutrition Education.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Plan ahead to save at grocery store

200246019-001My grocery bill seems to be getting more and more expensive. I noticed it especially when we stocked up the weekend before school started. What are some ways we can cut expenses but still have enough to eat?

The cost of food does inch up over time, but not as much as you might think. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official figures, average costs for food for a family of four in June 2010 ranged from $134.50 to $265.90 a week, depending on whether you were being “thrifty” or “liberal” in your spending, compared with $149.50 to $296.80 in June 2015. Note that these estimates count food costs only, not cleaning products or other items that you probably also pick up at the grocery store. They also assume that you’re buying foods for a nutritious diet and that you’re eating all meals and snacks at home.

That said, here are some ideas from the USDA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to save dollars at the grocery store:

  • It’s often said, but it works: Don’t shop on an empty stomach. Going to the grocery store when you’re hungry can lead to impulse purchases that add up at the cash register.
  • Plan ahead. Look at your grocery store’s weekly circular for sale items that you can build meals around. The circular is often available online if you don’t see one in a local newspaper or with other advertisements delivered to your door.
  • Better yet, look through the dark corners of your freezer and pantry for items you may have forgotten about and determine how you can use them for meals in the coming week. Making use of the food you already have is a no-brainer, especially during weeks when you anticipate having extra expenses on non-food items — like toiletries or school notebooks.
  • Use your week’s menu to build your grocery list — and stick to your list. If you’re tempted to buy something that’s not on the list, think long and hard about it. Do so only if you know you need the item that week or if it’s an especially good bargain.
  • Check prices of sale items to see if you can get the same discount whether or not you purchase the suggested number of items. For example, if a sale item is marked “3 for $6,” you may be able to buy just one of the items for the sale price of $2. This policy varies between stores and among items, but it’s often listed on small print on the price tag on the grocery store shelf.
  • Speaking of price tags, be sure to look at the unit price (price per ounce or other unit of measure) to compare how much you could save over time by buying a larger quantity. Sometimes the unit-price savings are significant, but not always.
  • Take a close look at snack foods or other extras that you “always” put in your cart, examining not only their cost but the nutrition they provide, and determine if there’s a better option. If you typically buy snack crackers, look for those that primarily provide whole grains — or consider whether a bag of apples could take their place.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Irene Hatsu, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food Security.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Food safety: Why older people face more risk

chow_081415_472218184I often hear that the elderly are more at risk from foodborne illness. Is that true, and if so, why?

It is true that older adults are at more risk for serious complications from foodborne illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people 65 years or older experience just 13 percent of all foodborne illness infections but account for 24 percent of hospitalizations and 57 percent of deaths.

What makes older people more susceptible to these complications? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers an explanation in its Food Safety for Older Adults guide:

  • As we get older, our liver and kidneys may not rid the body of toxins as readily.
  • The stomach and intestinal tract may hold onto foods for longer periods, offering foodborne pathogens more opportunity to cause problems.
  • Our immune system tends to become more sluggish as we age, reducing the body’s ability to fight off harmful bacteria or other pathogens.
  • Older people are more likely to have a chronic condition, such as diabetes, arthritis, cancer or cardiovascular disease, and are also more likely to regularly take medications. Both chronic conditions and some medications can further weaken the immune system.
  • As we age, our senses of smell and taste may wane, reducing our ability to spot warning signs of food that has gone bad. However, it’s important to note that many foodborne disease pathogens don’t provide such telltale cues anyway.

With all this in mind, it’s important for everyone 65 and older — and those who serve them — to take basic food safety precautions, including:

  • Wash hands and surfaces often. This helps prevent the spread of bacteria.
  • Prevent cross-contamination. Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from other foods. Consider using separate cutting boards for raw foods and foods that are ready to eat.
  • Cook foods to safe temperatures. Use a food thermometer to be sure you cook poultry (including ground chicken or turkey) to 165 degrees F, as well as hot dogs, soups, gravy, sauces and leftovers; ground beef to 160 F; seafood to 145 F; and beef, lamb, pork and veal steaks, roasts, and chops to 145 F with an additional 3-minute rest time after removing them from the heat.
  • Refrigerate food promptly — within two hours of cooking or purchasing.
  • Avoid risky foods such as soft cheeses made with raw milk; unpasteurized (raw) milk; raw or undercooked eggs; raw meat; raw poultry; raw fish; raw shellfish and their juices; and luncheon meats and deli-type salads (without added preservatives) prepared on site in a deli-type establishment.

For more food safety information related to older adults, see the FDA’s guide at bit.ly/fdsafeolderadults.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food Safety.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Making the ‘see food’ diet work for you

chow_080715_99185593I started keeping a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter to encourage my family to eat more produce. It works. What are some other ideas to help us eat more healthfully?

Putting healthful food within arm’s reach is a tried-and-true technique for helping make good food choices. There’s plenty of research to back that up ­— and it works both ways.

A recent study at The Ohio State University found that compared with normal-weight people, obese people tended to keep more food visible not only in the kitchen, but throughout the house. They also generally ate more sweets and other less healthful foods than their counterparts. It’s as if that old (not funny) joke were true: “I’m on the ‘see food’ diet. If I see food, I eat it.” Clearly, the food environment around us matters.

Cornell University’s Brian Wansink has been called the eating behavior guru. In a recent article in the journal Psychology and Marketing, he analyzed 112 studies and concluded that most people make food-related decisions based on three elements: They select foods that are convenient, attractive and “normal.” So, when a bowl of fruit is the first thing you see when you enter the kitchen, and it’s attractively displayed in a nice bowl, you will more likely choose to eat fruit rather than the stale corn chips on a shelf in a back corner of the pantry.

There’s a bit of overlap in the three aspects of food choice, but they’re all worth knowing more about:

  • Convenient. The concept of convenience includes both physical and mental effort. Put healthful foods at the front of the refrigerator, ready to grab and go. Buy 100-calorie packages of snacks instead of trying to guess what a reasonable portion is. Find restaurants that, as their standard options, serve fruit or vegetables on the side instead of fries or onion rings and include bottled water, unsweetened ice tea or even milk with meals instead of soft drinks.
  • Attractive. Making food attractive has to do with all manner of presentation, from how it is served to how much it costs to what it is called. Wansink’s research shows that more children will eat broccoli when it’s called “Dinosaur Trees.” The same is true when vegetarian burritos are served as “Big Bad Bean Burritos.” And, serving foods on china increases the value people place on it, compared with normal dishes or paper plates.
  • Normal. People lean toward food choices that they perceive as the norm. One example of “normalizing” healthy eating is to always put salad bowls on the dinner table, even on days when salad isn’t being served. That makes it seem like salad is a standard part of every dinner, rather than as an infrequent side dish.

Wansink calls this the CAN approach — short for “convenient, attractive, normal” — and he says the opposite is also true: Making less-healthy food less convenient, less attractive and less normal can decrease its consumption. Put less-healthful snacks in a cupboard in the laundry room, he suggests, or try the cupboard above the refrigerator. Learn more at his website at foodpsychology.cornell.edu.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Dan Remley, Ohio State University Extension specialist in Food, Nutrition and Wellness.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.