Keep safety in mind when packing lunches

When my children don’t like what’s offered for school lunch, I pack a sandwich and they carry it in a brown paper bag. My kids say most of their friends use insulated bags when they bring their lunch. Is that necessary?

It depends on the sandwich. If it contains anything perishable — lunchmeat, for example — then you’re taking a risk.

It may be hard to believe, but about 1 in 6 Americans gets food poisoning every year. While most cases aren’t severe enough to be reported, about 128,000 people end up hospitalized.

The most frequent cause of foodborne illness, Salmonella, is responsible for about 42,000 reported cases annually, and almost half are infants and school-age children. Young children are generally more at risk than adults, so keep that in mind as you determine what to pack for lunch, and how to pack it. Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees F, so perishable foods shouldn’t be kept at room temperature for more than two hours before being eaten.

Besides lunchmeat, perishable foods include eggs, yogurt, tofu, hummus, cut fruit and vegetables, and tuna, chicken or ham salad.

Perishable foods may be unsafe to eat by lunchtime, so using an insulated lunch box is recommended. Include a frozen gel pack or other cold source to ensure the food will remain below 40 degrees F until your child’s lunchtime. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends using at least two cold sources in insulated packs, such as a freezer pack and a frozen bottle of water or frozen juice box. By lunchtime, the beverages should be thawed and ready to drink.

If you want to avoid concern about keeping the lunch cold enough, pack only nonperishables. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a good example: Bread isn’t perishable, and neither is peanut butter or jelly. Unopened canned tuna or chicken (or other canned meat and fish) are other options. Just pack a pouch or a can with a pop-top lid along with a fork or spoon, and your kids have their main course all set. Single-serving containers of fruit and pudding that you find on grocery store shelves (not the refrigerated section) are also safe at room temperature. Other items that are shelf-stable include whole fruits with a peel (think apples, oranges, bananas, plums and grapes), hard cheese, dried fruit, nuts, chips (look for healthier options), crackers, cereal bars and pickles.

It’s also important to be sure to keep things clean. Before preparing pack lunches, wash counters, cutting boards and utensils with a clean dishrag and hot, soapy water, and wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds. Clean the insulated box or bag with hot soapy water after each use, and don’t re-use paper bags. If you pack lunch the night before, keep it in the fridge with the lid open for proper cooling.

Talk with your children about leftovers. They should be discarded, and perishable items should never be eaten at a later time.

For more details on safe packed lunches, see www.foodsafety.gov/blog/2016/08/checklist.html.

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, food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Test dairy, nutrition IQ with MyPlate quizzes

My son, who is 11, says that since butter is made from milk, it should be counted as a dairy food. I know that it’s not dairy, but can you help me explain why?

The most important nutrient we get from dairy foods is calcium. Some foods made from milk, such as cheese and yogurt, retain their calcium content, and those foods are counted along with milk as part of the dairy group.

However, there are foods made from milk that have little or no calcium. That includes butter, as well as cream, cream cheese and sour cream. These are all very high in saturated fat, which should be limited in a healthy diet. That’s why they’re not considered dairy foods, and they don’t count toward the three cups of dairy foods that anyone who is 9 or older should eat each day. (Speaking of amounts, it’s important to know that for cheese, all of these count as “one cup” of dairy: 1.5 ounces of hard cheese, 2 ounces of processed cheese, a half-cup of shredded cheese, and 2 cups of cottage cheese.)

Ice cream and frozen yogurt are counted in the dairy group, but they also can be high in calories, saturated fat and added sugars. Choosing low-fat or fat-free types would be healthier choices for dairy-based desserts.

As you explain all this to your son, you might want to challenge him to think more about the nutrients in his food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion has just developed a set of online quizzes on the five food groups: dairy, fruit, grains, protein foods and vegetables. The 10-question quizzes are designed to be informative and fun, and could help gear up his brain cells for back-to-school activities. The true-and-false and multiple-choice questions include, for example:

  • What nutrient can you get from eating whole fruit but usually not from fruit juice?
  • What protein food is also a good source of calcium?
  • About how much of the grains you eat should be whole grains?
  • How much of your plate should be filled with vegetables and fruit?
  • What is the name of the sugar found naturally in milk?
  • What vitamin gives carrots their orange color?

The quizzes are online at choosemyplate.gov/quiz. There, you’ll also find access to a broad menu of trustworthy nutrition information, including:

  • Printable MyPlate Daily Checklists for different calorie levels (and an easy way to find out how many calories you should be eating each day).
  • The online SuperTracker, which can help you plan and track your diet and physical activity.
  • The “What’s Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl” site, which helps you build healthy menus, browse recipes, watch how-to cooking videos and create and print your own cookbook.

The ChooseMyPlate.gov site provides a wealth of information about healthy eating at your fingertips. Bon appetit!

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, Community Nutrition specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Turn tables on food ads: Make veggies fun

We tend to eat a lot of vegetables and fruit at home, not only during meals but for snacks too. But our daughter seems to be getting less interested in “good” food and is asking for more sweets and salty snacks. How can we steer her back to healthy eating?

First, good for you for being a good role model for healthful eating. That’s the first, and, some say, the most important step to influencing your daughter’s adoption of healthy habits to last a lifetime.

But as you’re finding out, you’re not the only influence on your daughter. It’s nothing new: Food and beverage advertisers spend nearly $15 billion each year targeting children and teens in the U.S. And, recent studies reveal that more than 80 percent of the food advertisements that adults and children see on television are for foods that are classified as unhealthy.

These marketing efforts have an impact. In the journal Obesity Reviews in July, researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, analyzed 29 previous studies and found that children are significantly more likely to eat foods high in sugar or salt after seeing food commercials, print advertisements, video games, branded logos and packaging with licensed characters. That’s especially important because other studies reveal that children are exposed to an average of five food ads every hour, the researchers said.

Still, you don’t have to just throw up your hands and give up. In fact, other recent research shows that marketing techniques can also be used to encourage children to eat healthfully.

In that study, published in Pediatrics, researchers at Cornell University created a team of super-power characters called Super Sprowtz, including Miki Mushroom, Zach Zucchini and Suzie Sweet Pea. They put banners including the characters on salad bars in school lunchrooms, and in some lunchrooms they also played a video depicting the characters. In schools with just the banners, 24 percent of the students took vegetables from the salad bar, almost double the number before the banners were installed. In schools that also showed the video, kids choosing vegetables more than tripled, from 10 percent to almost 35 percent. As one of the researchers, who is now at The Ohio State University, said, putting time and resources into marketing healthy choices to kids can work.

What does that mean for your family? Limit your daughter’s exposure to junk food and beverage ads on TV and other outlets. And, be sure her school actively promotes fruits and vegetables, minimizes exposure to ads for unhealthy foods and beverages, and adheres to “Smart Snacks in School.” That regulation requires all foods sold in schools during the school day meet nutrition standards, whether they’re meals, a la carte items, or items sold in school stores and vending machines.

At home, try ways to keep the fun in healthy foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a tip sheet with creative approaches to “Kid-friendly vegetables and fruits,” online at go.osu.edu/kidfriendly. Your daughter can regain her enjoyment of eating right by creating her own unique — and healthy — snacks.

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University’s 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 Carol Smathers, field specialist in Youth Nutrition and Wellness with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.

For a PDF file of this column, please click here.

Delving deep into homemade nut butter

I occasionally like to make my own nut butter by grinding nuts in a food processor and adding some coconut oil until it becomes creamy. But I’m worried that I’m losing some of the fiber in the nuts when I grind them. Also, does eating nuts burn more calories than eating nut butter?

As far as the fiber content goes, don’t worry, unless you blanch or otherwise remove the outer layer of the nuts before you process them. Some of the fiber in nuts comes from the skin, so be sure to include the outer layer (not the shell, of course, but the skin around the nut) when processing. It’s true that eating nut butter is a totally different, less crunchy experience than eating nuts, but you won’t lose any of the nut’s fiber by grinding it into a powder, paste or butter.

It’s good that you’re thinking about fiber. Most Americans don’t eat nearly enough: Women should get 21 to 25 grams a day, while men should get 30 to 38. While nuts and seeds can be a good source, keep in mind that fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains are often even better sources.

However, a word to the wise about the coconut oil you’re using to make the nut butter smoother and more spreadable: You could be paying a high price for that convenience.

Even though the internet is plastered with pages touting the health benefits of coconut oil, actual researchers of fatty acids and body energy metabolism are far from convinced. Although the saturated fat in coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides that are thought to provide some health benefits, the detrimental palmitic acid in coconut oil far outweighs any potential dietary benefit in humans. Palmitic acid promotes the formation of belly fat and fat in the liver.

If you feel the need to add some type of oil to your nut butter, you’d be better off using another type of light-tasting or flavor-complementing oil with a higher level of healthier polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat, such as peanut, walnut, grapeseed, sesame, sunflower or safflower oil.

Finally, don’t be too concerned about the difference in calories that your body burns between eating whole nuts and eating nut butter. The difference would be minuscule. On average, only about 10 percent of the calories your body burns is due to digestion (including chewing) and absorption of nutrients, compared with 30 percent from physical activity (including any type of movement) and 60 percent from basal metabolism.

Interestingly, a small study in the New England Journal of Medicine — notably, in a letter to the editor, not a peer-reviewed journal article — back in 1999 calculated that the energy burned in an hour of chewing gum averaged 11 calories.

The researcher suggested that chewing calorie-free gum during waking hours all day every day could result in the loss of several pounds over a year, and its effects shouldn’t be discounted. But you wouldn’t be chewing nuts for that long. The difference in calories required for digesting nuts as opposed to nut butter is likely indistinguishable.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s 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, field specialist in Food, Nutrition and Wellness with Ohio State University Extension, and Martha Belury, a scientist with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and the Carol S. Kennedy Endowed Professor of Human Nutrition in The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.