If slapping a couple of slices of deli meats into sandwiches has been the norm when fixing kids' school lunches, it might be wise to make some changes, says a British Columbia dietitian.
There have been numerous recalls of a variety of these convenient luncheon meats by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency over the past year.
Most were contaminated with Listeria, the agency says. Consumption of the food, which may not look or smell spoiled, could cause listeriosis, an illness of high fever, neck stiffness, headache and nausea that is particularly dangerous for pregnant women.
As school lunch providers, parents might want to avoid processed luncheon meat for their children, says Patricia Chuey, a dietitian for more than 20 years.
"To their credit, many deli meat manufacturers over the past decade have taken steps to reduce the sodium and fat content," she points out. "But that said, the general category of luncheon meats is still something I would call a 'sometimes' food that should not be consumed every day."
And, she adds, independent of the listeriosis and salmonella outbreaks and recalls, a high sodium and fat content remains an issue with many processed foods.
Chuey says like any other meal plans, school lunches should also follow the golden rule of healthy eating.
"We should cross-train our diet and eat a variety of different foods," she says.
Chuey says parents making lunches should now be reconsidering what to offer their children. And instead of making lunch in the morning, plan ahead.
"So if you are cooking a quality protein like turkey, chicken, beef, pork, fish, vegetarian or a casserole for family dinner, purposely plan to make enough to take for lunch the next day."
Chuey doesn't buy the excuses offered by many people that they haven't the time to prepare school lunches.
"Planning (leftovers) is even faster than making a sandwich," she counters. "People know that they need their lunch five days a week, so it's really a habit shift looking at adjusting that prep time in the evening."
Alternatives to sandwiches can be chili con carne or a salad as a base for a grain like quinoa with turkey, chicken, canned salmon or tuna on top, she says.
Chuey suggests placing a list of lunch box ideas on the refrigerator and asking family members for their favourite ideas.
Recent research among food scientists and dietitians has found that children should eat five or six small snack-type meals throughout the day. This can help avoid blood sugar spikes and give them the constant sustenance their growing bodies require.
"Good snacks should be a combination of protein and carbohydrates," Chuey suggests. "As a single food a nice snack is yogurt because it provides both protein and carbohydrates."
Another good combination is a small piece of cheese with a whole-grain cracker or a piece of fruit with a handful of almonds.
"A lot of people find an apple at 3 in the afternoon will tide them over to dinner," she says.
If you want to purchase a granola or cereal bar, make sure it is high in fibre, low in sugar and doesn't contain too much salt, says Chuey.
"There are a lot of good homemade granola bar recipes on the Internet," she says.
In school jurisdictions where peanut butter and its byproducts have been banned due to possible allergic reactions, Chuey says parents can substitute almond or cashew butter.
"However, the same guidelines apply as to peanut butter and that is to make sure that they are as natural as possible without added sugar or salt," she says. "So check the labels."