In one of the largest school districts on Long Island, New York, students in the second to fifth grades can't bring in cupcakes, cookies or any other type of food for birthday celebrations.
Kindergartners and first graders are allowed to bring in these treats, but encouraged instead to bring in small, portion-controlled sweets and only bottled water for drinks. And forget about sneaking candy into goody bags, because they can't contain any type of food.
The district also sends home a suggested list of healthy foods to send in for snack time.
Efforts like these have significantly changed the way schoolchildren eat, and trickled down into what's inside the school lunchbox.
Indeed, the days of most parents sending their kids to school everyday with cupcakes, cookies and salty snacks are long gone.
Rather, many lunchboxes are filled with puffed rice, veggies in portable packaging, organic food bars and freeze-dried fruit.
At Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., parents frequently ask dietitian Barbara Ruhs for suggestions on healthy foods to pack their kids for school.
Along with fruit and vegetables, Ruhs points out better-for-you options in the Center Store. One of her favorites is Pirate's Booty baked, flavored puffed rice and corn.
What's more, it's gluten- and trans fat-free — and manufactured in a nut-free facility.
“Pirate's Booty is sold in [single-serve] multipacks that are easy to put in a kid's backpack,” she said.
Pirate's Booty is available in five flavors, including “New York Pizza.”
The brand appeals to both parents and children because it's better-for-you — and tastes good, said Eric Berniker, vice president of marketing at Pirate's Booty manufacturer Pirate Brands, Sea Cliff, N.Y.
“Parents want to send their kids to school with something they feel good about, but also something they'll eat and not trade to friends,” he said.
Each serving contains half the fat of traditional potato chips. That's because it's baked, not fried, yet still has the flavor and texture that kids enjoy, said Berniker.
“Kids love foods that crunch,” he noted.
Another one of Ruhs' suggestions is Clif Bar's “Zbar,” an organic whole-grain energy bar geared to kids. It contains just 130 calories and is available in such flavors as Chocolate Brownie and Spooky S'Mores.
“Instead of giving a kid a sugary brownie as a treat for lunch, you can give them a whole-grain bar that tastes like a brownie, and they won't know the difference,” Ruhs said.
One new item that Ruhs recommends is Funky Monkey, organic freeze-dried fruit snacks that do not contain added sugars, colors, flavors or preservatives. Each ounce contains three servings of fruit. Available at Kroger, Albertsons and other retailers, Funky Monkey comes in such kid-friendly flavors as Purple Funk, Pink Pineapple and Mango-OJ. Funky Monkey has been certified by the Non-GMO Project as GMO-free.
Even packaged fruit is getting healthier, with Dole and other companies are offering reduced-sugar options.
Ruhs said one of the most progressive companies in terms of health and wellness is Del Monte, which has a nutritionist on staff to handle any questions she has.
Meanwhile, in the produce department, single-serve packaged baby carrots and apple slices are another option.
“Parents are definitely trying to give their kids more produce,” Ruhs said.
Bashas' launched in-store radio ads this month that address ways to help children eat healthier. For instance, one ad suggests using romaine lettuce as a sandwich wrap, while another recommends eating whole-grain cereal with only 5 grams of sugar or less.
“We let parents know that whole grains should be among the first three ingredients on a label,” she said.
Bashas' plans to highlight some of its healthy options for kids when it exhibits at AZ Kids Expo. Running Sept. 18-19 at the University of Phoenix Stadium, the expo will showcase products and services for kids and their families.
The Bashas' booth will include representatives from several of its vendors, including Pirate's Booty, which will provide samples and pirate-themed giveaways; Sunsweet; Clif Bar; Nestlé Waters' Aquapods and Earthbound Farms.
Bashas' is also inviting Hickman's Family Farms, its egg supplier, to the expo. Hickman's will bring its mascot, “Funky” the chicken, to tell attendees that its eggs were not part of the recent egg recall and are safe to eat.
“We want to reeducate people that all our eggs are produced in the state of Arizona, and were not involved in the recall,” she said.
Like Bashas', other retailers are also highlighting healthier options for school. Wegmans Food Markets, for instance, ran a “Snackable Creations” Twitter contest last month. Shoppers could enter by submitting a recipe for a healthy kids snack using just three ingredients.
The winning recipe was Wegmans-brand fruit flats, Earth's Best Smiley Snacks and string cheese arranged on a plate to look like a palm tree. The winner received a reusable grocery bag filled with nutritionist-approved snacks “to help start the school year off right.”
Wegmans' also hosted a back-to-school event Aug. 28 that featured tips on how to make healthy foods and snacks for schoolchildren.
As for other back-to-school educational efforts, Trish Kazacos, Wegmans' corporate nutritionist, wrote an online column on healthy eating suggestions for school-age kids.
She suggested unsweetened applesauce, raisins, canned mandarin oranges and Wegmans' Food You Feel Good About white bread made with whole grains.
“When my boys were younger, 100% whole wheat bread was a staple in their diet. Then they started school, saw other kids eating white bread and suddenly whole wheat bread was rejected,” Kazacos wrote. “So, I had them try Wegmans' FYFGA white bread made with whole grains. They liked the taste and the look, so now it's their staple bread.”
As for other retailers, Price Chopper Supermarkets recently offered back-to-school specials on store-brand snacks like Price Chopper granola bars and Price Chopper string cheese, both two for $3.
Retailers looking for better-for-you products to promote for BTS have plenty of options at their disposal. That's because food and beverage companies have introduced more than 20,000 better-for-you products since 2002, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association's just-released 2010 Health & Wellness survey.
These items are classified as healthier because they have reduced calories, fat, sugar and/or sodium.
Many of these options are backpack friendly, as nearly half (49%) of participant companies have introduced single-serve packaging like 100-calorie packs, according to the survey of 57 companies. Likewise, 52% have created packaging sizes for kids.
“Food and beverage companies are responding to consumer needs by providing thousands of healthier product choices that make it easier for shoppers to build a healthy diet for them and their families,” Pamela Bailey, GMA president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.
Among other moves, Kraft Foods recently announced that it will more than double the amount of whole grain currently used across the Nabisco portfolio over the next three years. Whole grains in Original Wheat Thins will increase from 11 to 22 grams per serving; Wheat Thins, 5 to 17 grams; and Honey Maid Original Graham Crackers, 5 to 20. It's also adding whole grain to Premium and Ritz crackers.
Campbell Soup Co., meanwhile, has reduced sodium levels in many of its soups by 25% to 45%.
Plenty of other food and beverage companies have taken similar steps.
Along with containing better-for-you foods and beverages, many of today's lunchboxes bear another classification: peanut-free. Due to a rise in peanut allergies, many schools request that parents leave peanut-containing items at home.
To help parents identify such products, Loblaw Cos., Toronto, uses a “peanut-free” logo on packaging of its private-label President's Choice and “No Name” products.
The retailer currently offers 50 peanut-free bakery, confectionery and snack products.
New products include President's Choice Little Penguins Snack Crackers and Bite Size Granola Bars. Other selections include President's Choice “Blue Menu” Wheat Bran Bites, President's Choice “Mini Chefs” Honey Crunchy Cubs Graham Cookies and No Name Low Fat Crispy Rice Squares.
“Our objective is to eventually offer customers more of their favorite President's Choice and No Name snacks and treats in a peanut-free version,” Claudio Gemmiti, Loblaw's vice president of grocery, said in a statement.
A recent study found that about 2% of Canadian children, or one in 50, have a peanut allergy. Many schools and daycare facilities now have “peanut-aware” policies in place.
Loblaw uses displays marked with peanut-free signage.
Select stores also feature a yellow peanut-free school bus display filled with lunch-friendly snacks.
Additionally, in-store bakeries offer muffins, cookies and brownies made at Loblaw's offsite peanut-free baking facility.