There's a lot of talk going on about school lunch reform. Jamie Oliver has launched a war on the American school lunch tray. A group of retired military officers has declared school lunches a threat to national security because they're making students too fat. But an important voice is missing from this conversation: the kids who actually eat the meals.
A study from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health last year found that parental influence only goes so far when it comes to our kids' eating habits. Peer influence and the school dining environment – i.e. the all-mighty cafeteria table – are what have the real impact. Congressional fighting over budget cuts and union wars in Wisconsin have nothing on the politicking that goes on at the school lunch table.
Lunch-time bartering is a time-honored tradition. But each generation has its own favorites. Little Debbies and Twinkies are out, Gushers and Gummy Bears are in. Nutrition experts and food marketers could learn a lot about appealing to kids' taste buds and desires if they examined what makes a lunchbox snack a hot commodity.
Here – based on my own scientific study of conversations in the back of my car and the wrappers I've found in my kids' lunchboxes – are the snacks with the highest trade value today:
· Fruit leather. Fruit By The Foot, Fruit Roll-Ups, FruitaBu rolls – they're all golden, especially if they leave a tongue tattoo. I suspect the fun factor of eating these is the main appeal. They can be rolled up into a ball and swallowed whole, stretched across the table and eaten progressively like a snake devours its prey or wrapped around your arm to be peeled off and eaten like skin. Lesson here: Being able to gross out the kid next to you gives a snack power.
· The 15-minute famers. Anything new is desirable for at least its first week on grocery store shelves. Right now, in our corner of the South Florida market, it seems to be Granola Thins, uber-thin granola wafers that resemble square graham crackers, partially dipped in peanut butter or chocolate. Rectangular bars are so 2010. Proof that if you change the shape, they will come.
· Clementines. Yes, fruit!! No seeds, cute packaging, not too messy. They smell good when peeled and are effortlessly popped into the mouth, with a sweet explosion at the end. Nature's Gushers.
· Pita chips. The new potato chips. Brushed with olive oil and herbs, cinnamon or garlic. The ones marked "Simply Naked" crack 'em up every time.
· Nutella. The mini-containers sold with a plastic spoon are prized treats. Yes, the Italian hazelnut spread is processed food, but you can pair it with apples and other fruit for dipping.
· Rice Krispies Treats. The classic snack still has it goin' on. I refuse to buy these for my kids, but I still find the shiny blue wrappers of the store-bought version in their lunch bags. If only we could find a way to make vegetables as desirable as these gooey treats.
· Mini apples. My kids beg me to pack extras of the two-bite Lady apples because their friends want them. Tart and adorable, the petite fruit is, unfortunately, only in season in the fall. But the cutesy appeal of super-small fruit can carry over to dwarf bananas and champagne grapes. Never underestimate the curiosity factor of Lilliputian-sized food. Proof that even big kids still like to put strange objects in their mouths.