Even if you have resisted serving the new microwavable children's meals thus far, the pressure is mounting.
Take your kids to the movie "Home Alone" and they'll see child actor Macaulay Culkin sitting alone at the dining room table asking for a blessing on the macaroni-and-cheese dinner he just zapped in the microwave.
Allow them to watch Saturday morning television and they'll be bombarded with advertisements for dinners with cartoon characters on the package and games inside.
And, if you manage to shield your children from these enticements, they will hear about the latest dinner featuring soft tacos from their pals at school.
What's a parent to do? Can you serve these dinners to your children without having a guilt attack? How much is too much? Are they all created equal nutritionally? And is it safe for a child to cook his own meal in the microwave without supervision?
Microwavable meals for kids have created one of the fastest growing market niches in the food industry -- targeted at the more than 30 million children ages 3 to 10 in the country.
My Own Meals, a small company in Deerfield, Ill., the concept pioneer, is now competing in a battle of the giants for market share in an estimated $250-million-a-year business of shelf-stable and frozen kids' meals. My Own Meals has been joined by frozen food giant ConAgra with Kid Cuisine and Snoopy's Choice, chicken guru Tyson's Looney Tunes and meat packer Hormel's Kid's Kitchen. Prices range from 99 cents for some entrees to $2.49 for full dinners.
Depending on whom you talk to, these products are either the best invention since sliced bread or junk food that is too high in fat, sodium and calories.
Kid Cuisine, the first of the frozen meals aimed at children and sales leader of the pack, was recognized as one of 1990's best products by the American Marketing Association. The dinners, aimed at ages 3 through 10, were developed to satisfy children's taste preferences as well as parents' desire for convenience. The package features cartoon-like characters called The Chef and BJ and offers games and puzzles as a premium.
But Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, had quite a different reaction.
"The prizes and the packaging may tantalize children, but the food itself isn't the most nutritious," says the magazine. CU pointed out that for their calories the meals offered a good amount of protein and a fair portion of iron, but most were too
high in fat, saturated fat and sodium.
Since then, ConAgra has come up with a more health-conscious alternative -- Snoopy's Choice, a main course geared at ages 7 to 12. Susan Hanley, ConAgra spokeswoman says Snoopy's Choice, an extension of the popular Healthy Choice line for adults, averages 17 percent of calories from fat, 401 mg of sodium and 30 mg cholesterol for an entree compared to Kid's Cuisine with an average of 35 percent of calories from fat, 740 mg of sodium and 37 mg of cholesterol for a full meal, including dessert. Snoopy's Choice is being test-marketed in seven states, including Maryland.
UI Nutritionists differ slightly on their reaction to these dinners, but
typically they agree with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics -- total fat intake for children over age 2 should get between 30 and 40 percent of calories from fat.
"You need to look for salt mines and fat traps," says Evelyn Tribole, national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association who has looked at the nutritional data for most of these dinners in the revised edition of her book, "Eating on the Run." "Don't assume that just because it is made for kids that it is any healthier than the adult counterpart."
Not all these dinners are created equal, she adds, and the
percentage of calories from fat can range from
percent to 48 percent. Her quick rule: Look for no more than 3 grams of fat for every 100 calories.
"I have no problem with a child occasionally eating a high-fat meal," she adds. "But if Mom and Dad zap dinner in the microwave every day and the kids have Kid Cuisine every day, that is a problem."
Edward Blontz, a Ph.D. nutritionist and free-lance writer in Berkeley, Calif., has a slightly more liberal view, noting that we don't have enough data to support limiting the amount of fat in a child's diet. Sometimes a child eating a high-fat dinner is better than one eating nothing at all.
"I have a 5-year-old boy and I have had to confront my knowledge as a nutritionist with the reality of what these kids are going to be eating," he says. "Every parent is going to have to face the fact that they are not going to have the perfect little eater. Children are not going to eat everything that you give them. . . . We are making the assumption that children are little adults and I don't think we can do that. It all balances out eventually."
Dr. Harris Burstin, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at New York University, points to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, which reported eating habits of 15 pre-schoolers. The researchers suggested that parents avoid "use of threats and bribes and of rewards or punishment" to get their kids to finish their meals because the study showed children seem to have an innate ability to get all the nourishment they need to grow.
"Children tend to balance their diet on their own," Dr. Burstin says. "I tend not to make parents crazy about fat. I never ask people to count grams of fat for their children. We try to get kids to eat chicken and fish because it is better for them, but we don't encourage fighting about food. Don't push kids. They'll eat what they need."
Although the majority of companies are pitching their meals at children through use of games and puzzles, Mary Anne Jackson, founder of My Own Meals, has geared her marketing to parents " who want a guilt-free alternative to home cooking. Her promotional efforts have focused on aspects of microwave dinner for kids that the majority of her competitors have ignored or avoided -- good nutrition and safe use of the microwave.
Some of the other meals say they contain no artificial colors and flavorings; My Own Meals says they are made without any preservatives, additives or monosodium glutamate. The percentage of calories from fat in My Own Meals entrees ranges from 16 to 38 percent, but Ms. Jackson says they average 32 percent when served with suggested accompaniments. Her )R entrees include dishes such as light and dark chicken with brown rice, carrots and peas as well as meatballs with shell macaroni in tomato sauce compared to the competition's chicken nuggets and pizza.
"The first thing kids go for [in the competition's meals] is the dessert and they wind up taking a few bites of the hamburger or pizza and leave most of the dinner behind," she says. "The appeal in these other dinners is not the food, it's the trappings."
Ms. Jackson, a former Beatrice food executive, also feels a corporate responsibility for safety. She does not recommend that children use the microwave without adult supervision. The Consumer Product Safety Commission agrees, noting in a report that parents should not allow a child under age 10 to use the microwave because of potential for burns. In fact, in 1989 the CPSC estimates that 1,096 children under age 14 were burned as a result of microwave use.
"We did a whole publicity campaign trying to educate consumers with information from the Shriners' Burn Institute," Ms. Jackson says. "As a result, some of the major food companies have changed their strategy.
"Our box clearly states that they should be prepared by adults and not children. We are concerned that children will be burned. Particularly if the microwave is up high, the children may pull the dinner out and end up spilling the hot food on their face or upper trunk."
She adds that other potential for burns occurs when the plastic is removed from the top of the meal and steam is released. The microwaved food may also be too hot for the child's mouth and should be allowed to cool off slightly before eating.
Bob Messenger, editor of Food Business magazine, says the overall winners in the meals for kids game thus far are ConAgra's Kid Cuisine and Tysons' Looney Tunes. He says he might add My Own Meals to the top of the list, but he doesn't think the meals are fun enough for kids. In fact, he predicts that the big guys may just push Mary Anne Jackson out of the market by 1992.
"What Mary Anne Jackson is trying to do is sell to the mothers," Mr. Messenger says. "I am absolutely convinced that kids are influenced more than the parents. She is selling nutrition and the health angle hard to the parents. She is even going so far as to issue press releases on the dangers of microwave use by children. But I think Tysons and Con- Agra are pitching the right market -- with games and all other kinds of magnets that will attract the kids. My Own Meals simply doesn't measure up in appealing to the kids on their own merit. It doesn't offer any extra fun."
Ms. Jackson hopes his crystal ball is getting faulty reception. She heard this kind of pessimism before when she was an executive at Beatrice.
"I get calls from the major food companies telling me all the things that I am doing wrong," she adds. "If they are calling me, I must be doing something right. I believe in competition. But if I try to compete playing the big company game, I'll get wiped out. If I compete on my own level, I'm more in control. Besides, I'm a mother, too, and I have to have a conscience."