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The Cheap Vegetables–Snack Edition

A food marketing study released findings a few days ago about the top 10 fastest growing snack food preferences for kids 2 to 17 years old. Yogurt came out as number one, then potato chips, then–very surprisingly to me–fresh fruit. The others down the rest of the list were a soggy but predictable mash of candy, chips, “donuts” [sic], and other junk foods, though I think cheese cubes were in there somewhere. If yogurt and fresh fruit are in the top three, though, the news must be good, right?

Um. Maybe. But both of them are sweet or sweetened (in the case of most flavored yogurts, very heavily sweetened compared with plain)–so they kind of fit in with the candy, donut, carb-carb-carb kinds of snacks in the rest of the list.

What’s missing from the top 10 list? Plain milk, pasta or beans, bread and jam, the simpler unpackaged, unprocessed, or unbranded stuff you could bring from home, are all missing. But most of those are hard to take to school, and none of them are crunchy, which is a big part of the pleasure of snack. Actually, few of the packaged snacks are crunchy any more either. It’s a sad state of affairs, but there is a simple way to restore the full joy of snacktime.

Because mostly what you don’t see on the marketing study list are vegetables. Raw, crunchy vegetables, low in calories, starches and sugars, fats and  sodium, are high in potassium and fiber and vitamins, easy to prepare (another chorus of “just wash and nosh”) and perfect for snack. A handful of red cabbage or a couple of carrot or celery sticks along with a piece of cheese or a few nuts will keep kids from hunger for a lot longer than the carb-laden snacks on that list, and they’re a lot less expensive–on your wallet or your kids’ waistline.

Parents at school complain all the time that vegetables are too expensive, too time-consuming, take too much preparation by hand, and are not convenient to deal with, and their kids “won’t eat them”. But I wonder if that’s true, because whenever I go at lunchtime, I see many of those same kids enjoying the vegetables that come out of the school garden. They aren’t whining and they don’t appear to be suffering, and nobody seems to be sneering at anyone else that their lunch has Brand A taco chips and all the other poor schlub’s mother packed was vegetables. They’re all waving broccoli or lettuce leaves around, holding them up for comparison, and using them as props for one or another comic performance before chomping into them with savage glee.

And I know an ordinary bunch of celery–even a head of cauliflower–is the same price or cheaper than an econo bag of Doritos. Even at the big brand supermarkets. Celery. Carrots. Red or green cabbage. Raw green beans or if you’ve got the extra cash, snow pea pods. Broccoli or cauliflower. Lettuce wedges. Tomatoes. Cucumber. Bell pepper. None of these are hideously expensive, all of them taste good raw, and all of them store well washed, dried gently, and kept in the fridge.

So what’s stopping the parents from packing vegetables as lunchbox fare? The fact that they have to wash them to get the dirt off? Get their hands wet doing it? Maybe peel some of the vegetables? Find a knife to cut them up with? Use them up within a week or so of buying them? I honestly don’t know, but a lot of the parents seem whinier than their kids. Maybe they should all learn to just wash and nosh.

It only takes a minute or two to deal with a full head of broccoli or cauliflower, or a bunch of celery, and it’ll last you several days’ worth of school and work snacks at a cost of under $2. The most prep required is for carrots, if you start with an actual bunch. Not that I’m advocating the prepacked “baby cut carrots” bags, which are more expensive, but if you really hate peeling and cutting up carrots, you could go this way and still do better than chips and snack packs and the like.

All I can tell you is, if the vegetables are fresh and crunchy, most kids will get into them as long as their friends are doing it too, and there’s no great way to overeat them (except maybe for carrots). And some vegetables are just plain fun–red cabbage in particular is handy for revealing secret invisible baking-soda messages, and if your kids eat it at recess they can compare purple tongues with their friends afterward.  Can’t do that with taco chips.

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