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A nutritionist's school lunch tips

Stony Brook nutritionist Josephine Connolly-Schoonen and her son,

Stony Brook nutritionist Josephine Connolly-Schoonen and her son, Martin, walk through the aisles and give advice on packing kids' lunches at Stop N Shop in South Setauket. (Aug. 13, 2009) Credit: Timothy Fadek

Josephine Connolly-Schoonen does some of her best work in the supermarket. As a professor of family medicine at Stony Brook and the director of the university's dietetic-internship program, it is the registered dietitian's job to familiarize herself with the nutritional particulars of what American families are eating.

She also has to make lunch for three school-age children.

Connolly-Schoonen, who lives in Miller Place, buys her groceries at Super Stop & Shop in South Setauket. We joined her and her two younger kids, Anna, 12, and Martien, 8 (Jan, 14, was off at soccer camp) for a stroll up and down the aisles.


The pace was leisurely, as Connolly-Schoonen is a devoted label-reader. "Even if you think you know what the ingredients are, you need to check the label," she said, "because formulations change." The label for Silk soy milk, for example, no longer states that it is made with organic soy beans, and so she has switched to Nature's Promise. (The only way to ensure that soy products are not made with genetically modified soy beans is to buy organic.)


Connolly-Schoonen looks for smaller fruit varieties such as Gala apples, clementines, baby bananas or cut-up melon. The fruit needn't be fresh, but if it's a packaged product, it must be devoid of added sugar. Mott's "no-sugar-added" applesauce and Dole pineapple packed in juice (not in light syrup) make the grade.

Anna likes red peppers so much she'll eat them on their own, but celery, cucumbers or carrots must be accompanied by a little container of dressing. Connolly-Schoonen stays away from light dressings that invariably contain more sugar and salt than regular. She likes Nature's Promise ranch dressing, which has no added sugar and is made with expeller-pressed Canola oil.


Connolly-Schoonen tries to steer children toward whole-wheat breads, and cautions their parents to read the labels: A bread whose label proclaims "multigrain" or some other evocative phrase is not whole wheat unless the first ingredient listed is "whole-wheat flour."

On sandwiches, Connolly-Schoonen uses a little bit of regular Hellmans' (no carbohydrates, nine ingredients) as opposed to light (1 gram carbohydrates, 16 ingredients) or low-fat (2 grams carbohydrates, 16 ingredients, including high-fructose corn syrup). Reading the label, she recently discovered that Grey Poupon Dijon mustard contains sugar; she switched to Maille.

PB&J sandwiches are enjoyed by all three children. Connolly-Schoonen buys an all-natural peanut butter that has no added salt or sugar. As for jelly, it is full of sugar. Connolly-Schoonen does not recommend artificially sweetened foods for most children, so she looks for jellies, jams and preserves that at least contain only sugar and not high-fructose corn syrup.


Connolly-Schoonen gives her kids a snack at lunch, but no dessert. "If you pack a sandwich and chips and cookies," she says, "they may eat the chips and cookies and not the sandwich."

Cereal is a favorite snack. While Connolly-Schoonen's top choice would be along the lines of Cascadian Farm's Purely O's (only five ingredients, only whole-grain flours and 1 gram of sugars), she'll go as far as Kashi's Heart to Heart (many more ingredients, 5 grams of sugar, but no high-fructose corn syrup or food coloring). Her rule of thumb with cereals and snack bars is to limit sugar to 5 grams for each serving and to shoot for 3 grams of fiber. She and her kids split the difference by mixing the cereals. (Ditto for yogurt, with Connolly-Schoonen trying to use more Stonyfield low-fat plain yogurt, and her kids trying to use more vanilla.)


With crackers, she looks for high fiber and no hydrogenated, or trans, fats. Again, read the labels. The first ingredient in Nabisco Multigrain Premium Saltine crackers is white flour. They contain no fiber and the 1.5 grams of fat is hydrogenated cottonseed oil. "Crackers and chips don't have to be low-fat," Connolly-Schoonen says. "My rule of thumb is 3 grams of fat per 100 calories, and if it's more than that, it has to be a good fat - olive oil or Canola."


On this subject, Connolly-Schoonen is adamant: no juice. "The research is clear," she says, "early introduction of juice contributes to weight problems and establishes a lifelong preference for sweet drinks." She also steers clear of plastic bottles, and thus the Schoonen kids drink either water packed in a stainless-steel Thermos or cans or small glass bottles of seltzer or sparkling water.


Here are a couple of Connolly-Schoonen's nutritional rules of thumb:

Sugar Look for condiments and dressings with no added sugar. With cereal or snack bars, limit sugar to 5 grams for each serving.

Fat When buying crackers or chips, limit fat to 3 grams for every 100 calories. If it's higher than that, it should be a particularly healthy fat, such as Canola or olive oil.

Fiber Grain-based products - breads, cereals, crackers - should contain at least 2 or 3 grams of fiber.


Connolly-Schoonen is flexible on many nutritional fronts, but these are deal breakers:

High-fructose corn syrup This corn-derived sweetener is typically a marker for a highly processed product.

Artificial food colorings These are unnecessary, and new research suggests they may be problematic.

Trans fats or hydrogenated fats Trans fats are associated, over time, with development of chronic illnesses such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes.

'Licensed-character' foods Whether it is Dora the Explorer ice cream or Pokémon macaroni and cheese, these products establish "an inappropriate relationship with food, encouraging eating for reasons other than hunger."

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