Like many parents, when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that processed meats increase the risk of some types of cancer, I wondered what lunchbox options were left. Because I have one child who does not like peanut butter and jelly, processed meat has become a staple in his lunch.
The WHO considers processed meat as any meat that has been smoked or cured with nitrates or nitrites to increase the shelf life. There is processed meat that is labeled uncured, but still contains nitrates or nitrites from celery juice, which experts say may not be any less harmful. Also, some of these uncured meats are smoked and smoking is a process that can produce carcinogens.
I think it’s important to mention that the WHO is not asking for people to stop eating processed meats all together, but their findings indicate that reducing the consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
As a dietitian, I decided to learn more about this research to determine how to interpret these findings for my own family. The WHO study showed that eating 50 grams of processed meat per day can increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. So in my mind, if my children consume less than 50 grams of processed meats in a day and it is only provided 1-2 times per week, then that is a step in the right direction. Here’s what 50 grams of processed meat looks like:
- 2 1/3 slices of bacon
- 2 slices of ham (depending upon the size and thickness of the slice)
- 1 hot dog
- 2 ½ slices of bologna
I think it’s important to look at the entire day for perspective. For instance, if I know we’re going to have bacon for breakfast, then I’ll reduce the processed meat for the remainder of the day or if I know we’ll be having ham for dinner then we’ll have other alternatives for breakfast and lunch.
In my quest to decrease the processed meat for my family, these are some of the lunch items I have started packing or will try to pack more of:
- Black beans mixed with salsa to serve over taco chips with cheese
- Cheese cubes placed on skewers with either grapes or cherry tomatoes
- Left overs that are kept warm in a thermos, such as pastas or soups
- Egg Salad or hard boiled eggs
- Nut butter on a sandwich or as a dip with apples
- Cold quesadillas with beans, cheese, and vegetables
- Lunchbox pizzas (see below for recipe idea)
If you’d like to decrease your children’s cancer risk but are struggling with how to reduce processed meats, I recommend increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables they consume in a day. A diet rich in fruits and veggies has been linked with the prevention of many diseases, including cancer.
Quick lunchbox pizzas
- Use a whole grain base, such as whole wheat bagels, pitas, or English muffins.
- Spread a homemade or high quality marinara sauce on top (a good quality marinara sauce would contain no added sugar or high fructose corn syrup).
- Top with shredded mozzarella cheese and assorted chopped vegetables, such as peppers, mushrooms, olives, spinach, tomatoes, onions, etc.
- Heat oven to 350. Place in oven for 10 minutes or until cheese is melted. This is a great item for children to help prep. You can make enough pizzas for 2-3 days of lunches and keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator.