Dairy items in school lunches once were confined to a small carton of milk and perhaps a cheese slice or two tucked into a ham or turkey sandwich, but that’s no longer the case. For one thing, kids’ lunches are just as likely these days to include a squeeze pouch of mixed-fruit yogurt, or veggies and ranch-flavored dip.
Today’s lunches tend to be smaller, quicker and “snackier,” according to Melissa Abbott, VP of culinary insights at The Hartman Group, a market research firm in Bellevue, Wash. “The size of lunch has shrunk because we’re snacking on either side quite a bit more,” explains Abbott.
“There is a growing demand for products related to snacking and portability,” affirms Julie W. Henderson, VP communication at the Harrisburg, Pa.-based National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association (NFRA). “In addition, food has become a badge of values, and consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it was made. The refrigerated dairy aisle is meeting each of these customer needs.” What’s more, she points out that the category’s suddenly on-trend health benefits include its being a good source of protein and probiotics.
Taking advantage of such trends, dairy producers are coming up with inventive new items. “Product innovation is a driver of growth in the dairy aisle,” Henderson says, going on to cite findings from the recent “Future of Dairy” report from Rosemont, Ill.-based Dairy Management Inc.: “Snacks/spreads/dip and yogurt are two categories that are leading product innovation.”
Eating on the Go
Many dairy items deserve prime placement in kids’ refrigerated lunch packs. Among the fun new items singled out by Henderson is Sargento’s Balanced Breaks, which she describes as “the perfect combination of creamy cheese, crunchy nuts and sweet dried fruits for a delicious, all-in-one snack.” The item comes in four varieties, including Natural White Cheddar Cheese, Sea-Salted Almonds and Dried Cranberries, and Natural Sharp Cheddar Cheese, Sea-Salted Cashews and Cherry Juice-Infused Cranberries.
According to Rob Tune, senior marketing manager for adjacencies at Plymouth, Wis.-based Sargento, Balanced Breaks, introduced this past March, “has proven to be a successful new product launch. Our customer repeat rate has been stronger than anticipated, and we’re on track to meet or exceed our goals for the first year.”
Beyond new product introductions, Stuart Manning, marketing manager — snacks, notes: “Back-to-school is a key point in time for our Sargento Natural Cheese Snacks as both parents and children get back into their routines. … While much of our advertising centers on educating consumers about real, natural cheese, our cheese snacks focus on the nutritional benefits of cheese as a natural source of protein and calcium. We share this message with consumers on print ads, in-store and on packaging.”
Further, to help moms and dads hone their lunch-making skills, S argento provides plenty of ideas. “Through our website, Sargento.com, we offer consumers recipes tailored to the type of cheese and meals they like,” says William Jacob, associate marketing manager for slices. “Our sandwich recipes, each featuring our 100 percent real, natural cheese, can help inspire [consumers’] lunchbox creations.”
“With new research coming out that supports whole milk as part of a healthy diet for kids, cheese is a great option for a high-protein and zero-sugar ‘real food’ snack,” asserts Joe Prewett director of product management and innovation at the Oregon-based Tillamook County Creamery Association dairy cooperative. “That’s why we launched the Cheese Sticks in January providing Tillamook Medium Cheddar and Colby Jack Cheese that’s individually wrapped and portioned with easy-open tear strips for kids.”
To get the word out about its nutritious products the co-op launched a campaign in time for the start of fall classes. “Many convenient and kid-friendly foods are bursting at the seams with artificial ingredients,” explains Prewett, “so this back-to-school season, Tillamook partnered with [Detroit-based child entrepreneur] Super Business Girl Asia Newson for a De-Junk the Lunchbox campaign, empowering parents to replace foods packed with artificial ingredients with real food like Tillamook Yogurt and Tillamoos [Tillamook Cheese cut into snack sizes].”
As part of the campaign, “Tillamook engaged prominent bloggers to join our efforts by curating an inspiring lunchbox full of real foods and favorite Tillamook products to share with their readers online” at Tillamook.com, adds Prewett.
Meanwhile, Organic Valley, a dairy co-op based in La Farge, Wis., prefers to “take a combined approach using traditional marketing efforts of in- and out-of-store promotions and advertising, combined with a grass-roots approach to promoting [our] products, especially via social media,” notes Brand Innovation Manager Nicole Mydy. “We like to connect with our customers this way — one to one, often offering coupons and premiums and contests.”
When it comes to the back-to-school occasion, “we have a lot of great products that go great in the lunchbox, including American Singles and other sliced cheeses; Stringles — which are individually packaged string cheeses that are even available in club store packages — and single-serve milk products,” observes Mydy. “For older kids who maybe don’t always like to carry a lunchbox, we have shelf-stable milk protein shakes that can act as great tide-me-overs for a missed meal.”
The company’s latest item is Grassmilk yogurt, characterized by Mydy as being “made from organic whole milk produced by cows that eat nothing but grasses and dry forage, never any grain like corn or soy.” She adds: “Studies show that pasture-grazed milk and dairy products have a better balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids — plus they have exceptional flavor. Our Grassmilk yogurt comes in two flavors — plain and vanilla — and it comes in multiserve tubs that can easily be portioned into lunchbox containers.”
Organic Valley’s commitment to kids goes beyond marketing and products, however. “One interesting thing we’re doing — and have done for years — is advocating for healthy school lunches for kids,” says Mydy. “Quite apart from promoting our own brand, we have donated food and other support to programs like the Sausalito Marin City School District’s lunch program — the nation’s first 100 percent organic lunch served in a public school, which is rolling out this year.”
As for lunchtime ideas, the co-op offers “a whole kid-friendly section on [our] website that [not only] includes numerous recipes for sandwiches like Pepperoni Grilled Cheese … but also a Superkid Energy Bar and kid-friendly salads,” she notes.
For more sophisticated young palates, there’s New Holland, Pa.-based Alouette, mainly merchandised in the deli aisle, whose newest products seem particularly lunchbox-ready. Le Petite Fromage, a snacking spread free of artificial ingredients and made from cheese, a little yogurt and fresh-picked vegetables, “is the perfect portable snack for parents to include in lunchboxes as part of a healthy, wholesome lunch,” says Senior Brand Manager Tameika G. Miller. “In fact, the nutrition label includes straightforward ingredients that are simple enough for a grade-school student to read on their own.” The indulgent-tasting product line comes in Garlic & Herb, Garden Salsa, Parmesan & Basil, and Cucumber & Dill varieties.
Both Le Petite Fromage and Le Bon Dip, a blend of premium soft creamy cheese, chunky vegetables consumers can see, and a touch of Greek yogurt in Basil, Zucchini & Parmesan, Fire Roasted Vegetables, Zesty Garden Salsa, and Roasted Red Pepper & Chickpea flavors, “are … healthier options than processed cheese, and are products the whole family will enjoy and be satisfied by without feeling guilty,” continues Miller.
With so much to choose from among perimeter products, particularly dairy items, parents need never skimp on healthy nutrition to provide the tasty morsels kids crave in school lunches.
“Produce companies are truly coming around to meet the needs of busy families who want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables with new innovative single-serve packaging and pre-cut items.”
—Trish James, Produce For Kids
“The size of lunch has shrunk because we’re snacking on either side quite a bit more.”
—Melissa Abbott, The Hartman Group