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Canned Salmon: Take a Walk on the Wild Side

We always start the school year so hopeful, so energetic and upbeat: For the next nine months, we vow in late August, the kids' lunches will be packed the night before. They will be colorful and healthful and every last bite will get eaten, thereby nourishing the bodies and minds of our beloved children, Zack, 11, and Maya, 6.

But all too soon, reality, with its fevers and fights and over-the-top homework assignments, sets in, so that even when it's still just early fall, the fun has already gone out of packing school lunches — to put it mildly. The containers aren't even washed the night before, never mind packed.

I'd send the kids off with money for the cafeteria, but only if I could rewrite the menu from scratch. I'd let them bring whatever their little hearts desired, but then I'd have to be Easygoing Mom, which I'm so not.

"But all da udder kids get to bring dessert in dere lunches," Maya wails. "Why can't I?"

It's not that I'm hard to please; it's just that I want something fast, easy, cheap, pretty, high-fiber, low-fat and delicious.

Tuna salad would seem perfect, except I take the "less is more" approach when it comes to mercury in my kids' food. So tuna's out.

How about salmon? It seems like a great alternative to tuna. It, too, is high in omega-3s, plus it's delicious. Yes, there's a "but" coming. If the canned salmon has been farmed (often called "Atlantic salmon"), there's trouble in paradise, according to Environmental Defense, a science-based environmental advocacy group that warns of relatively high levels of PCBs, dioxins and pesticides. Not to mention that farmed salmon raises a lot of as-yet unanswered environmental questions.

Wild salmon, however, gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from KidSafe Seafood, a program of the nonprofit organization SeaWeb, which specifically focuses on clean, safe, sustainable seafood options for families and children. (So far, it has identified a grand total of six seafood species that fit the bill for kids; in addition to wild salmon, the other five are tilapia from the U.S. and Central America, farmed blue mussels, northern U.S. and Canadian shrimp, U.S. farmed crayfish and farmed bay scallops.)

There's more good news: Canned wild salmon contains up to four times as many omega-3s as chunk light tuna, according to the USDA's nutrient database for standard reference. And depending on where you live, canned wild salmon is even said to be more environmentally sound than fresh because it hasn't been flown across the country. This is great news for the lunchbox.

If I were feeling bold, I'd crack open a can of fish containing skin and bones, because the bones are a great source of calcium. But the one time I did buy salmon that way (by accident), I gasped when I opened the can: The sharp pieces of bone and black bits of skin made it look like something had gone terribly awry at the cannery.

Luckily, for wimps like me, prettified, citified wild canned salmon is available at co-ops, online or at specialty stores. (If you want to avoid the hardcore stuff, make sure the label says "boneless" and "skinless" along with "wild.")

As I serve up this delicious lunch, I'm happy — but not nearly as happy as I'd be if Maya were to try even one tiny bite of wild salmon, whether fresh, canned, frozen, smoked or in a jerky, because even though it may be clean, sustainable and — best of all — pink, it's all just fish to her.

Typical. One 40-pound child has foiled my grand lunchtime plans yet again. I grab the cheddar cheese from the fridge with a sigh. But as I've learned, if we keep making it, eventually the kids will come around.

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Betsy Block