Packing school lunches is an easy way for families to save money, but there is a downside. Moms and dads need to find foods that fill their kids up, keep them healthy, and won’t cause a sugar crash partway through the afternoon.
It’s perhaps a newer challenge for most dads, as the number of fathers staying home with their kids has increased significantly compared to a few decades ago. From 1989 to 2012, the number of dads staying at home with their kids rose from 1.1 million to 2 million. Twenty-one percent of fathers who stay at home are doing so specifically to care for their home and family, compared to 5% of dads who did so in 1989, according to the Pew Research Center. And in this current age all parents — including those dads packing lunches for the first time — are facing scrutiny about what they feed their kids in order to stem the tide of exponential growth in childhood obesity rates.
Research shows raising kids with healthy habits means those children have a much greater chance of continuing those healthy trends well into adulthood. Chief on the list of scary food monsters looking to destroy children are sugary sodas and other artificially-sweetened drinks.
The fact is, it’s totally up to parents about what they pack for their kids. But there’s a ton of good resources out there for parents who are looking to give their kids a fun, balanced meal that looks absolutely nothing like the sludge their classmates are getting. Some dads have gone to the extreme and started blogging about their creative lunches they send with their kids. Chances are, they’re not getting traded at the lunch table for a pack of Cheetos. Lunchbox Dad and others like him can serve as an inspiration, but you don’t have to be super creative to pack a meal that your kids will love without destroying their diets. Just steer clear of these eats, which are some of the worst foods your kids, or anyone, can eat.
1. Fruit snacks
They’re the king of kids’ meals, but fruit snacks like roll-ups, Gushers, and the kinds that are shaped like superheroes and princesses should probably be treated like candy, not a healthy lunchbox addition. Most times, fruit snacks are low in calories and in fat, but that can be deceiving. “These staples may seem like an OK choice, but they have three types of sugar listed in the first five ingredients,” physician nutrition specialist Dr. Melina Jampolis tells Mom.me. “Some brands also have trans fats, the most unhealthy fats out there, and artificial colors, which may lead to hyperactivity in some kids.”
Jampolis suggests trying all-natural fruit leathers instead. You can also pack dried fruit — but make sure there’s no extra sugar added. Or you could make your own snack mix with dried fruits, nuts, and a sparing use of candies.
2. Leftover pizza
Leftovers are a great budget-conscious way to can make sure your kids get a full meal the next day at lunch, and leftover pizza is sure to have them excited. However, if the pizza was delivered, a slice can have up to 500 calories, ActiveBeat reports. There’s not a ton of nutritional value from slices that come from Dominos or Pizza Hut, but there’s plenty of sodium and fat.
ActiveBeat gives a homemade pizza alternative that could work well for your kid’s lunchbox the next day. But you can also make other foods ahead of time and send them to school, such as a meatball sandwich (with warm meatballs packed in a thermos container) or any number of ideas from Bon Appétit.
3. Juice boxes
We’ve mentioned before that sugary drinks are in the bulls-eye for exacerbating childhood obesity issues. Unfortunately, many juice boxes fall into this category, too. Some are made with real fruit juice, but in some cases it’s not 100%. No matter what, the juice boxes are often filled to the brim with sugars and calories, which means you’re dooming your kid to a sugar crash in the hours following lunch. “Water and high-fructose corn syrup are the first two ingredients on some of these juice pouches that contain only 10% juice,” Jampolis tells Mom.me.
Though more manufacturers are getting rid of high-fructose corn syrup, it can still be found in many foods and juices. “This highly processed sweetener doesn’t require normal digestion,” Gaby Wilday, founder of No Fuss Lunch, tells The Daily Meal. “Instead, it is more rapidly absorbed into the blood stream and goes directly to your liver. It is thought to contribute to the growing cases of fatty liver, diabetes, and obesity.”
Water or milk should always be a first choice for lunch. But if you’d like to give your kids juice, make absolutely sure that it’s 100% juice and that water and fruit juice are the first two ingredients. That likely means they’ll be lower in sugar overall. Jampolis suggests the brand Honest Kids.
This is common sense, but new marketing strategies make choosing a good snack food increasingly more difficult. “If you grow up eating junk, it is much harder later on to get away from it,” Wilday tells Fox. “Essentially, our bodies become addicted to the sugar and chemicals we eat.”
Ideally, you want to keep sodium levels below 140 milligrams per serving, an almost impossible task when buying processed snack foods. Also, beware of old favorites like Cheetos making “natural” alternatives. “Don’t be fooled by the more-natural packaging and healthier-sounding version,” Jampolis says. “Yes, they may be slightly better than the real thing, but they can still have double the salt of most snack chips.”
ActiveBeat suggests making homemade veggie chips instead using vegetables like kale, beets, sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, or zucchini.
5. Packaged lunches
Lunchables are probably one of the easiest things to pick up for your kids in the grocery stores, but they’re definitely not one of the healthiest. The ones with the ham and cheese crackers are loaded with saturated fat, calories, and sugar, and chances are your kid will be begging for more food as soon as they step off the bus — they’re just not that filling.
Processed lunch meat in general isn’t that great for anyone, so it’s not a surprise this makes the list. Luckily, packing sandwiches with turkey or roasted chicken are still OK, as they’re lower in sodium and don’t have some of the harmful nitrites that other lunch meats like ham and salami do.
Plus, if you really want to take lunches up a notch, try some of the meal ideas from Parents, which used containers from Laptop Lunches to create a balanced, colorful meal for kids. With these, your kids will never miss a typical ham sandwich anyway.
Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS