Among the many responsibilities parents have today is the need to teach their children how to eat healthy. Lifelong eating habits begin in childhood, and it can be very hard to cut bad habits as an adult. With a rise in childhood obesity and diabetes, it is more important than ever for parents to provide healthy food for their children and to model good eating. One way to instill good habits is by providing healthy, nutritious lunches for children to take to school.
Parents may unintentionally be giving their children foods that are packed with sugar, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and food dyes. Fortunately, there are many healthy alternatives to these products that are full of vitamins, fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Prioritize healthy eating for your children today and eliminate these 15 items from their school lunches.
1. Fruit Snacks
Fruit snacks might have the word “fruit” in them, but they actually have very little nutritional value. Fruit snacks, including snacks like Fruit Roll-Ups, include artificial ingredients, trans fats, and lots of sugar. The next time you look at a box of fruit snacks, look at the ingredients list. The first ingredient is usually fruit concentrate, not actual fruit. These snacks are missing nutritional benefits and fiber that real fruit contains. Instead of giving your child a snack full of concentrated sugar, just give them real fruit.
Or, if you have a picky eater on your hands, try these homemade fruit roll-ups. They’re made with real fruit and no sugar, with all the fun of the original store-bought snack.
Lunchables are appealing for busy parents looking for an easy well-rounded meal to feed their child for lunch. But these pre-packaged meals are overly processed and have little nutritional value. They also contain saturated fats, sodium, and preservatives. Not great things to be feeding your growing child! You can make your own “lunchable” for your child that is much healthier and nutritious. Choose whole grain crackers, real cheese, and unprocessed meat. Putting the lunch in a reusable container will also cut down on the amount of trash your child is throwing away each day.
3. Deli Meat Sandwiches
Many parents pack deli meat sandwiches without thinking what is in that meat. Processed meats include lots of chemicals like nitrates and added sodium. They also have unhealthy fats and added colorings. Instead, you can roast your own turkey or meat over the weekend in a slow-cooker and slice it up for the rest of the week. The meat will have more nutrients, more flavor, and much less of the additives that are harmful for your child. When making a sandwich, consider using whole grain bread, add some sliced veggies, and use hummus or avocado in lieu of mayo. Add some fresh fruit as a side, and you have a great meal!
4. Potato Chips
Chips may be a convenient choice for a lunch side, but they certainly are not a healthy choice. Potato chips contain lots of sodium and processed fats. The lack of nutrition in potato chips will leave your child still feeling hungry after their lunch. Giving your child potato chips is also helping to create bad habits for the future. If your kids become used to eating junk food as a child, they will likely continue eating junk as they get older. Our bodies can become addicted to the sugars and chemicals contained in junk food. Set your kids up for success and give them healthier snacks in their lunch. If they have to have chips, provide them with baked potato chips instead.
5. Drink Pouches and Juice Boxes
Because they contain the word “fruit” many of these drinks seem healthy, but they’re not. The first two ingredients in most of these drinks are water and high fructose corn syrup. You are essentially giving your child flavored, watered-down high fructose corn syrup to drink for lunch. All of the sugar is bound to make them overly hyper. Not only are you loading your child up with sugar, but you may also be making them thirstier. Provide your child with 100% fruit juice or better yet, good old water.
6. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches
Before you write us off going after this age-old favorite, hear us out. Think about what makes up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich: a nut butter with additives and sugar, jelly with lots of added sugar, and highly processed bread that will break down quickly giving your child even more sugar. You don’t have to give up this classic lunch altogether, just adapt it to be healthier for your child. Choose peanut butter that is just made up of nuts and a little salt. Instead of jelly, use thin slices of fruits like bananas, strawberries, or sliced apples. Use whole grain bread with lots of fiber or skip the bread and provide whole grain crackers.
7. Energy Drinks
Most parents wouldn’t think to give their child an energy drink, but a child might grab one for themselves if they have control over packing their own lunch. Energy drinks contain lots of sugar and caffeine, which no child needs. Sure, children need to energize at lunch to maintain their focus for the rest of the school day, but caffeine will inevitably lead to an energy crash sometime in the afternoon. Caffeine can also create sleeping problems for children. Keep energy drinks out of your house to avoid any temptation. Provide a water bottle for your child so they have access to liquids that will hydrate them and quench their thirst at lunch time.
The effects of energy drinks on the body, even 24 hours after consumption, is startling. Check out the video below, and always check the list of ingredients.
Soda is another no-no for your child, especially for a school lunch. Soda is full of sugar and harsh chemicals. It can suppress the immune system, stunt bone growth, create cavities, and cause weight gain. Additionally, the Harvard School of Public Health has reported that people who drink one or more cans of soda daily have a 26 percent higher chance of developing Type 2 diabetes. Help your child avoid this disease by providing them with healthier drinks like water and milk. Some cities are also passing a sugar tax to help reduce the amount of soda their residents drink. So not only is soda unhealthy, it is also becoming increasingly expensive!
9. Candy Bars
Parents may pack a candy bar as a special treat for their child, or children may pack them as a special treat for themselves. Avoid the possibility of packing one altogether by keeping them out of your house. Candy bars are sugar-laden and offer no nutritional value (contrary to what your kids might try to tell you about the nuts in a Snickers bar). Offer your child a nutrient-dense snack as an alternative. Fruit, applesauce, healthy yogurts, and dried fruit all taste sweet and have real nutritional value. Most of them also include fiber which will help fill your child up until they get home for another healthy snack!
10. Sports Drinks
Many kids, especially those involved in sports, have developed a taste for sugary sports drinks. These drinks claim to rehydrate you, but they often leave you feeling thirstier. They include lots of added sugar, high amounts of sodium, and harmful dyes. Some can have over nine teaspoons of sugar in one bottle! Imagine feeding your child nine spoons of sugar in their lunch at home! Parents would never be so careless, so don’t get tricked into giving the same amount of sugar in their lunch drinks. Like we’ve said before, stick to healthy drinks like water, milk, or 100 percent juice.
11. “Kid-friendly” Yogurts
Yogurt sounds like a healthy snack, and many brands of yogurt offer nutritious benefits, but beware of “kid-friendly” yogurts. These are the yogurts that come in crazy colors and flavors, the ones that can usually be identified by having cartoon characters on their packaging. Don’t get tricked into buying these yogurts as they have very high levels of sugar and may even contain crushed cookies and candy. Yogurt is a huge source of hidden sugar for kids and adults. Pack plain or lightly sweetened yogurt and include some fruit for your kids to mix into it. Make sure to pack an ice pack or something similar to keep the yogurt chilled until lunch time. Check out this genius hack to make the perfect parfait for a packed lunch and avoid soggy granola and mushy fruit.
12. Granola Bars
Creative marketing from food companies has convinced parents that granola bars are a healthy snack option for their children. But store-bought granola bars are full of high fructose corn syrup, chemicals, preservatives, and food dyes that are not healthy at all. Granola bars are really just dressed up junk food. You can make your own granola bars at home and cut down on the amount of sugar you add in. Homemade bars will also skip all the preservatives and food dyes! If you’re short on time, you can just skip granola bars altogether. Choose other healthy snack items like sliced fruit or bite-sized veggies (including cucumbers, carrots, and sliced peppers).
13. “Natural” Junk Foods
Many processed food companies have added the word “natural” to their labels to trick consumers; however, they’re still full of sodium, trans fats, and chemicals. The word “natural” is virtually meaningless in today’s food market. Marketers add the word to make people think they are choosing a healthy food, but since there is no regulated definition for “natural,” a consumer has no idea what they’re getting. “Natural” junk food is still just junk food. If you wouldn’t give your child the unnatural version of the product, don’t give them the “natural” version either. Whenever possible, choose unprocessed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
14. Mayo-rich Salads and Sandwiches
Feeling ambitious and ready to send your child to school with an egg or tuna salad sandwich? Think twice before spending the time on this lunch. Most egg and tuna salads are made with mayonnaise which is full of saturated fat. Mayo can also go bad if it gets warm sitting in your child’s lunch box. There are better options for kids who love a good egg or tuna salad sandwich. Replace the mayo with plain Greek yogurt and a squirt of lemon juice. You can also mash up some avocados to give the sandwich a flavorful creaminess. Also consider swapping out the canned tuna for some salmon to reduce the amount of mercury you give your child. To keep things cold, pack the lunch with ice packs or include a frozen water bottle.
15. White Bread
Bread might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of unhealthy items in your child’s lunch. But highly processed white breads, pasta, and crackers are basically empty calorie foods. The body processes them as sugar, and it does so very quickly. Your child will get a rush of energy and then will crash. So when you think of giving your child a white flour-based food, remember that you are essentially giving them sugar. You can offer your child whole-wheat alternatives for a healthier lunch.