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Parenting Is Hard: 20 Meals Parents Shouldn't Pack In Their Kids' Lunches (But Do Anyway)

Feeding your children a nutritious lunch is essential to ensure their success at school. Unfortunately, many products on grocery store shelves are packed with hidden fats, sugars, salts, and additives that are potentially harmful to a child’s overall well-being. Companies try to persuade the children to beg their parents for these “junk foods” by packaging the products in colorful boxes with cute cartoon characters on them. The kids are intrigued by the packaging and beg their parents to buy them these unhealthy (but admittedly tasty) snacks. As a result, products like Pop-Tarts, soda, fruit juice, and Oreos get stuffed inside children’s school lunch boxes. Although the children might like the tasty (and way too sugary) snacks, their bodies certainly aren’t appreciating the poor nutrition content.

According to the US Heart Association, nearly 1 in 3 children in America are considered either obese or overweight, and the following unhealthy products may be partially at fault. Substituting store-bought snacks with homemade versions is a quick way to improve your child’s health (while still keeping a smile on their face). Spend time with your child and bake up a batch of whole wheat chocolate chip cookies instead of grabbing a box of Chips Ahoy from the supermarket. Have fun making cute fruit skewers for an after-school snack instead of serving a “fruit to go” bar. Make a homemade sandwich with whole wheat bread, grilled chicken, cheddar cheese, tomato, and lettuce rather than reaching for a store-bought “Lunchables” meal. These tips and tricks might take a little bit of time, but the result will be a much happier and healthier child—YAY!

20 Crackers

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Crackers are a delicious snack, especially when paired with hummus, natural peanut butter, or cheese. Unfortunately, many store-bought crackers don’t pack in a lot of nutritional content. Ritz crackers contain 135mg of sodium, 4.5g of fat, and 80 calories in just 5 crackers. The crackers contain very little protein and no fiber. Similarly, Wheatables contain 140 calories, 6g of fat, 340mg of sodium, and 4g of sugar in 17 crackers. Unfortunately, the 17-cracker serving only contains 1g of fiber and 2g of protein. Although these crackers don’t necessarily contain large amounts of harmful ingredients, there are certainly some more nutritious options that could replace them. Try substituting vegetables (carrots, peppers, cucumbers etc.) or popcorn as a healthy snack. These will offer more fiber and nutrients, while still being a delicious snack!

19 Lunchables

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Lunchables are quick, easy, cheap, and contain almost all the food groups, right? Wrong. The “cheese,” “meat,” and “cracker” products are highly processed and contain much fewer nutrients than natural cheese, meat, and crackers. The Ham and Cheese Lunchable contains 17 grams of sugar, 30% of your daily saturated fat intake, and 24% of your daily sodium intake. The Lunchable contains ingredients like modified cornstarch, sugar, shortening, sodium ascorbate, and questionable colorings and preservatives. If that wasn’t quite enough, they’ve also included a sugar-filled chocolate sandwich cookie as a little “treat.” Instead of serving your child this box of chemicals for lunch, make your own homemade “Lunchable.” Serve a few whole grain crackers with some slices of cheese and grilled meat. Pack a homemade whole wheat cookie for dessert, and you’ve got yourself a delicious and nutritious school lunch!

18 Hot Dogs

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The ingredient list on the package of hotdogs says more than enough. Hot dogs are filled with preservatives, chemicals, and additives to create a palatable flavor (while sacrificing the nutrition content). Companies like Ball Park Beef Franks add ingredients like corn syrup, hydrolyzed beef stock, and sodium phosphate to their hot dogs. Additionally, each frank contains over 500mg of sodium—nearly a quarter of the daily recommendation! Too bad these franks are so tasty and hard to resist… Don’t fret, though—there are some healthier options you can have! Instead of making a hot dog for your child’s lunch box, try throwing together a small wrap with grilled meat and vegetables.

17 Fruit Snacks

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Fruit snacks are so easy to pick up from the store, and they’re usually a child pleaser. Kellogg’s Fruit Flavoured Snacks don’t look too bad if you only consider the nutrition facts. At 11 grams of sugar per serving, they certainly don’t pack in as much sugar as some of the other items on this list. The difference is that the majority of these sugars come from added sweeteners like corn starch and sugar. Instead of filling their fruit snacks with natural sugars from real fruits, Kellogg’s decided to pack the little gummies with added sugars—darn. Replace these packaged treats with a small bag of unsweetened dried fruits such as dried cranberries, dried bananas, or raisins.

16 Gum and Candy

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I think we can all agree that gum and candy are obviously junk foods and offer little to no nutritional benefits. Still, some children’s lunch boxes are packed with various kinds of sugary candies or pieces of gum. There’s no reason to completely eliminate gum and candy from a child’s diet, but I think we can all agree that limiting the amount of candy they consume is important to protect their overall health. Instead of spending money on store-bought candies, spend time with your child making your own. Try preparing homemade taffies, truffles, or filled chocolates. Not only will making them be a fun activity, but you and your child will also be able to enjoy a healthier candy treat—without all the potentially dangerous chemicals and additives.

15 Mixed-Fruit Cups

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Fruit cups sound like a healthy choice—after all, they’re just different fruits mixed together in a convenient little cup, right? Wrong. Many fruit cups (especially ones designed for children) contain sugar, fructose, and/or sucrose inside. Each of these ingredients adds extra sugar to a child’s diet without adding any valuable nutrients. Even if the fruit cup claims to contain “no added sugars,” the fruit within the cups lack many of the nutrients found in raw, natural fruits. Fruit cups have lower fiber content than whole fruits and lack some vitamins and minerals. Instead of buying a fruit cup from the store, make your own version by chopping up a few apples, oranges, pears, and berries. Leave the skins on the fruit, and serve with a small amount of greek yogurt and honey for a fun dip!

14 Granola Bars

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Granola bars are generally filled with sugars and syrups to make them appealing to kids. The highly processed snack contains few nutrients but is often advertised as a “healthy snack option.” The popular “Dark Chocolate Chunk Quaker Chewy Granola Bar” contains 7g of sugars per bar. The majority of these sugars come from brown sugar, regular sugar, and corn syrup solids—yikes! The snack lacks fiber (only 1g per bar), and nutrients. Instead of reaching for a box of these granola bars, opt for making your own. Be creative by adding natural dried fruits, honey, oats, nuts, seeds, and natural peanut butter (and any other mix-ins you’d like). You’ll get a much more satisfying bite that's both more nutritious and delicious than what you can find at the supermarket.

13 Canned Soup

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Canned soups are generally recipes for disaster with their high sodium and sugar contents. Cambell’s (a relatively popular soup brand) sells a variety of soup flavors, many of which have two things in common: they contain lots of salt and far too much sugar. Cambell’s “Classic Tomato Soup On the Go” product has 670mg of sodium (28% total daily value) and 20g of total sugars. Their “Creamy Broccoli Soup on the Go” only contains 4g of total sugars (one teaspoon), but it packs in 880mg of sodium in just one serving (that’s 37% of your daily intake of sodium). Instead of serving your children a store-bought soup for lunch, make them a homemade soup with their favorite vegetables inside.

12 Packaged Cookies

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There are so many different types of packaged cookies that it’s almost laughable. From Oreos to Mr. Maple to Nutter Butters, there’s something for everyone. The problem is, each of these tempting treats contains high amounts of sugars, fats, and questionable chemicals. One serving of White Coated Nutter Butter cookies contains 35% of your daily intake of saturated fats, 23 grams of sugar, and 290 calories. The ingredient list doesn’t make matters better with ingredients like hydrogenated oils, sodium caseinate, and artificial flavors. Instead of filling your child's lunch box with these junk foods, pack them a homemade chocolate chip cookie (plus, when you’re making them, you can sneak in a few bites of cookie dough—BONUS!).

11 Cereal

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Children’s cereals are tough to walk past in the grocery store. The vibrant colors, cute animals, and tempting names make it difficult for you and your child to ignore them. Although they sound tasty, many of these cereals contain FAR too much sugar to be considered a healthy morning meal. Cap’n Crunch’s Berries Cereal boasts that their cereal is low in fat. Unfortunately, to make their cereal taste better, they’ve added in 11 grams of sugar per 3/4 cup serving. The second most abundant ingredient in the list is sugar, and not far after, you’ll find ingredients like brown sugar, natural and artificial flavorings, and many different coloring chemicals. Instead, try serving your child a high-fiber and low-sugar cereal option like oatmeal with fresh berries and peanut butter or honey.

10 Soda

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I think we can all agree that soda is an unhealthy beverage and that it's important to limit our intake of these sugary drinks. Even though we all know the health dangers of these sugary beverages, children still consume plenty of them on a weekly basis. According to CNN, 30% of children in the US consume two or more sugary drinks per day. WHAT!? It's no secret that these drinks are packed with sugar and lack nutritional benefits. So, why are we serving these to our children?? Instead of throwing a can of pop in your child’s lunch box, pack them a full bottle of water and a cup of whole milk. Add in a homemade cookie or muffin for a sweet treat, but leave the soda cans at the store!

9 Fruit Juice

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Fruit juice sounds like an obviously healthy drink, but when you look a little closer at the nutrition facts, it's sadly not so great… Fruit juice contains all of the sugars found within the fruit, but it lacks some beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber content that are found in the fruit's skin. Even a juice called “Martinelli’s Gold Medal Organic Apple Juice” is far from being healthy. One 10oz serving contains 39g of sugar (almost 10 teaspoons) and 0g of fiber. Products labeled “cocktail” or “smoothie” sometimes sneak in excessive amounts of added sugars, so be aware of what product you’re buying. Better yet, stay away from the juice isles and instead serve your child a big glass of water with a bowl of real fruit on the side.

8 White Bread

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White bread may look more appealing than whole wheat, but it certainly isn’t a healthier option. In order to make the bread white, manufacturers must remove some of the nutrients (the bran and the germ) from the grain. The bran and germ contain much of the grain’s B vitamins, antioxidants, healthy fats, and fiber. Instead of choosing a refined grain (and missing out on all these amazing nutrients), substitute the white bread with whole wheat or rye bread. The flavor will be similar, and the nutritional benefits will be a huge bonus! If your child doesn’t like the dark brown color, try toasting slices of whole wheat bread to use as croutons in a salad—they won’t be able to tell the difference in color or flavor, and they’ll be getting plenty of nutrients to keep them energized throughout the day.

7 Processed Sandwich Meat

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Processed meats are popular choices for quick and easy sandwich making, but beware... The thin strips of highly processed meat can easily put a dent in your (and your child’s) overall health. According to the AHA, just 2 ounces of cold cuts and cured meats can contain nearly 50% of your daily recommended intake of sodium. So, if you packed two sandwiches for lunch, each with three slices of deli meat, you'd reach 50% of your daily intake from the meat portion of the sandwich alone (not counting the condiments, bread, or cheese). Rather than serving your child a salt-filled lunch box, substitute the processed meat with slices of roasted or grilled meat.

6 Sausage or Meat Sticks/Rods

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Similar to processed sandwich meats, sausage or meat sticks/rods contain harmful ingredients and excess amounts of sodium and are generally high in fat. There are a few nutritious options out there such as natural beef or turkey jerky pieces, but the options are somewhat limited. Although they're a convenient and easy little snack to throw in a lunchbox, there are much better foods that could be substituted. Replace meat sticks with something like a combination of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits; a container of grilled tofu cubes; or some sliced, grilled pieces of meat. Your child will still be getting a good dose of protein—but without the worrisome chemicals and high levels of sodium and fat!

5 Flavored Milk

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Milk is arguably one of the best things a child can consume. Unfortunately, some companies have tried to cater their products to children by inventing exciting flavors and colors of milk. Nesquik sells various types of flavored milk—all of which have scary amounts of added sugars. Even products that sound healthy like “Lowfat Double Chocolate Milk” contain 38 grams of sugar per serving (almost equivalent to drinking one can of Coca Cola, which contains 39 grams of sugar). Instead of reaching for one of these Nesquik drinks, pick up a bottle of whole milk (between 1% and 3.25% milk fat). You’ll ditch the sugar content and be left with all the important vitamins and minerals that milk can offer.

4 Kids Yogurt

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Similar to milk, yogurt is a great probiotic snack option for kids (and adults). Once again, many companies have unfortunately added sugars to their yogurt in order to achieve a more palatable (and admittedly addicting) product. Dannon’s original yogurt looks like a wise choice at first glance. The company boasts that their products are certified gluten-free, provide an excellent source of calcium, and are considered “Non-GMO.” Unfortunately, the company fails to mention that some of their flavors contain 22 grams of sugar per serving (over 5 teaspoons). Instead of picking up one of these yogurts for a snack, replace it with a small bowl of greek yogurt topped with fruit and honey—YUM!

3 Packaged Muffins

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Packaged muffins might seem like a healthier option than cupcakes or cakes, but in reality, they’re about the same. One Farmer’s Market Banana Chocolate Chip Muffin contains 32 grams of sugar, 440 calories, and 21 grams of fat (including 0.2 grams of trans fats). Plus, a glance at the ingredient list reveals that these muffins contain many somewhat questionable ingredients like dextrose, artificial flavor, and sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate. To be honest, I think if you can’t buy the ingredient in your local store, it probably shouldn’t be in your body (and I don’t know of any supermarkets that sell sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate…). Just like many of the other products on this list, substitute these store-bought muffins with your own homemade whole wheat muffins.

2 Cheese Dip/Spray

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Cheese was intended to be eaten in slices, cubes, and other solid forms. Nowadays, liquid cheese products like Cheez Whiz and Easy Cheese (spray cheese product) are replacing the original blocks of cheese. Unfortunately, these “cheese” products are hardly that—and they are instead just a mashup of chemicals and colorings that resemble cheese. Kraft Easy Cheese contains ingredients like sodium citrate, annatto (color), apocarotenal (color), and other questionable preservatives. Stick to the original blocks of cheese, and cut them into cute little cubes for your child to enjoy. Serve with some grapes and crackers for a great side dish or after-school snack!

1 Protein/Energy Bars

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Protein bars and energy bars have become a huge fad in the health world, and many people have been led to believe they're a healthy snack choice. Unfortunately, many protein/energy bars contain high amounts of added sugars and unnatural ingredients. Some Cliff Bars (an energy bar) contain 21g of sugar per bar (that's 5.25 tsp of sugar)! Don’t let the “organic” marketing strategy deceive you—the bar still packs in a whole lot of sugar (and a bunch of calories, too). Protein bars like Pure Protein Birthday Cake Bar contain far too many ingredients including food dyes and a bunch of ingredients I can’t pronounce. Instead of serving an energy or protein bar, opt for a handful of trail mix or a homemade granola bar (made from natural peanut butter and whole rolled oats).

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