A child opening their lunch box

Family Health

8 Foods You’ll Want To Rethink Sending In Your Kids’ Lunches

Apr 10, 2019

Confession: I loathe the process of preparing my kids’ school lunches. When I finally get all three kids to bed (time for my second confession — I usually fall asleep with one of them), the last thing I want to do is start chopping, spreading and wrapping. The food rules, the comparison between lunches, the food safety (like no nuts) all add to the challenge. Not to mention the boredom. We all get stuck in food ruts, right? But the truth is, school lunches (and daytime snacks) are important for our kids’ growth and development, as well as their performance in school.

... many brands do a great job at convincing you that their products are nutrient-packed when, in fact, they're not.

As a parent and pediatric dietitian, I have a unique perspective on what should and shouldn’t be sent in kids’ lunches and snack bags. I’m not here to villainize any one food — all foods (including the ones below) have a place — and I often send a “treat” because it’s fun and teaches moderation. But when it comes to meal and snack choices, most of them should be nutritious. (Of course, some of the options below are nutritious, but have a safety factor.)

The trip-up often happens when parents are trying to decipher between treats and snacks. There are some common but questionable choices out there, and many brands do a great job at convincing you that their products are nutrient-packed when, in fact, they're not.

Here are eight snacks you should reconsider sending in your kids’ lunch:

Gummy Fruit Snacks

The word "fruit" here is misleading. They should almost be labelled “fruit-flavoured." Sure, they might have some sugar from naturally occurring sources, but there’s also extra ingredients like corn syrup, corn starch and food colouring. And added sugar. I don’t want to villainize gummy fruit snacks, because my kids also love them, but let’s be real — they’re candy and should be treated as such. Try serving unsweetened dried fruit instead, in combination with seeds and dried whole grain cereal, to make a homemade trailmix.

Related Reading: 20 Easy Lunch Box Ideas

Veggie Straws

I know what you’re thinking — I can buy them in bulk at Costco, my kids actually eat them and at least get a little bit of vegetables plus they’re easy and convenient! Maybe. But in reality, veggie straws more closely resemble a potato chip. I hate to burst the bubble, but they're not a healthy option. Real, raw, cut-up veggies with a dip like hummus would be the best option to get veggies in.

Full Apples

Wait, what? Did the dietitian just say stop sending apples? Kind of. I suggest you stop sending the entire fruit. Simply take that apple and cut it up. Honestly, the majority of kids I know (on average) eat only four bites of the apple before they’re done. Splash the slices with a little bit of lemon or cinnamon and the browning will be minimal. There will also be less waste and they will fit better in their kits!

Anything With Nuts

Bye bye almonds, cashews and walnuts. In most schools, nuts (or anything that resembles a nut) are banned. So skip the nuts and try seeds instead! Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds make a great protein and nutrient-rich substitute. My kids and I recently made date balls with sunflower seeds and dried apricots. Delish!

Whole Grapes

This one mostly applies to little ones in preschool. Whole grapes are one of the biggest choking hazards for kids. If your kid is sitting still at the table and focusing on the task at hand, eating grapes is easy and completely safe. But when that kid is in a packed lunchroom laughing and carrying on with friends, the focus can be minimal and the risk higher. For my kids’ lunches, I’m still cutting grapes in half. It's fine by them, and it gives me peace of mind.

Related Reading: 10 Ways To Hack Packing Lunches For School Or Work

Fruit Juice

Kids love juice. And you may feel OK about sending it because it’s considered a fruit serving. But it’s actually not anymore. Even 100 per cent unsweetened fruit juice contains A LOT of sugar (the same as most regular soft drinks), but lacks the fibre of whole fruit, so it should be limited according to new Canadian guidelines. It also puts kids at an increased risk of cavities if they’re sipping it throughout the day. Water should do the trick for hydration during the day.

Fruit-Filled Cereal Bars

These bars may seem like a convenient and nutritious snack option to add to your kids’ lunches, but here’s the thing — the fruit filling isn’t actually fruit (it’s usually a sugary, fruit-flavoured jam), and the “cereal” (breaded) part isn’t usually made from whole grains. They’re often ultra-processed, lack fibre or protein (staying power) and have a lot of added sugar. This doesn’t help little tummies to stay full for long. Instead try sending a higher-fibre granola bar (or a homemade one), or a few homemade protein bites.

Yogurt Drinks

If some company out there could come up with a higher-protein, lower-sugar version of this, I would jump for joy (same goes with yogurt tubes). But truth is, the options out there are loaded with added sugar and lack the protein necessary to keep kids full and energized for a decent period of time. Use these more as treats (similar to chocolate milk), and opt for a lower-sugar Greek yogurt cup instead.

For a few different snack ideas check out these 15 Nutritious After-School Snacks That Your Kids Will Love, and these nutritient-filled 15 Kid-Friendly Bars And Bites.

Article Author Sarah Remmer
Sarah Remmer

Read and watch more from Sarah here.

Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Remmer Nutrition Consulting, a nutrition consulting and communications company based in Calgary, Alberta. Her website and blog contain practical tips and advice for parents and families on feeding and nutrition (everything from pre-natal nutrition to teens), as well as nutritious and easy recipes and videos. Follow Sarah on Facebook for free advice, tips and family-friendly recipes!

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