Oh, the dreaded task of packing school lunches. Whether you're the one doing the bagging or your kids pack up lunch for themselves, there's still the matter of buying and prepping all that food. With so many convenient choices available, it can be difficult to know what's good for your kids and what's not.
We polled a team of nutrition experts to weigh in on the worst things you can pack in your kid's school lunch, plus what you can send instead. Read on for the lunchbox lowdown.
Fruit Snacks & Roll-Ups1 of 8
"You wouldn't give kids a bag of sugar for lunch, would you?" asks pediatrician and pediatric obesity expert Dr. Yolandra Hancock, M.D., MPH. She says that's exactly what you're doing when you send these chewy, gooey, brightly-colored snacks to school. With up to 15 grams of sugar or more per serving, they provide over half of the daily total recommended amount of sugar for children over the age of two. Dr. Hancock also gives them a big thumb's down due to the added dyes and wax used to make them shiny.
Swap It: Trail mix is a great alternative to fruit snacks. Make your own with nuts, dried fruit and even a little dark chocolate.
Pre-Packaged Lunch Kits2 of 8
Truth be told, your kids–and you, too–may go through a bit of a grieving period after breaking up with pre-packed lunch kits such as Lunchables. After all, they're incredibly convenient for parents: simply purchase and hand over. With pizza, mini-burger and meat-and-cracker main dishes, plus sides of candy and sugary drinks, they're also irresistible for kids. But, as Dr. Hancock explains, these quick fixes are full of sodium, fat and even hidden sugars.
Swap It: Make your own lunch kits with multi-compartment food storage containers. Add cheese, whole grain crackers, veggies and dip, nuts and fruit.
Kid-Friendly Yogurt3 of 8
With their eye-catching designs and sweet flavors–some with candy mixed right in–kid-friendly yogurt practically jumps off the shelves as you're walking down the dairy aisle. But the problem is that most of these products are full of dyes and added sugar--neither of which your kids need to eat. Dr. Hancock recommends Greek yogurt instead, to provide a little added protein.
Swap It: Let your child select their favorite fruits and add them to plain or vanilla Greek yogurt.
Processed Deli Meats4 of 8
"Preserved foods contain an abundance of ingredients to ensure shelf life is maintained," says pediatric registered dietitian Lara Field, MS, RD, LDN. In addition to preservatives, she explains that processed meats also typically contain more sodium and fat than their natural, lean counterparts.
Swap It: Choose a roasted turkey breast from your grocery store's fresh foods case or slice last night's chicken breast into bite-size pieces.
Cheese Crackers5 of 8
Who doesn't love those smiling little fishes? They and other cheese crackers like them are crunchy, convenient and downright cute. But, as Field explains, they're also typically very low in fiber (which keeps us feeling full and focused) and high in salt.
Swap It: Kids love crunch, so try freeze dried fruit or vegetables instead.
Snack Cakes6 of 8
She looks so innocent sitting on the shelf with her sweet smile, cute cheeks and brimmed hat--the hat that kids always seem to spot from across the store. Yes, Little Debbie and her friends on the snack cake aisle have been enticing little ones (and parents, too) for years with cream-filled cakes and gooey oatmeal cookie pies.
"Desserts are fun. They make us happy, but they also provide unnecessary sugar," Field says. Not to mention, pre-packaged snack cakes serve up saturated fat and sodium.
Swap It: Why not try a policy of "dessert nights" at home, rather than at lunch? Instead, pack fresh fruit as a sweet treat on school days.
Sweetened Beverages7 of 8
Jodi Danen, RDN, points to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey which suggests that about 50 percent of the added sugars in kids' diets comes from sugar-sweetened beverages. She recommends swapping out all those sodas, sports drinks and fruit juices in your child's lunchbox.
Swap It: Slice oranges, lemons, limes or any other fresh fruit and add to bottled water.