Crackers and chips
While most people love their saltiness and crunch, regular crackers provide little nutrition for kids. Most are made with white flour, preservatives, oil, lots of salt and little fiber. “Those are your foods that are going to cause highs and lows of blood sugar,” says Bailey Koch, president of Atlantic Pediatric Nutrition. But kids can enjoy healthier crackers if parents read labels. “Look for 3 grams of fiber or more per serving. Then it’s a good fiber source,” Koch says. She recommends pairing whole-grain crackers with protein, such as peanut butter, cheese or deli meat.
Sandwiches are mainstays of kids’ lunches. But what are you smearing that peanut butter on? If the bread is white, you’re missing a nutritional opportunity. Instead of empty calories, substitute whole-grain bread with at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.
“A lot of people pack a white bread sandwich, granola bar, juice box and potato chips,” Koch says. The upshot? A lunch that’s high in sugar and low-fiber carbohydrates. “Then you have a child that can’t concentrate once that fuel runs out, and they’re starving once they get home from school,” she says.
If the label clearly says “made with real fruit,” the snack is just as good as eating an apple, right? Wrong. “Fruit snacks, fruit roll-ups, say ‘made with 100 percent juice,’ but juice is just sugar,” says Koch. “There’s no fiber in it.” Plus, the sticky snacks lodge between teeth, leading to decay. Instead, pack an apple, orange or other favorite fruit in your kid’s school lunch.
It seems like a no-brainer, but kids still drink soda. These high-sugar, often caffeinated drinks offer plenty of calories and not much else. “Caffeine is not advised for children, number one,” says Castle. “Number two, with all the sugar, it’s not advised for children. Soda is linked to the development of childhood obesity. When you use the filter of ‘I’ve got a growing child who needs 40 nutrients a day, I want to pack the most nutritious lunch I can,’ soda doesn’t make the cut.”
As the author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Clark is especially concerned about sports drinks such as Gatorade in school lunches. “They give the impression that this is a healthy food, when it’s nothing but sugar water with a dash of salt. There’s a place for sports drinks, but it’s not in the lunch box.” Clark suggests packing milk instead of soda.
Most adults grew up with the idea that juice was a nutritious part of breakfast. Turns out, it’s not so great. When you strip juice from whole fruit, you get too much sugar and no fiber. “That is one of my rules when I talk to parents,” Koch says. “No juice.” She makes exceptions for medically fragile children who need hydration. “But in a healthy child, no. They do not need juice. You get more calories from a 12-ounce serving of 100 percent juice than you do from a can of Coke.” When kids drink juice, Koch says, they want to eat something with it since the juice itself isn’t filling. “So it’s 180 extra calories on top of whatever they’re eating,” she says.
If you feel you absolutely must pack juice in your kid’s lunch, Castle advises 4 to 6-ounce containers of 100 percent juice.
Whole sandwiches for small kids
Little kids don’t need a whole sandwich. “They do better with a half,” says Castle. A whole sandwich might provide too many calories, or simply be too much to eat and get thrown away. Castle recommends supplementing the half sandwich with a piece of fruit, some vegetables, a cheese stick and/or yogurt to provide adequate nutrition for kids. When they get to be around 10, consider switching to a whole sandwich. “It’s teenagers entering their growth spurt that need the whole sandwich,” Castle says.