5 Foods to Keep Out of Your Kid's Lunch Box

Leave these five popular eats on the supermarket shelf.

dad and daughter packing school lunch

Updated on December 13, 2022.

While school cafeterias nationwide work to increase their offerings of balanced, nutritious meals, many parents prefer having the ability to more closely control what their children eat each day. That means packing lunches.

But be aware of choosing foods that sacrifice healthfulness for convenience. Here are five foods to avoid when filling your child’s lunch box.

Juice drinks

Drinks "made with real juice" are often full of added sugar. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), many common fruit juices contain approximately 2 or more teaspoons of sugar in just one small serving. One 100-gram serving (approximately 4 fluid ounces) of grape, apple, or orange juice contains 14, 10, and 8 grams of sugar, respectively.

Wiser choices: Water, low-fat milk, or V8 vegetable juice. Real fruit juice is a wiser choice than juice drinks, but it's still high in sugar and calories, so opt for smaller amounts (8 fluid ounces or less).

Lunch meats

Although a common lunch-box entrée for elementary school kids, lunch meat shouldn't be everyday fare. Processed cold cuts such as ham and bologna tend to be high in fat and sodium. Fresh deli meats may be lower in sodium and fat content but can still put a significant dent in your child’s daily recommended allowances.   

Wiser choices: A sandwich of simple grilled chicken on whole-grain bread saves you lots of saturated fat, sodium, and preservatives. Make an extra batch of chicken on Sunday nights with the rest of your cooking. If your child is not a meat eater, try making a kit of carrot and celery sticks, whole grain crackers, and hummus.

Fruit-topped yogurt

Although yogurt is filled with protein, calcium, and vitamins D and B12, it often contains a lot of sugar. In fact, yogurt that comes with a jam-like fruit mix can pack almost as much sugar as some candy bars.

Wiser choices: Pack a container of berries or fresh fruit chunks for your child to dunk or stir in.

Fruity roll-ups

Two problems here. First, popular brands may contain only a smidgen of fruit and a little fiber. A puree of apples or pears from concentrate makes up about one-third of a roll-up; the other two-thirds are often additives and sugar. Second, these stretchy fruit strips are so sugary and sticky that they cling to teeth long after they're eaten, creating the perfect environment for cavities.
Wiser choices: If your child loves roll-ups, buy all-natural brands as they may have less added sugar, and reserve them for occasional, after-school treats. Make sure to follow it up with a tooth brushing. Healthier still are whole fruits, such as sliced apples, segmented oranges, or mixed berries.

Chips and other crunchy snacks

No matter how much we wish that potato chips counted as a serving of veggies and cheese puffs were a form of dairy, these snacks offer little in the way of real nourishment. Consisting mostly of fat and sodium, they're worse than empty calories. 

Wiser choices: Try alternate forms of chips, such as lower sodium options, those that are baked, and/or those made from whole grains and seeds. The best part: They actually taste good, so even savvy kids may not know the difference. 

What’s your reward for making these healthier lunches? Kids who get into the habit of eating fiber-rich foods now—including fruits, veggies, and whole grains—are likely to continue to do so as adults. 

Article sources open article sources

FamilyDoctor.org (AAFP). School Lunches: Helping Your Child Make Healthy Choices. Last updated December 5, 2022.
Center for Science in the Public Interest. Support Healthier School Food. Accessed December 12, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC Healthy Schools: Eating Healthier at School. Page last reviewed September 19, 2022.
Cleveland Clinic. How can I choose a healthier lunch meat? Published October 5, 2020.
Heyman MB, Abrams SA, et al. Fruit Juice in Infants, Children, and Adolescents: Current Recommendations. Pediatrics (2017) 139 (6).
O'Sullivan TA, Schmidt KA, Kratz M. Whole-Fat or Reduced-Fat Dairy Product Intake, Adiposity, and Cardiometabolic Health in Children: A Systematic Review, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 11, Issue 4, July 2020, Pages 928–950.

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