Keep Out! Five Foods to Ban from Your Kid's Lunch Box

Keep Out! Five Foods to Ban from Your Kid's Lunch Box

More and more parents are reverting to packing lunches until school cafeterias clean up their junk-food acts -- but here's the catch: It's easy to sabotage your own good intentions. Avoid these lunch-box fillers like the measles -- they're not good for your kids' health or their waistlines!

1. Juice drinks: We all know that soda is as nutritious as sugar water, but drinks "made with real juice" aren't much better. Just 1 ounce of raspberry or peach punch, iced tea, and other sweetened fruit drinks can contain over a teaspoon of high-fructose corn syrup -- and it's about as healthy as trans fat. Among other things, the syrup seems to throw off the body's weight-regulating mechanisms. If you wouldn't feed your children pure sugar, think twice about dropping these drinks into their lunch bags.
Better choices: Water, low-fat milk, V8 juice, one of the fruit-veggie juice blends (Vruit, Juice Plus+), or a small container of 100% fruit juice. Real fruit juice is better than juice drinks, but it's still high in sugar and calories, so watch quantities.

2. Cold cuts: Meat sandwiches, although they are the most common lunch-box entrée for elementary school kids, shouldn't be everyday fare. Bologna and other processed meats -- yes, even turkey Lunchables -- are brimming with saturated fat (9 grams, nearly half the recommended daily value), sodium (1140 milligrams, about half the daily max), and preservatives.
Great replacements: Check out these easy, kid-friendly lunch ideas.

3. Fruit-topped whole-milk yogurt: Although yogurt is filled with protein, calcium, and vitamins D and B12, whole-milk yogurt has lots of fat, too -- much of it saturated. What's more, yogurt that's topped (or bottomed) with a jam-like fruit mix can pack almost as much sugar as a candy bar!
Far smarter: Choose low-fat yogurts and pack a container of berries or fresh fruit chunks for your child to dunk or stir in.

4. Fruity roll-ups: Two problems here, unfortunately. First, many brands have only a smidgen of fruit and maybe some fiber. A puree of apples or pears from concentrate makes up about one-third of a roll-up; the other two-thirds are 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 -- especially if your child doesn't brush after lunch. (Do you know one who does?)
Better bet: If your child loves roll-ups, buy all-natural brands, and reserve them for after-school treats -- followed by a brushing.

5. The obvious (or maybe not) potato chips: 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 are as bad as it gets. Consisting mostly of fat and sodium, they're actually worse than empty calories. But that's not the surprise. This is: Potato chips are the #1 lunch-box snack among little kids -- they're given to 55% of K–5 students.
Savvy substitute: Try a new, crispy-thin snack we just taste-tested called Garden Harvest Toasted Chips. Made by Nabisco, these have a satisfying chip-like crunch, are made from whole grains, and have the equivalent of a half serving of veggies or fruit. So why would kids go near them? Because they don't taste, you know . . . healthy.

Your reward for making all those lunches? Kids who get into the habit of eating fiber-rich foods now -- which include all fruits and veggies -- are likely to stick with this healthy habit as adults. If they do, by age 32 their RealAge could be only 29.

Medically reviewed in January 2020.

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