From fake fruit to carcinogenic chicken, how to avoid lunchtime’s worst pitfalls — and what to feed your kids instead.
Nix it: Dentists hate them because they’re the number one cause of tooth decay. Parents hate them because they’re filled with artificial colors and flavors. But kids love them—of course. And why wouldn’t they? They’re basically candy with a health halo. Despite being labeled with the word “fruit,” most fruit snacks contain very little, if any, actual fruit. Even fruit snacks that do contain real fruit (and no, “fruit juice” doesn’t count) are missing the satiating fiber and water that comes with whole fruit.
Fix it: Grapes, berries, and peeled tangerines are just as finger-food friendly as fruit snacks, and most kids love the taste. And hey, raisins are nature’s fruit snacks!
Nix it: Nobody sends a Ho-Ho, Twinkie, or Honey Bun to school with their child because they think it’s healthy. We let our kids have them because they love them, and we love treating our kids. And what mom out there hasn’t holed up with a Swiss Roll and a glass of milk during naptime every once in awhile? Unfortunately, snack cakes are one of the worst sources of trans fats, the man-made fats that experts agree are the worst type of fat to eat. In fact, the USDA advises completely avoiding trans fats as part of a healthy diet.
Fix it: I’m just going to be the bad guy and say it: Kids don’t need dessert at every meal. Treats should be a treat, not a staple. That said, for times when you do want to send something sweet, there are lots of dessert options. Try making cookies from scratch (cheaper than a mix and just as easy, I promise!) and saving them in the freezer to serve one at a time. Make them with your kids, and you get quality time, too!
Nix it: Anyone who’s ever handed a kid a juice box in the car only to watch them power wash the upholstery with it knows that those conveniently packaged sugary drinks can be dangerous. But it turns out they can be dangerous for your child’s health, too. Sugar is sugar—even if it is fruit sugar—and when it’s in commercially juiced form, it’s missing all the fiber that makes the original fruit so filling. While juice is delicious, nobody needs to drink it.
Fix it: You don’t have to ban juice forever, but try to save it for special occasions and encourage kids to get their servings of fruit from whole fruits. If your kids have a texture issue, you can always preserve the fiber and vitamins by juicing the fruit yourself or making smoothies with whole fruits, yogurt and ice.
Nix it: Who doesn’t love the crunchy, buttery goodness of a cracker? Unfortunately, most of them are nutritionally void. Serving crackers made from white flour and preservatives that are cooked in unhealthy oils will leave your child tired and cranky.
Fix it: There’s a difference between 100% whole grain products and those “made with whole grain” so experts advise reading the labels and looking for brands with a short list of ingredients and at least three grams of fiber. Instead of crackers, try subbing in 100% whole grain pita pockets or naan cut into small pieces.
Nix it: Don’t you hate it when “experts” tell you that your favorite food is killing you? (Hello, cookies!) Yet when it comes to lunch meats, your food might actually be, well, killing you. Before you get all up in arms about ditching this lunch staple, the only lunch meats I’m talking about are the ones processed with nitrates. Nitrates and nitrites are food preservatives that do a much better job of preserving food than they do people. Research shows that people who eat nitrate-packaged foods including lunch meat, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and jerky drastically increase their risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Fix it: Try to steer clear of processed meats and when you do buy packaged lunch meat, hot dogs and the like, buy the preservative-free varieties. Be sure to read the labels as just having the word “natural” on the package doesn’t mean a thing. They may be a little bit more expensive, but it’s worth it!