Lunchbox Zeros vs. Lunchbox Heroes

By Stacey Stein

The beginning of a new school year brings fresh challenges, and not just for students. Come September, parents face the daunting task of figuring out what to pack in their children’s lunchbox five days a week, for the next 10 months.

That’s a lot of lunches.

Many parents battle picky eaters and hectic mornings, which makes pre-packaged snacks and lunch kits very tempting. But registered dietitian Shannon Crocker warns against underestimating the importance of packing a nutritious lunch and snacks for kids.

“Children who are well nourished perform better academically, have better concentration, and also have fewer behaviour problems,” she says, adding that parents should also keep in mind that kids eat about one- to two-thirds of their food for the day while at school.

To help you navigate the grocery store aisles during the school year, here’s a breakdown of the top five lunchbox “zeros” and lunchbox “heroes.”

Give these a pass: Lunchbox Zeros

1. Fruit gummies

With images of berries, oranges and peaches gracing the packaging and the word “fruit” in bright, bold letters, many parents may be misled into thinking fruit gummies qualify as a healthy snack. Sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. “When you see ‘fruit juice concentrate’ on the ingredients list, it’s actually just another form of ‘added sugar,’” says Crocker. She adds that fruit gummies should be regarded as treats, not as snacks, because they’re loaded with sugar. “Think of them like a glorified jube jube,” she says.

2. Drink boxes

Parents and kids alike tend to love drink boxes – they’re convenient and with words like “100% juice” on the box, appear to be a healthful choice. But Crocker cautions that they fill your child up with sugar and “little else.” “Juice boxes – even those with real juice – are high in natural sugars with almost no nutrients. And juice-like drinks – like fruit cocktail or punch – often add other ingredients along with sugar-like artificial colours and additives that kids don’t need,” she says.

3. Snack cups

While shelf-stable fruit salad cups and pudding cups may seem like decent choices for lunchbox snacks, you’re better off giving these items a pass at the grocery store. “Both sound pretty nutritious, but they’re packed with extra sugar and calories,” says Crocker. She adds that some pudding cups also contain added food colouring and hydrogenated fats.

4. Pre-made lunch kits

Pre-made lunch kits can seem like a godsend for time-strapped parents. But according to Crocker, they’re typically loaded with highly processed foods filled with salt, fat and/or sugar. Sure, they’re convenient, but you can make a quick lunch kit of your own at home with far better foods like whole grain crackers, cheese cubes and bite-size pieces of fruit. (Try grapes or berries if you don’t have time to chop.) If your kids are older, get them involved in the process and have them make their own lunch kits.

5. Granola bars

The word “granola” seems to be synonymous with “healthy.” But don’t let yourself be fooled by what appears to be wholesome oats. Often covered with a drizzle of chocolate or caramel, “highly refined, sugar-filled granola bars are really cookies or chocolate bars in disguise,” says Crocker. “If you offer your child one of these, know that they are a treat, not a snack.”

Stock up on these: Lunchbox Heroes

1. Raw Vegetables

Most kids don’t get enough vegetables in their diet, so adding a couple of servings at lunch is a great way to help give them a veggie boost. If you’re worried they may not eat their vegetables, let them choose the ones they like. Raw veggies are also easy to toss into a lunch container – think snap peas, baby carrots and grape tomatoes. If a dip will get kids to eat their veggies, Crocker’s advice is to “go for it.” Try salsa, guacamole or a mango chutney dip.

2. Cheese

Cheese is popular with most kids and while it’s a fast and convenient snack, it’s also packed with protein which helps keep kids powered during the school day. “Protein-rich foods keep energy levels up and help kids last longer so they’re not hungry and can concentrate on learning,” says Crocker. The best part is that cheese comes in many different varieties and forms. Try tossing some cubes of cheddar cheese, a single serve cottage cheese container, or a package of “Nothing but Cheese” (a crunchy, nutrient-dense snack food) into your child’s lunchbox.

3. Fruit

Fresh fruit is the perfect snack food. “Most fruit comes filled with nutrients and is packaged in its own wrapper – talk about convenient!” says Crocker. Fruit is also chock full of fibre and the vitamins and minerals that kids need to maintain good health. Berries, such as blueberries and raspberries, are also loaded with antioxidants and are high in fibre and low in calories – plus they’re easy to pack in your child’s lunchbox. If your child loves to dip, pack a container of Nordica Smooth cottage cheese. Simply cut fruit into bite-size pieces – try watermelon cubes, apple slices or peeled orange segments. Nordica Smooth is also packed with protein and calcium, making this a superstar snack on its own.

4. Water or milk

Ditch the juice boxes and instead give your kids milk (white, not chocolate) or water. The brain actually needs water to function well, according to Crocker. “Staying hydrated helps kids fight fatigue, stay alert and think more clearly, and water is the best calorie-free thirst quencher,” she says. Composed of about 85 percent water, milk is also hydrating and provides kids with calcium and vitamin D, along with other bone-building nutrients.

5. Crunchy roasted chickpeas or edamame

Packed with protein and fibre, these make a great alternative to nuts, which kids can’t bring to school these days anyways.

“The combination of protein and fibre helps kids feel fuller longer, making these snacks very satisfying,” says Crocker. For a sweeter treat, she recommends mixing in a few dark chocolate chips and a sprinkle of raisins, or you can add in some “Nothing But Cheese” for a savoury snack.

Whole grains also make for a great snack food and are rich in complex carbohydrates. Crocker notes that carbs are “the main fuel for your brain.” Nutritious whole grain snacks include popcorn, oatmeal (try toasted oats in a fruit and Nordica Smooth parfait), or whole grain crackers.

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