What not to pack in your child's lunchbox

What we think is healthy for our kids’ lunches, and what is actually good for them can be vastly different.

As parents, we want the best for our children. And health and nutrition are central to that. So, it makes sense that our kids’ lunchboxes are packed with goodness and plenty of nutritional value. But sometimes we don’t get it quite right. Here are some of the most common lunchbox items we think are good for our kids – but really aren’t.

1.  Fruit juices

Fruit. Sounds healthy, right? But the average 250ml fruit juice box, marketed especially for the lunchbox, can have up to seven teaspoons of sugar in one serve, according to the Obesity Policy Coalition. “Using marketing spin such as ‘30 per cent less sugar’, ‘high in vitamin C’ and ‘free from artificial colours and flavours’ can make these products appear to be a healthy option,” says the Coalitions’ executive manager Jane Martin. “But… these juices deliver a significant sugar hit without the fibre or nutrients children would get from eating a piece of fruit.” 
Alternative: “It’s far better for your child to eat a whole piece of fruit and sip on plain water through the day – much better for dental health, too,” says accredited practising dietitian Gemma Cosgriff.

2.  Muesli bars

They might seem like a good way to boost energy intake for your kids, but many of these snacks are high in added sugar, refined starch and fat. Checking the ingredients in the muesli bar is really important. Grains, including oats and barley, nuts and seeds, and vegetable oils should be high on the list; and you should stay clear of products with high quantities of added sugars, added fats, salt, chocolate, yoghurt and artificial colours.

Alternative: “Opt for snacks such as cheese or dip with vegetable sticks and rice cakes,” Cosgriff advises. “Or make some healthy muffins which include ingredients like carrots, zucchini, banana or pumpkin.” 

3.  Chocolate spread

Used either as a dip or on a sandwich, it might ensure your child’s lunchbox is empty by the end of the day, “but it offers very little nutrition for all the energy it provides”, says Cosgriff. In fact, two tablespoons (about 30g) of a leading chocolate spread contains some 10g of fat and 17g of sugar .

Alternative: “There are so many delicious options for dips and spreads,” says Cosgriff. “These include avocado, eggplant dip, hummus, tzatziki, cheese, cottage cheese and ricotta cheese. Even combining some of these options can create interesting taste sensations”

lunchbox with wraps

4.  Oven-baked savoury biscuits

You’ll find rows and rows of these in the biscuit aisle of the supermarket, but don’t let the ‘oven-baked’ tag fool you. “Unfortunately, oven-baked products have just as much salt and fat as chips, and really don’t provide much quality in terms of nutrients consumed,” says Cosgriff. Choice magazine found that one 25g serve (about 12 biscuits) of a leading brand of savoury biscuits contained 239mg of sodium: quite high when you consider that the recommended daily sodium intake for a four-to-eight-year-old is between 300mg and 600mg. 

Alternative: “Choose biscuit snacks which are less energy dense, such as some wholegrain corn thins and crispbreads – or if you’re really creative and have a bit of time, try making your own and get the children involved too,” Cosgriff advises.

5.  Flavoured milk

We all know that dairy products are essential for healthy bones and teeth, but the flavouring used in these milks is almost 100 per cent pure sugar, says Cosgriff. In fact, 100ml of chocolate milk contains about 9.2g of sugar  (2 teaspoons of sugar… or 5 teaspoons in a 250ml glass) – normal, regular-fat milk contains none. 

Alternative: “Plain milk, if you can keep it refrigerated (you could try freezing it overnight), or a tub of natural yoghurt with some added fruit, such as fresh passionfruit or berries,” says Cosgriff.

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