What not to pack in your kids’ lunch

These school lunches provide little or no nutrition for kids.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Kids who don’t start the day with a healthy breakfast or refuel with a nutritious lunch can be a disruptive force in the classroom, lacking focus and often distracting their schoolmates. Kids who don’t eat well can’t pay enough attention to learn. Why are children so sensitive to what’s in their lunch bags?

Because they’re growing, says Jill Castle, a registered dietitian and co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. “Kids need a regular fuel source, a regular source of nutrients and calories to match their demands for growth,” says Castle. She and other specialists have spent years studying nutrition for children. They can tell you what belongs in school lunches and what to leave on the grocer’s shelves

-- By Teresa Bergen for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 12 School lunch cafeteria (Tom Merton/Getty Images)


Parents can buy a whole prepackaged school lunch and stick it in their kid’s lunch box. Not a good idea, says Castle. “I think my bottom line is don’t double pack. Most of the bad things that parents are going to pack have already been packed by manufacturers.” These bad things include lots of sodium and fat and few nutrients, she says, resulting in a child whose appetite remains unfulfilled. “A hungry child is definitely a distracted child who’s not paying attention.”

Prepackaged lunches also have an intangible drawback. “They aren’t packed with love,” says Boston-based sports nutritionist and author Nancy Clark. “A lunch that’s packed with love commonly has more health value than those packaged things that are tossed into a lunch box.”

2 of 12 Kids eating Lunchables (Washington Post/Getty Images)

Crackers and chips

While most people love their saltiness and crunch, regular crackers provide little nutrition for kids. Most are made with white flour, preservatives, oil, lots of salt and little fiber. “Those are your foods that are going to cause highs and lows of blood sugar,” says Bailey Koch, president of Atlantic Pediatric Nutrition. But kids can enjoy healthier crackers if parents read labels. “Look for 3 grams of fiber or more per serving. Then it’s a good fiber source,” Koch says. She recommends pairing whole-grain crackers with protein, such as peanut butter, cheese or deli meat.

3 of 12 Bag of potato chips (Werner Blessing/Getty Images)

White bread

Sandwiches are mainstays of kids’ lunches. But what are you smearing that peanut butter on? If the bread is white, you’re missing a nutritional opportunity. Instead of empty calories, substitute whole-grain bread with at least 3 grams of fiber per slice.

“A lot of people pack a white bread sandwich, granola bar, juice box and potato chips,” Koch says. The upshot? A lunch that’s high in sugar and low-fiber carbohydrates. “Then you have a child that can’t concentrate once that fuel runs out, and they’re starving once they get home from school,” she says.

4 of 12 White bread (James Ross/Getty Images)

Fruit snacks

If the label clearly says “made with real fruit,” the snack is just as good as eating an apple, right? Wrong. “Fruit snacks, fruit roll-ups, say ‘made with 100 percent juice,’ but juice is just sugar,” says Koch. “There’s no fiber in it.” Plus, the sticky snacks lodge between teeth, leading to decay. Instead, pack an apple, orange or other favorite fruit in your kid’s school lunch.

5 of 12 Girl with fruit snacks (Hulya Ozkok/Getty Images)


It seems like a no-brainer, but kids still drink soda. These high-sugar, often caffeinated drinks offer plenty of calories and not much else. “Caffeine is not advised for children, number one,” says Castle. “Number two, with all the sugar, it’s not advised for children. Soda is linked to the development of childhood obesity. When you use the filter of ‘I’ve got a growing child who needs 40 nutrients a day, I want to pack the most nutritious lunch I can,’ soda doesn’t make the cut.”

As the author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Clark is especially concerned about sports drinks such as Gatorade in school lunches. “They give the impression that this is a healthy food, when it’s nothing but sugar water with a dash of salt. There’s a place for sports drinks, but it’s not in the lunch box.” Clark suggests packing milk instead of soda.

6 of 12 Soda cans (Tom Joslyn/Getty Images)


Most adults grew up with the idea that juice was a nutritious part of breakfast. Turns out, it’s not so great. When you strip juice from whole fruit, you get too much sugar and no fiber. “That is one of my rules when I talk to parents,” Koch says. “No juice.” She makes exceptions for medically fragile children who need hydration. “But in a healthy child, no. They do not need juice. You get more calories from a 12-ounce serving of 100 percent juice than you do from a can of Coke.” When kids drink juice, Koch says, they want to eat something with it since the juice itself isn’t filling. “So it’s 180 extra calories on top of whatever they’re eating,” she says.

If you feel you absolutely must pack juice in your kid’s lunch, Castle advises 4 to 6-ounce containers of 100 percent juice.

7 of 12 Girl drinking juice box (Jamie Grill/Getty Images)


Kids get enough desserts without packing sweets in school lunches. “When we expose children to sugary desserts and candy, they really can develop a strong preference for those foods,” says Castle. “They crave them and develop a difficult dynamic with their parents.” Instead, she advises thinking carefully about sugar when packing school lunches. “If there’s a purpose, like a special holiday, or it’s the day of the week that you put a special treat in your child’s lunchbox, I’m OK with that.” But choose a homemade mini-treat, if possible.

Castle prefers real sugar to artificial sweeteners. While research suggests artificial sweeteners are perfectly safe, she says, few if any studies have looked at their effects on children.

And don’t worry about depriving your child. “I didn’t give my kids candy for lunch, but I know they certainly got plenty of it,” Clark says. “Leave it to the kids to find out how to get their candy.”

8 of 12 Child eating lollipop (Mijang Ka/Getty Images)

Whole sandwiches for small kids

Little kids don’t need a whole sandwich. “They do better with a half,” says Castle. A whole sandwich might provide too many calories, or simply be too much to eat and get thrown away. Castle recommends supplementing the half sandwich with a piece of fruit, some vegetables, a cheese stick and/or yogurt to provide adequate nutrition for kids. When they get to be around 10, consider switching to a whole sandwich. “It’s teenagers entering their growth spurt that need the whole sandwich,” Castle says.

9 of 12 Little kid with big lunch (KidStock/Blend Images/Corbis)

Allergenic foods

Reactions to foods can be highly individual. Food dyes, particularly the reds, have been blamed for behavioral problems in some kids, despite a lack of scientific evidence. “Particularly some children with autism or ADHD can be sensitive to food dyes and food coloring,” Castle says. “You’ll talk to parents who swear that certain foods make their children more hyperactive, more aggressive.” She advises those parents to avoid feeding their children those foods, but cautions against assuming these bad reactions are universal.

Clark agrees that reactions to dyes, preservatives and other allergens are highly individual. “In general, choosing foods that are closer to the earth is better,” she says. “Less processed is better. Without wrappers is better.”

Dairy products are a common allergen. Kids who are sensitive to lactose may get a stomachache if you pack milk or cheese in their school lunch.

10 of 12 Red velvet cupcakes (Doug Schneider Photography/Getty Images)