I'm not one to deny my kids a tasty treat, and I certainly don't make any food "forbidden," but there are some convenience foods that I don't buy for my kids, mostly because the ingredients list is a mile long, full of sugar, artificial flavours and colours, preservatives, fillers, and other chemicals. When it comes to feeding my kids, my number one priority is that they eat real food, not food-like items (most of the time). And whenever possible, I make meals and snacks from scratch and get them involved in preparing and cooking meals.
But when I do buy packaged foods—after all, they do come in handy now and again when you're a busy parent—I rarely read the nutrition facts table. Instead, I skip right to the ingredients list, which is the most important bit of information on the package or box. The shorter the list, the better, and ideally you want to see real food ingredients instead of a long list of additives, fillers and preservatives.
With some help from Registered Dietitian colleagues of mine (who are also parents), I've come up with a list of products that most nutrition experts won't feed to their kids:
Yogurt tubes such as Yoplait's "Gogurt" (as well as most yogurt drinks) have become very popular in the past few years. They're easy and convenient and can be eaten on the go. What most parents don't realize is that they're packed full of sugar, thickeners, and preservatives—they are far from "natural." It's not surprising that sugar is the second ingredient followed by additives like modified corn starch, potassium sorbate, gelatin, and carrageenan. One of these 64 gram tubes contains 9 grams of sugar (that's a lot for a little tube), only 2 grams of protein, and only 0.5 grams of fat. Because of this, your child will get a hit of sugar but won't be satisfied for long (protein and fat keep us fuller longer).
What to serve instead: Buy plain 2-3% Greek yogurt and add a bit of natural sweetener such as pureed fruit, honey or maple syrup. I like Greek yogurt because it contains double the amount of protein than regular and 2-3% milk fat because kids need fat! Make homemade "yogurt tubes" by combining plain Greek yogurt, fruit puree (apple sauce), cinnamon and a touch of honey to a small freezer bag. Make sure it's tightly sealed and cut a small hole in one of the corners for kids to eat from! Your kids could help make them!
"Fruit" flavoured snack foods such as Dora snacks, fruit leathers, fruit by the foot, fruit roll-ups, fruit gushers are not equivalent to fruit in any way. In fact, they rival most dessert foods in the sugar department and should be considered a treat rather than a snack (or just not eaten at all). Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, Medical Doctor and Weight Management Specialist wrote a great article for the Huffington post about how shockingly sweet most fruit snacks are and how the Heart and Stroke foundation's stamp of approval on many of these products tricks parents into thinking that they're healthy choices. He mentions in his post that SunRype fruit source bites are "80 percent sugar, with sugar being responsible for 96 per cent of their calories," which is similar to most other dried fruit snacks. Yikes!
Unsweetened dried fruit now and again is fine (and provides more nutrition than candy, I suppose), but without the water content that fresh or frozen fruit provides, it won't keep kids full for very long and provides exponentially more sugar per gram in weight. On top of that, many fruit snacks add MORE sugar.
What to offer instead: Fresh or frozen fruit. Plain and simple and portable too!
In all honesty, I hadn't heard of or seen these until a few RD colleagues mentioned them in our "most loathed kids snack food" thread on Facebook. These morning cookies are a far cry from "healthy morning snack," which Dare markets them as beautifully. In fact, they encourage parents to "pack a Bear Paws Morning Snack in the kids’ lunch box for a nutritious treat during morning recess." Well, at least they admit that it's a "treat." These cookies contain a long list of ingredients with sugar right at the top, and modified palm oil, soya lecithin, corn starch, and potassium sorbate thereafter. And that's not including the filling!
What to offer instead: For a morning snack, it's best to stick to real food such as yogurt, cheese, fresh fruit, milk, or veggies sticks and hummus. These homemade granola bars are nut free and can serve as a great snack option for lunch boxes. If it's a treat we're talking about, try my healthy oatmeal raisin cookies!
Peanut butter that we all grew up with (think Skippy or Jif) and in many cases serve our own children tastes much different than natural peanut butter. It is much sweeter and does not need to be refrigerated. That's because sugar is the second ingredient followed by hydrogenated vegetable oil (trans fat). The hydrogenated vegetable oil is solid at room temperature, which gives the peanut butter a smooth and consistent texture and has a long shelf-life. If peanut butter is a staple in your house like it is in mine, you may want to consider going with a more natural alternative.
What to offer instead: Natural peanut butter, where the ingredients list contains one ingredient: peanuts.
Popcorn can be a really healthy snack choice, but when comes in a microwaveable bag with a bright yellow coloured powder mixed into it, it quickly because a not-so-healthy snack. With ingredients such as partially hydrogenated soybean oil, artificial colours and flavours (usually not specified) and TBHQ (tert-Butylhydroquinone--a preservative), microwave popcorn—as convenient as it is—is more of a science project than a healthy snack.
What to offer instead: Air-popped popcorn (preferably organic) with a bit of melted butter and a bit of salt to taste (optional). Keep leftovers and throw it into your kids lunch kit as a snack!
Most people believe that whole wheat bread is a much better choice than white bread. Not true. In fact, many whole wheat breads are white bread dressed up with a bit of fibre (not much), maybe some colouring for effect and maybe a few seeds sprinkled on top. Whole wheat bread (whether it's 60% or 100%) is not the same as "whole grain" bread. Whole wheat bread is made with whole wheat flour, which has been stripped of most of the germ (the most nutritious part of the wheat kernel) and some of the bran (where the fibre is housed inside the grain). What you're left with is the starchy endosperm and a bit of the bran. The resulting product—whole wheat bread—is slightly healthier than white bread, but not what I would consider a healthy choice.
What to offer instead: 100% whole grain bread. If the first ingredient is 100% whole grain (insert name of grain here), then you're on the right track. What it means is that the entire grain (including germ and bran) are present, which renders a healthier and more nutritious product.
Oatmeal is universally thought of as a healthy breakfast option, but what most people don't realize is that there are several different varieties of oats, ranging from very healthful to...dessert in a package. Instant oats are the most processed of all varieties because they've been steamed, pressed with a roller, dried, cooked, and dried again so that the resulting product cooks quickly. Because of this processing, instant oats are broken down quicker in our digestive tracks, rendering a product that is higher on the glycemic index (raises blood sugar faster). One small flavoured package of instant oatmeal also contains the same amount of sugar as 2 Oreo cookies (about 3 teaspoons of sugar). Eating this in the morning will not satisfy you or your kids for very long at all, but instead will give you a quick sugar buzz that will fade and leave you hungry again within no time.
What to serve instead: Although it takes a bit more time to prepare, making large flake oats on the stove top or in the microwave (it takes 2 minutes!), or even better, cooking steel-cut oats (you can now purchase quick-cooking steel-cut oats too) is definitely the way to go. These oat products are minimally processed (especially steel-cut), so provide the maximum amount of nutrition and will keep you feeling full and satisfied for hours. Steel-cut oats is my go-to breakfast, so I make a big batch either in the slow cooker or on the stove and enjoy it all week by reheating with some milk. Choosing an unflavoured oatmeal also allows you to control the amount of sugar or other sweetener that goes into it.
Our kids are inevitably going to be exposed to several unhealthy foods outside of the home, whether it be at a friends house, in the school yard or at a birthday party. We cannot control every bite that our child takes, nor should we try to. Having processed foods and treats now and again is fun for kids, won't likely effect their health in a negative way, and shouldn't be made into a huge deal. But as parents, we can control which foods our kids are offered at home on a daily basis. We can teach them the value of cooking and baking from scratch, and expose them to delicious whole foods that taste much better than the fake stuff.
Struggling to get your child to eat a balance of foods at meal time? Teach your kids to "eat in a circle"—you'll be amazed at how much more pleasant mealtimes become!
And here are 15 Dietitian-Approved Lunchbox Staples
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