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Healthy Packed Lunches Your Kids Will Love

In the chaos of the early morning rush to get everyone out the door, finding healthy, low-sugar foods for our kids’ school lunches can feel daunting. Sure, you’d love to create one of those beautiful bento boxes filling up your Pinterest feed, but who has time for that? Unfortunately, parents are really bad at estimating how much sugar is in foods that kids commonly eat like yogurt, orange juice, pizza, and ketchup. A recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that more than 90 percent of the participants underestimated the amount of sugar in yogurt by about 60 percent. The good news is that packing a low-sugar lunch doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s a guide to avoiding hidden sugars and finding convenient options without losing a chunk of your mornings to lunchtime prep.

Keep it Balanced

Have you ever found yourself staring at your kids’ empty lunch container with no clue where to start? Been there, done that. A good guideline is the Choose MyPlate food groups provided by the United States Department of Agriculture, which helps you think about what categories to hit. Having a mental or physical check-off list of each food group you’re trying to hit doesn’t just keep lunchtime balanced, it actually makes it easier to pack. When you know you’re looking for a protein, a grain, a vegetable, a fruit, and a serving of dairy each day—with the servings of vegetables and whole grains especially large— it helps you make decisions about what to pack next. This mindset can also inform your shopping. As you make your list, make sure you are filling it up with enough of each food group to get to the end of the school week.

Avoid Hidden Sugars

Healthy habits can be established at a young age. Help your child learn to enjoy the taste of natural sugars in fruit instead of getting accustomed to the sweeteners that are added to processed foods. Pay attention to labels on all food items, even those not typically associated with a sweet taste. The easiest, biggest change you can make is to swap a bottle of water for a juice box or other sweetened drink. The second best change: Skip the flavored yogurt. A container of fruit yogurt is so easy to toss into the bag, but many flavors have more sugar than your child should be eating in a day. Peanut butter and jelly is another lunchtime staple, but it can easily become a sugar bomb. You know you’re putting sweetener in the form of jam on that sandwich, but that’s not the only source: peanut butter and bread both often have added sugars. Check the ingredient labels. Look for peanut butter that includes only peanuts and salt, and find bread without added sweeteners. Another source of hidden sugar at lunchtime is deli meats. Look for turkey or ham that’s roasted in-house at the deli counter. Watch out for versions that advertise their added sugar (like honey-roasted hams) and avoid processed cold cuts, which are often soaked in sugar and salt.

Pick the Right Grains

A well-balanced meal for kids includes a healthy source of carbohydrates. The point of a low-sugar lifestyle isn’t depriving them of the carbs in vegetables and whole grains, which are essential for energizing them during a long day. Instead, the idea is to avoid sugar-packed options like animal crackers, sandwich crackers, or packaged muffins. Here are a few tips:

  • Keep a low-sugar cracker option on hand. Some of favorites include Mary’s Gone Crackers and Triscuits crackers.
  • Call a spade a spade. Animals crackers or granola bars are dessert in disguise. Only send these occasionally, not every day.
  • Find a whole-grain bread your kids like and make it a pantry staple. Dave’s Killer Breads has a whole-wheat bread that does contain a little sugar, but it’s low on the ingredient list behind a long list of whole grains. It also has a soft enough texture for kids used to breads with a lot of dough softeners. Over time, you can aim to adjust to a whole-grain bread with no added sugar.

Try These Sample Lunches

The beauty of building lunches is that they can easily be modified to fit your child’s taste and your budget. Here are a few simple low-sugar ideas to get you started:

  • Snack lunch: Add a finger food from each of the major food groups. Grilled chicken (leftover from dinner) cut into small slices, a cheese stick, blueberries, carrot sticks, and seed crackers.
  • Low-sugar sandwiches: Build a hearty and healthy sandwich with low-sugar bread, real roasted turkey, sliced cheese, pickles, and sugar-free condiments. Add fruits and vegetables on the side.
  • Hot lunch: Use a thermos to pack up leftovers from last night's healthy dinner. Soups, stir fries, and casseroles make amazingly simple packed lunches.

As you find combinations your kids love, keep track! Take the guesswork out of shopping in packing by keeping a short list of their favorite low-sugar lunches on hand.