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The Five Worst Foods to Pack in Your Kid’s School Lunch

September 16, 2014

Sandwiches, yogurt, fruit, chips and veggie sticks—these are just a few popular items that we frequently pack in our kids’ school lunches. With so many unhealthy options offered on the school lunch menu, many parents prefer to send their kids to school with a lunchbox in-hand to make sure they’re getting a healthier midday meal.

But is the lunch you’re packing for your kids really healthier? Often times, the lunch items we think are healthy are actually loaded with sodium, fat and high fructose corn syrup—and we may not even realize it. And because our schedules are often so busy, we tend to buy “convenience” items that are quick and easy to pack. But the reality is that these foods are full of unhealthy additives and preservatives, making them no better than what the school cafeteria offers.

So, how do you know what the best foods to pack are? Which lunch options are truly healthy, and which ones should you avoid? Here, I’ve provided a list of the five worst foods to pack in your child’s school lunch, as well as some recommendations to help you choose healthier options that are easy to pack and taste great too.

Processed Deli Meats

Sandwiches—they’re a classic staple of a school lunch. Whether it’s ham, salami, turkey or roast beef, it’s easy to stock up on a variety of deli meats to make sandwiches for your kids throughout the week.

However, while this may be an easy lunch option to make for your kids, it isn’t necessarily the healthiest—and it’s usually because of the deli meats we buy. Most processed deli meats are full of fat, sodium and preservatives, like nitrates and nitrites, which are chemical compounds that have been linked to colon cancer. These processed meats have also been associated with an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop making sandwiches for your kids entirely. All you have to do is pay closer attention to what you’re buying. For example, buy organic varieties of deli meats that are nitrate- and nitrite-free. I would also recommend avoiding prepackaged lunch kits, as many of them include processed deli meats. While this may be a convenient food to pack in a school lunchbox, many prepackaged lunch kits have half a day’s worth of saturated fat and a full day’s worth of sodium.

Prepackaged Fruit Cups

Prepackaged fruit cups are a popular item in school lunchboxes, and it’s no wonder why kids—and parents—love them. They’re convenient to pack, and they offer a serving of fruit for your child. And not only that, but they taste great too, so it’s never a struggle to get your child to eat them.

While these perfectly portioned fruit cups may seem like a healthy option for your child, the pre-cut fruit inside is sitting in a syrup that’s loaded with added sugars and high fructose corn syrup. As a result, this essentially takes away the nutritional value of the fruit and turns it into candy.

So, rather than buying these cups of pre-cut fruit, all you need to do is buy fresh fruit instead. Simply cut slices of apples, pears or peaches, spritz with a little lime juice to prevent browning, and pack them in a small bag. Or to mix things up, you can opt for an assortment of fresh berries as well. Berries are a great kid-friendly food, and they can easily be rinsed off and thrown into a bag without any preparation.

Granola Bars

They’re quick, they’re convenient and they taste great. Granola bars are another easy food to pack in your child’s school lunch, but unfortunately, many kids’ varieties are far from nutritious. Similar to prepackaged fruit cups, most granola bars are loaded with sugar. Not only that, but many varieties are made with unhealthy extras, like dyes, preservatives, chocolate and candy.

While certain brands of granola bars may not be the healthiest option for your kids, granola bars, in general, are still a great item to include in a school lunchbox. You just have to make sure you’re buying the right kind. The key is to look for a variety that’s made with natural ingredients and doesn’t include high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners. I also recommend choosing a brand that offers more fiber and less sugar. For example, try buying a whole-grain granola and nut bar—or if you’re feeling adventurous, you may even want to make your own.


We all love to indulge in a bag of chips every so often, but regularly putting them in your kid’s lunch is incredibly unhealthy. While they may be delicious, chips are certainly not nutritious. Deriving more than half of their calories from fat, chips are empty-calorie foods that are full of salt, trans fat and a preservative known as BHT, which is also used in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products.

Although chips shouldn’t be included in your child’s lunch every day, they are OK to have as an occasional treat. I would also suggest buying baked chips, kale chips or whole-grain sweet potato chips to give your child a healthy alternative that’s still enjoyable too.

Juices and Soda

Did you know that sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one source of added sugars in our diet? This is especially true when it comes to children. Kids will drink tons of sweetened beverages if we let them, which adds up to hundreds of empty calories, dangerous sugar overload and a lack of healthy hydration.

While this is certainly true for sodas, added sugars can also be hidden in other popular lunchtime drinks, like vitamin waters, sports drinks and juices. In fact, many juices are only comprised of 10 percent actual fruit juice. The remaining 90 percent is made up of additives and sugar.

So, instead of putting these sugar-filled drinks in your child’s lunchbox, offer healthier options, like water and milk. Or, if you’d still like to include some type of juice, I would recommend buying brands that are 100 percent fruit juice and limiting the portion size to four to six ounces a day.

For more tips on how to pack a healthy school lunch, visit the American Heart Association website.