Wondering What to Pack for School Lunches?

Here are 15 healthier brown-bag lunch options now available in your supermarket.

From the WebMD Archives

Can you hear it? It's the sound of lunch bags and lunchboxes being snapped open. It's the sound of peanut butter lids being screwed off and pantry doors being opened as lunches are packed every morning in homes across America. It's back to the lunch-packing grind for parents, and many may be wondering what's new in healthy supermarket options.

It's an important question, as each lunch offers an opportunity to improve your child's diet. Lunchtime choices can make a big difference toward the daily and weekly totals for calories, fat, saturated fat, fiber, sugar, and sodium.

For example:

  • Using higher-fiber, 100% whole-wheat breads to make sandwiches instead of white bread adds about 20 grams of fiber in a week's time, not to mention all the nutrients whole grains provide.
  • If you pack sliced apples in your child's lunch each day instead of a fruit roll, you'll cut the refined sugar in your child's diet by 50 grams a week, while adding some 20 grams of fiber to the weekly total. You'll also be giving your child 27% of the recommended Daily Value for vitamin C, and 15% of the Daily Value for vitamin E and potassium each day.
  • Pack 3 ounces of carrot chips (from Grimmway Farms) in the lunchbox instead of 2 ounces of potato chips, and your child gets 1,325 fewer snack calories each week, 95 fewer grams of fat, 30 fewer grams of saturated fat, and 10 more grams of fiber. The carrot chips will also add 270% of the Daily Value for antioxidant vitamin A each day.

Apples and carrot chips aside, parents must find a balance between packing healthy lunches and packing lunches that their kids will actually eat. To assist them in this quest, food companies introduce new lunchbox products each year.

Have you looked in the dried fruit section lately? In resealable bags, you'll find plenty of unsweetened and lightly sweetened choices, from tropical pineapple and mango to the "berry-licious" flavors of blueberries, cherries and "berry blend."

And food companies like Chiquita and Ready Pack are working to make fruits and vegetables more convenient and fun. Chiquita has come out with Apple Bites (presliced apples in both individual and big bags), Grape Bites (individual bags), and Carrot Bites and Sugar Snap Peas (both packed with small containers of ranch dip). Ready Pac sells individual packages of baby carrots and ranch dip and celery stick with peanut butter. If you want to lose the dip, Grimmway Farms sells snack packs of just baby carrots and 16-ounce bags of fun-to-eat Carrot Chips. (These products do tend to be pricey, so try and get them when they are on sale.)

Here's a roundup of some of the healthy lunch offerings you'll find in the supermarket.

What to Pack for Lunch: Crunchy Foods

Snyder's Multi Grain Pretzel Sticks

Serving size: 30 grams (7 sticks)

Pluses: Each serving delivers 3 grams of fiber (2 grams more than regular pretzels) and Snyder's uses canola oil (which is rich in the preferred monounsaturated fats, and a good source of healthy plant omega-3 fatty acids). Molasses is the added sweetener. And if you're going to add a sweetener, molasses is one of the best choices because it contributes lots of flavor along with vitamins and minerals.

Minuses: Unbleached wheat flour (not 100% whole wheat or whole grain) is still the first ingredient.

Nutritional information per serving: 130 calories, 3 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 3 g fiber, 180 mg sodium.

Pepperidge Farm Goldfish -- Made with Whole Grain

Serving size: 30 grams (about 55 pieces)

Pluses: Whole-grain wheat flour is the first ingredient. Each serving has 2 grams of fiber.

Minuses: Each serving also contains 5 grams of total fat, and 1 gram of saturated fat. But the fat mainly comes from cheddar cheese and vegetable oils (canola, sunflower and/or soybean).

Nutritional information per serving: 140 calories, 4 g protein, 19 g carbohydrate, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 2 g fiber, 250 mg sodium.

NatureValleyFruit Crisps (Cinnamon Apple)

(General Mills also makes a similar product, Fruit Crisps, in Cinnamon flavor)

Serving size: 14-gram individual pouch

Pluses: Most of this product is simply dried apples. Apple juice concentrate is added as the sweetener, but the product contains 2% or less of it.

Minuses: Sodium sulfite is used as a preservative; some people may be sensitive to this. And one pouch probably isn't going to be satisfying enough. Most kids will probably want 2 pouches.

Nutritional information per serving:50 calories, 0 g protein, 13 g carbohydrate (10 g sugar), 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 1 g fiber, 75 mg sodium

100-Calorie Sun Chips Mini Bites

Serving size: 100-calorie pouch

Pluses: This product lists whole-wheat and whole-oat flour among its first five ingredients. It contains less fat than most "light" potato chip options. And of the 4.5 grams of total fat it contains per serving, 2.5 grams are the preferable monounsaturated fat.

Minuses: This product doesn't contain enough whole grains to give it more than 1 gram of fiber per serving.

Nutrition informationper serving: 100 calories, 2 g protein, 12 g carbohydrate, 4.5 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 1 g fiber, 110 mg sodium.

What to Pack for Lunch: Sweet Foods

Motts Healthy Harvest -- No Sugar Added

(Comes in Blueberry Delight and Country Berry flavors.)

Serving size: 3.9-ounce individual cups.

Pluses: No sugar is added to this fruit sauce. The first few ingredients in the Blueberry Delight flavor are apples, apple puree concentrate, and blueberry puree. Each cup contains 25% of the daily value for vitamin C, too.

Minuses: They only come in two fun flavors.

Nutrition informationper serving: 50 calories, 0 g protein, 13 g carbohydrate, 11 g sugar (from apples and fruit puree), 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 1 g fiber, 0 mg sodium.

Del Monte Individual Fruit Cups/Cans (in 100% Juice)

(Options include mixed fruit, diced peaches, and pineapple tidbits.)

Serving size: 4-ounce individual snack-size cups/cans.

Pluses: It's another way to work some fruit into your child's lunch.

Minuses:Dietary fiber is less than 1 gram per serving. It might not be as much fun to eat, but your child would do better to eat a larger serving of fruit without the juice.

Nutrition informationper serving: 50 calories, 0 g protein, 13 g carbohydrate, 12 g sugar (from fruit and juice), 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, less than 1 gram fiber, 10 mg sodium.

Quaker 25% Less Sugar Granola Bars

(The two best flavor choices, in my opinion, are Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip.)

Serving size: Individually wrapped bars (24 grams each).

Pluses: Both of these flavors contribute 3 grams of fiber and 10% of the Daily Value for calcium per bar. They have a very kid-friendly flavor and texture.

Minuses: These bars definitely have less sugar than other chewy granola bars, but they still have 20% calories from sugar.

Nutrition information per serving:Chocolate chip flavor =100calories, 1 g protein, 17 g carbohydrate, 5 g sugar, 3.5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 3 g fiber, 75 mg sodium.

Kashi Tasty Little Chewies

(Comes in two flavors, Trail Mix and Honey Almond Flax.)

Serving size: Individually wrapped bars (35 grams each).

Pluses: Both bars add 4 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein to lunch. Each has fewer calories from sugar than many other granola bars. They range from 14% to 17% calories from sugar, depending on the flavor.

Minuses: These bars might look or taste too "different" to appeal to some kids.

Nutrition informationper serving: 140 calories, 6 to 7 g protein, 19 to 20 g carbohydrate, 5 to 6 g sugar, 5 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 15 to 115 mg sodium.

Nabisco Nutter Butter Chewy Granola Bars 100-Calorie Packs

(Also comes in other flavors, such as Chips Ahoy!)

Serving size: Individually packaged bars.

Pluses: This 100-calorie bar delivers 2 grams of fiber, which is 2 grams more than many chewy bars offer.

Minuses: Each bar contains 6 grams of sugar. However, this translates to 24% calories from sugar, which is better than many other chewy bars.

Nutrition informationper serving: 100 calories, 2 g protein, 21 g carbohydrate, 1.5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 2 g fiber, 6 g sugar.

Quaker Granola Bites -- Peanut Butter

(Also comes in other flavors, such as cinnamon and chocolate.)

Serving size: 20-gram pouches.

Pluses: Whole-grain rolled oats is the first ingredient; each pouch contains 2 grams fiber.

Minuses: Sugar is the second ingredient listed on the label (although the product contains 27% calories from sugar), and hydrogenated palm kernel oil is the third (each pouch contains 2.5 grams saturated fat and 0 grams of trans fat.)

Nutrition informationper serving: 90 calories, 2 g protein, 14 g carbohydrate, 3.5 g fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 2 g fiber, 6 g sugar.

Fuelers Energy Cookies (Pacific Foods) -- All Natural Chocolate Chips

(Comes in other flavors such as Oatmeal Raisin and Peanut Butter.)

Serving size: 1.2-ounce packages.

Pluses: Whole-grain flour is the first ingredient; each serving contains 3 grams of fiber.

Minuses: Corn syrup is the second ingredient; each serving contains 12 grams of sugar (37% calories from sugar).

Nutrition informationper serving: 130 calories, 5 g protein, 21 g carbohydrate, 4.5 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 grams trans fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 12 g sugar. Each serving also contains 25% Daily Value for calcium, 10% for vitamin D, around 25% for the B-vitamins, 10% for vitamin E.

What to Pack for Lunch: Entrées

For those mornings when you refuse to spread and slice one more sandwich, there are a few new lunch entrée options on the supermarket shelf.

Foster Farms Chicken Strips

(The two flavors that were lowest in sodium are Grilled Chicken Breast Strips and Southwestern Seasoned Strips.)

Serving size: Each 6-ounce sealable package contains two 3-ounce servings.

Pluses: This is an easy way to add some chicken to the pita sandwich or chicken Caesar salad you're packing in the morning. It also offers something different from the usual "cold cut" lunch fare.

Minuses: Even though these are the two flavors lowest in sodium in this product line, they still contribute 460-500 milligrams per serving. You might want to avoid pairing these with something high in sodium, such as salty crackers.

Nutrition information per serving: 100 to 110 calories, 19 to 22 grams protein, 1 g carbohydrate, 1.5 to 2 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 25 to 50 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber, 460 to 500 mg sodium.

Bumble Bee Ready-to-Eat Fat Free Tuna Salad with Crackers

(This is an individual kit including tuna salad and a package of crackers.)

Pluses: It's a fun way to eat tuna and add some healthy fish omega-3s.

Minuses: It's probably too small of a tuna salad serving for older children. The sodium level is pretty high (580 mg) considering the kit only contains 150 calories.

Nutrition information per serving: 150 calories, 9 g protein, 23 g carbohydrate, 1.5 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 1 g fiber, 580 mg sodium.

Bumble Bee Easy Peel Sensations -- Lemon & Pepper Tuna Medley

Serving size: 5-ounce (easy open) cans.

Pluses: It's an easy way to add 21 grams of protein and some fish omega-3s to lunch.

Minuses: Some kids might not like the grown-up flavors of lemon and pepper mixed with tuna. You might need to pack something to each with the tuna, like whole-wheat crackers or a wheat roll.

Nutrition information per serving: 130 calories, 21 g protein, 2 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat, 0.5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans, 30 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber, 410 mg sodium.

Cheese Sticks (individually wrapped)

Serving size: Safeway Organics line comes in 1-ounce individually wrapped sticks.

Pluses: Each stick adds 20% of the recommended Daily Value for calcium and 7 grams of protein.

Minuses: You have to keep this cold until lunch. There's almost nothing worse than a sweaty cheese stick at lunch.

Nutrition information per serving: 1 Colby cheese stick = 110 calories, 7 g protein, 0 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber, 170 mg sodium.

Eating Right (a Safeway brand) Instant Soups

(There are two flavors that contribute some fiber: Spicy Thai Noodle Soup and Tomato Basil Pasta Soup.)

Serving size: 1.4- to 1.6-ounce paper cups that you add very hot water to.

Pluses: This is a hot lunch entrée that has nothing to do with two slices of bread. This product seems to contain few ingredients compared to other instant soup products. Both soups are low in fat and contain no saturated fat or trans fat. Each soup contributes at least 2 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein.

Minuses: Each serving has 480 to 600 milligrams sodium (depending on the flavor).

Nutrition information per serving: 140 to 150 calories, 6 to 7 g protein, 27 to 30 g carbohydrate, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 to 3 g fiber, 480 to 600 mg sodium.

What to Pack for Lunch: Drinks

The key to the liquid side of lunch is to pack beverages that either hydrate your student (water), or help hydrate while also contributing nutrients like protein, calcium, and vitamin D (low-fat milk) or nutrients like vitamin C and folic acid (100% orange juice).

If the noon beverage contributes calories but not nutrients (like soda and sugary fruit drinks), you might want to rethink this lunchbox choice. Recent studies suggest that liquid calories don't contribute to feeling full as much as solid-food calories do.

One new lunchbox drink option ismini water bottles. These come in cute little 8- and 11-ounce plastic bottles (like Aqua Pod brand). They're the perfect size to freeze and then stick in your child's lunchbox or bag to keep the other lunch items well chilled until lunchtime.

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Journal of the Dietetic Association, 2003; vol 103: 505-51. Bartholomew J.B. et al., Journal of the American Dietetic Association, February 2006; vol 106: pp 248-252.

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