8 Healthy Food Swaps for Your Child's Lunch

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Child's school lunch

Packing a healthy lunch – one your child will eat – is easier than you think. These simple swaps bump up the nutrition without sacrificing taste, and fall solidly within the dietary guidelines issued by the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services. Bonus: They’re easy on your budget, too!

1. Real fruit instead of fruit cups

Fruit cups are convenient, but they’re not a great deal nutritionally. (Or financially, for that matter!) Most contain added sugar. Even the “no sugar added” varieties often contain sucralose, an artificial sweetener. Cut up some fresh fruit and pop it into a reusable container instead, or throw in some frozen grapes or berries. 

2. Whole wheat tortillas and pancakes instead of white bread

You say your kids won’t eat whole wheat? Get creative. Try using whole wheat pancakes instead of bread for a sandwich. Or spread some peanut butter over a whole wheat tortilla, roll the whole thing up and slice it into finger-friendly pinwheels. 

3. Leftover lean meats instead of lunch meat

Whether you buy it at the deli counter or in pre-sealed plastic bags, lunch meat tends to be high in salt and unhealthy additives. (Think sugar, corn syrup and sodium nitrite, which has been linked to an increased risk of cancer.) Instead, use your leftovers! Thinly sliced roast chicken, beef, pork and turkey are great on sandwiches.

4. Fruit-infused water instead of juice boxes

Most so-called juice boxes contain a tiny bit of fruit juice and a whole lot of extra sugar and food coloring. 100% juice boxes are better, but why not send fruit-infused water in a reusable water bottle instead? Simply add some slices of orange, lemon or lime to a pitcher of water, store in the fridge and refill water bottles as needed.

5. Popcorn instead of potato chips

Kids love popcorn! The salty crunch of popcorn is a satisfying substitute for high-fat chips, and popcorn actually packs a nutritional punch. It’s a whole-grain food (recommended by nutritionists and docs) that contains small amounts of essential minerals manganese, zinc and phosphorus.  Air-popped is best, but oil-popped popcorn is still a better choice than potato chips. 

6. Cookies or muffins instead of snack cakes

Surprised to see cookies on a healthy foods list? Homemade cookies and muffins are almost always healthier than pre-packaged snack cakes, and you can adjust the nutrition by tweaking the ingredients. (Try substituting whole wheat flour for white flour or using applesauce in place of oil when making muffins.)

7. Finger foods instead of a pre-packaged lunch

Sure, it’s easy to grab an all-in-one kids’ meal. But most are super-high in saturated fat and extra sugar. (They’re also pricey!) Pack a healthier lunch for less by chopping some lean meat and cheese into simple cubes. Add some cut-up veggies and fruit and toothpicks – kids love to spear their food! Whole wheat crackers can round out the meal.

8. Yogurt instead of pudding cups

Believe it or not, most kids’ yogurts – even the Day-Glo colored, squeezable kind – are a better choice than pudding cups. Pudding cups are higher saturated fat than yogurt, and have significantly more sugar and salt. (In some cases, up to four times as much salt and twice as much sugar!)

What’s worked for you? Share your favorite lunchtime food swaps with us on Facebook.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Oct 4

  1. Dietary Guidelines. United States Department of Agriculture. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/dietary-guidelines.html

  2. How can nitrates and nitrites affect children? Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tf.asp?id=1186&tid=258#bookmark06

  3. Hot dog! Headlines can be deceiving. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/expertvoices/post/2011/03/31/hot-dog!-headlines-can-be-deceiving.a...

  4. Childhood Nutrition. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/pages/Childhood-Nutrition.aspx?nfsta...

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