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Lunch-box blues

Ban processed, sugary foods from your kids midday meal and they'll be singing a happy tune

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/9/2013 (1444 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

School lunches are supposed to energize your kids so they can get through the day ready to learn.

Instead, what you're feeding them for lunch may actually be zapping their brain power while keeping them tired and listless.

Multi-compartment divided containers make it easy to pack sandwiches and fruit as shown here.


Multi-compartment divided containers make it easy to pack sandwiches and fruit as shown here.

A Japanese bento box and Indian Tiffin shown here offer a multinational version of the traditional brown bag lunch.


A Japanese bento box and Indian Tiffin shown here offer a multinational version of the traditional brown bag lunch.

"Kids that eat well perform better in school. It fuels their brain for the remainder of the day. They concentrate better," says Gina Sunderland, a registered dietitian who works with kids, adults and cancer patients. "It really sort of seals their brain for the remainder of the day."

But what if your lunch-box choices actually play a role in harming your long-term and even short-term health?

Sunderland has seen it in her young clients. One, as young as age five, had elevated blood-sugar levels and high cholesterol. "It has a lot to do with being overweight. These are things we can directly attribute to poor dietary intake and lack of physical activity," says the mother of two teenage boys.

She says the trend of parents reaching for convenience foods to pack in their kids' lunch boxes -- boxed and processed meals and snacks -- is still on the rise. "They think if they add a piece of fruit and a container of yogurt, it makes up for the fact that the main thing they are sending their kids off with really lacks nutrition."

Do your kids' lunches pass the test?

Here are a few popular lunch-box offenders and nutritious alternatives that can take their place:

Store-bought muffin


What is it? A portable convenience food that often contains nutritious-sounding ingredients such as bran, blueberries and carrot.


Why it fails: One regular-sized bran muffin can have as many as 400 calories and 17 grams of fat "and they're not even those jumbo muffins," says Sunderland. She says that baked goods aren't always required to have a nutrition label and are likely teeming with hidden trans fats. Experts say these man-made oils designed to give baked goods a longer shelf life are worse for the heart (and brain) than saturated fats.


A+ alternative: Make your own muffins so you can control the ingredients. "Muffins can be a wonderful option," says Sunderland, noting you can use a heart-healthy vegetable oil and skip the butter. As well, you can control the size, the sugar and you can even boost the fibre content by switching out white flour for whole wheat flour or adding applesauce. "Freeze it. Put it in Zip-loc bag so everyone can just grab their own and put it into a lunch bag."

Fruit-juice box


What is it? Handy little cartons of juice that come with a straw so you can drink on the go. Many are even unsweetened, containing "no added sugar."


Why it fails: What do you get when you take fruit, squeeze it and throw away its skin and pulp -- essentially all of its fibre? Fruit juice -- a fast-acting sugar that gets into your blood quickly. And while it does offer up vitamin C, it's also high in calories that do not contribute to feeling full and satisfied. And while Sunderland says small juice boxes can be a vitamin-C rich occasional treat for kids that's certainly better than pop or powdered drinks, it still contains the same number of calories and sugar as a Coke or Kool-Aid.


A+ alternative: "My favourite things are the refillable containers for water -- letting the kids pick out their own neat ones," says Sunderland. She says Tetra Paks of milk are also a nutrient-laden option that's full of calcium and vitamin D.


White bread


What is it? Whether it's in the form of sliced sandwich bread, hotdog buns, dinner rolls or pitas, white bread is any bread that contains white flour, also known as enriched flour.


Why it fails: Tends to lack fibre, so it doesn't keep us feeling as full for as long. Also, contributes to constipation, something most parents would not want to knowingly contribute to. "As much as we might not want to talk about it, letting the body eliminate waste on a daily basis is an important step to feeling well and preventing problems with our bowels later in life," she says. And yes, while white, fibre-enriched bread does exist, Sunderland says kids are always better off eating the real thing.


A+ alternative: Choose whole-grain breads that contain at least three grams of fibre for every serving. "Start them early. It opens up a world of opportunity instead of being stuck with only wanting the white bread." Sunderland says once your child develops a taste for brown bread, he or she is more apt to be open to some of the grainy, seedy crackers that are high in fibre. Keep in mind that Health Canada says that the "adequate intake" of fibre for a child aged one to three is 19 grams daily, and 25 grams daily for kids aged four to eight.

Goldfish crackers


What is it? Tiny fish-shaped crackers flavoured with cheese.


Why they fail: Made with white flour. The whole-grain variety have negligible amounts of fibre. Nevertheless, Sunderland says Goldfish can be an occasional treat -- perhaps an alternative to chips -- considering they are low in fat and come in small packets that control serving size.


A+ alternative: Wasa and Ryvita are brands of fibre-rich, seedy crackers that are quite large and contain a hefty serving of fibre. Sunderland's kids love to dip them in hummus or eat them with cheese.


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