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Kids' lunchbox snacks - real food or just filler?

Date
Make every mouthful count: Make food fuel, not a filler.

Make every mouthful count: Make food fuel, not a filler. Photo: iStockphoto

The words on the front of a pack of Potato Stix are reassuring - 75 per cent less fat than regular potato chips, no preservatives and no artificial colours or flavours. But the ingredient list on the flip side tells you there's not much else in there either, unless you think a mix of potato powder, rice flour, palm oil, salt and vinegar flavour – and anti-caking agent - counts as real food.

I wouldn't mind so much if the product's brand name - Healtheries Kidscare - didn't imply that it's somehow a wholesome snack for kids. I don't know what your definition of nourishing food is but couldn't we do a bit better than potato powder mixed with palm oil? Or have we reached a point where 'less fat' and 'no artificial colours' are a benchmark by which we decide that a food is good for kids?

“You try to get something easy that’s healthy and when it says ‘low fat, no sugar, no artificial colours’ you think it’s a healthier option.” 

We all know that snack foods like chips aren't the best food to pack in a lunchbox but there's a whole grey area of other processed snacks aimed at kids that aren't great either – it's just that the packaging makes them sound healthier - and for busy parents looking for something easy to put in a lunchbox, these foods can seem like the answer.

Kellogg's LCM Split Stix made with rice bubbles, for instance, have 'all the goodness of rice' according to the front of the pack, yet their fibre content is a tiny 0.4g. Kellogg's haven't been stingy with sweetener though – Split Stix is more than 30 per cent sugar.

Reading labels like this makes you realise that there's a question we need to ask before we buy this stuff: will this food actually nourish my kids - or is it just filler?

"You try to get something easy that's healthy and when it says 'low fat, no sugar, no artificial colours' you think it's a healthier option," says Angela Mallon, a spokesperson for  The Parents Jury, the  network of parents, grandparents and carers dedicated to helping children eat healthier. "Parents need to be able to read labels quickly and the food industry has a responsibility to create labels parents can read at a glance." 

One way of navigating snack food labels more easily is FoodSwitch the free smartphone app developed by the George Institute for Health and  health insurance company Bupa that lets you scan the barcodes of packaged foods using the camera on your phone – the app then gives information about a product's nutritional make-up and a list of healthier choices.

Even simpler is sidestepping packages altogether and providing fresh food snacks – you don't need to read the label on a piece of fruit, Mallon points out.

Pre-packaged foods might seem more convenient but healthier DIY options aren't hard work if you have a plan and a few reusable containers – and they're generally less expensive than packaged snacks, says Lucy Westerman, a parent of two primary school children and member of The Parents' Jury.

Westerman has a lunchbox plan stuck to the fridge and does some advance prep on the weekend that includes filling small containers with snacks like cherry tomatoes and cheese cubes or homemade popcorn. She bakes a wholemeal fruit loaf or mini savoury muffins and freezes them in portions. She also creates her own version of packaged biscuits and dip combos with containers of rice crackers paired with hummous or avocado mashed with lemon juice and cream cheese.

"I think it's harder for parents who are new to the school routine but once you get into a rhythm it's not hard," says Waterman.

"My approach is to make every mouthful count. Occasionally you have to have some leeway and put in a surprise. To me school is where kids go to nourish their minds and to do that they need fuel to nourish their bodies - not just fillers."

What kind of snacks go into your child's lunchbox?

20 comments so far

  • Too right.
    If we focus on nourishing choices, rather than doing the least harm - we will go a long way towards improving our health.

    Commenter
    GetReal
    Date and time
    May 07, 2013, 8:53AM
    • I absolutely agree that much of the "low-fat" and "no artificial preservatives" is marketing.

      For kids, whose brains are growing at such a fast pace, it is vital to concentrate on the nourishing

      Commenter
      Josh
      Date and time
      May 07, 2013, 10:01AM
      • The implication that because something is natural, it's good for you really annoys me. It ain't necessarily so. Take the natural food colouring annatto (160b), which is pretty common in our food these days, including food for kids. That vanilla icecream you like that's a nice creamy yellow? Vanilla icecream isn't naturally that colour; it's most likely annatto, the only natural colouring which has been linked to adverse reactions. The colouring 160a is a better alternative but it's more expensive and therefore less commonly used in Australia.

        It's foolish to think food manufacturers care about nourishing kids - or anyone. Their primary aim is to make money and keep shareholders happy. Health food brands are arguably better (or not as bad), but even then I still don't trust them to sneak in dodgy ingredients, like annatto. Paula's example above about the potato snacks illustrates this point perfectly.

        I never buy anything without reading the ingredients. If you don't know what the stuff on the label is, don't buy it or educate yourself about what's OK and what to avoid.

        The Food Intolerance Network is an excellent source of information, even if you don't have food intolerance/allergies - http://fedup.com.au/

        Commenter
        JEM
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        May 07, 2013, 10:04AM
        • Actually, the word "natural" has no legal meaning. As a way of judging whether a food is healthy or not, it's even less use than "low fat"!

          Commenter
          Claire
          Date and time
          May 07, 2013, 4:10PM
        • The Natural confectionary company is the worst for this... 'With their no artificial colors or sweenters'- there is nothing 'natural' in their products at all

          Commenter
          waynieo
          Date and time
          May 09, 2013, 9:10AM
      • Agreed, whole foods are the go, a fridge at school would also make the range of fresh foods available for snacks much more agreable.. nothing worse than soggy sangas or spoiled cheese...to ensure kids avoid them like the plague. A frozen drink bottle only goes so far and condensation in the school bag can be just a pain. Food Inc makes sure there are sugary junque treats to replace nutritious foods with palatable placebos..neatly packaged to make it convenient but sadly unhealthy.. no I never gave my kids any fruit that was flat out..it came in the form it was grown.

        Commenter
        Lean Too
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 07, 2013, 10:13AM
        • This is good advice for adults too!

          Commenter
          Ordinary woman
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          May 07, 2013, 11:10AM
          • Luckily, my kids hated the junk that came in packets! Yay! Those so called snacks are just sawdust and numbers masquerading as food!

            They always have fruit plus a mini bakery treat, preferably homemade!

            Commenter
            Romi
            Date and time
            May 07, 2013, 2:36PM
            • After being told my daughter should be medicated to control her agressive behavior, a friend suggested I try changing her diet first so that she did not eat anything with numbers, annato or sulphites listed as ingredients. I did this and a new child was revealed. The agression went away and her eczema cleared up. This was about 8 years ago. We now have two daughters. We all eat the same healthy additive free foods and we can taste the difference when we do eat "numbers". It's revolting. And I can see a bad change in their behaviour within a couple of hours.
              So my girls don't eat numbers in their lunchboxes or at all, they eat food.
              I find it disgusting the way all the "food" that is marketed to children for lunchboxes and snacks is full of numbers. The only way they will stop doing this is if parents educate themselves and stop buying the crap.

              Commenter
              Lake
              Date and time
              May 07, 2013, 4:23PM
              • It's really upsetting to see young kids being picked on at school because they're overweight. If we parents stopped buying the garbage, processed food our kids wouldn't be growing up with terrible anxiety. Sure, buying packaged food is convenient for the busy working mums and dads but take a moment and think about what that "food" is doing to your child in the long run. Spend a little extra time on your day off preparing a high protein and high fibre lunchbox filler.
                I send my primary school aged kids to school with a hard boiled, organic, free range egg almost daily, which is really filling. That's the easiest lunchbox filler out. I also throw in a sliced lean sausage, grape tomatoes and a piece of fruit. At our school almonds are allowed so I pack "Paleo Pumpkin Muffins" http://www.paleoplan.com/2009/12-03/paleo-pumpkin-muffins/) which are like a treat to my pumpkin-hating children.
                Either invest in your children's health now or save up for a lifetime of Type 2 diabetes medication.

                Commenter
                Lisa
                Date and time
                May 08, 2013, 2:44AM

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