Wondering What to Pack for School Lunches?

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

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

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.

Nature Valley Fruit 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