I know we all have the best intentions when it comes to packing our kids school lunches – we want to give them something nutritious and delicious that’s going to keep them feeling satisfied, energised and focused throughout the school day. But life with kids is fraught with challenges that can often get in the way of these intentions becoming reality – not least of all, the demands of fussy eaters. It takes time and energy to plan and prepare a nutritious school lunchbox and all the effort can seem futile when the food you’ve so lovingly packed comes back home in the bottom of a school bag at the end of the day. There’s also the pressure from kids to buy them the same (mass-marketed junk) snacks as their friends, because they don’t want to be “different”. So what can we give them when we just don’t have the time, energy, money or fresh food available or kids just want to fit it?
Traveling around Australia these past few months has forced me away from shopping at my usual farmers markets and health food shops and – I’ll admit, out of my comfort zone – in to the mainstream and local supermarkets (and service stations on the odd occasion too) to do our weekly shop or pick up an on-the-go snack. I try to keep my freezer stocked with ready-made meals and snacks, but being on the road can keep me out of the kitchen and leave me unprepared. Navigating the world of processed kids snacks can be really tricky, even for a nutritionally trained eye – there’s so much misguided “healthy” marketing, ridiculously long ingredients lists with words that I can’t even pronounce and a chemical maze of numbers. How do you know what’s ok to give our kids, and what’s not?
As a nutritionist I can’t stress enough the importance of feeding our kids a wholefoods-based diet and that packaged foods should never be a regular replacement for real food, especially fresh vegetables (preferably seasonal as our gut bacteria thrive with this diversity, and preferably organic to reduce their chemical load). But I’m also a realist and I’ve begun to appreciate even more now, the need for convenience when it comes to running a busy family, and traveling with kids.
I’m pleased to say the list of healthy snack options available for you to pick up at the supermarket is ever-growing, thanks to an increase in health-conscious consumers and the demand for healthy food products, as well as transparency around food labeling, and as a result many of the big food manufactures have been forced to rethink and reformulate some of their products to meet these needs and small time health food producers are now being given a look-in on the supermarket shelves.
So for those times when you want to give your kids the best, but all you’ve got to work with are the supermarket shelves, I’ve put together my top 10 nutritionist approved supermarket snacks, for kids lunchboxes or travel.
- This list contains only “packaged” snacks – I know I don’t need to tell you about the great snack options over in the fresh food section like: sweet cherry tomatoes, celery sticks with nut butter, carrot sticks and hummus, avocado boats with some tamari or dukkah, and of course fruit.
- Raw nuts would have been top of my list of nutritionist approved supermarket snacks as they’re a great nutrient-dense food for kids, but I’ve kept this list free of any products containing nuts as I know most schools have a “nut free” policy.
- Giving your kids a tin of tuna or salmon for lunch when they were expecting chips, probably won’t go down too well, but tinned wild caught fish is a great lunch box addition that’s full of protein and healthy omega-3 fats. If your kids love it, keep some tins in the cupboard for topping rice cakes, adding to salads or pasta.
- Eggs! Please don’t forget about the humble egg when it comes to supermarket snacks – they really are natures multivitamin and are a great source of protein, fat, vitamin A and B12, zinc, iron, selenium, choline and iodine. If your kids love eggs, then boil up a few in the fridge at the start of the week and you’ve got the perfect pre-packaged lunchbox or travel snack. Choose organic eggs, or at-least free-range – this ensures you get more nutrition and the chickens better treatment.
MY TOP 10 NUTRITIONIST APPROVED SUPERMARKET SNACKS
1. Rice Cakes
Pro’s: A convenient and versatile snack or lunchbox addition that works well with dips and spreads and as a gluten free alternative to bread. Always choose a plain one to avoid unnecessary chemical flavours, preservatives and additives (these alone can often turn a harmless snack in to something unhealthy).
Con’s: Pretty devoid of any nutrients, so be sure to load them up with some healthy toppings – especially those that contain protein and healthy fats like: avocado, hummus, tinned salmon, nut or seed butters or cheese.
Pro’s: What kid doesn’t love popcorn? It’s a good alternative to chips and other processed savoury biscuits like shapes and flavored rice crackers. I’ll take a packet of these to the movies with the kids so they don’t feel like they’re missing out on the whole popcorn-movie experience.
Con’s: Like rice cakes, popcorn holds no real nutritional value, but they do contain fibre for gut health and to help kids feel fuller for longer. Cooked in processed vegetable or seed oils (more on that below). Choose the plain or lightly salted variety to again steer clearing of nasty flavourings and additives. Watch the high salt content of these too. Organic will be a better option here too, if your supermarket carries it – as most corn is GMO. Have you tried making your own popcorn? Pop the corn in coconut oil and dust with nutritional yeast (taste’s like cheese) for a healthy delicious snack!
3. Fava Beans
Pro’s: These are a great alternative to chips, ticking both the “salty” and “crunchy” boxes. Unlike chips, fava beans are high in fibre for sustained energy and to support healthy gut bacteria. They’re also high in protein to help kids stay focused and feel fuller for longer and contain good amounts of trace minerals like thiamin, vitamin K, vitamin B6, potassium, copper, selenium, zinc and magnesium.
Con’s: Most contain small amounts of processed seed oils like sunflower or canola oil – vegetable or seed oils are high in omega-6 fats which can be harmful in excess, and the processing of these oils often involves the use of various industrial chemicals and highly toxic solvents… not something we really want to be giving our kids all the time right? Unforunately you’ll find these oils in almost all processed food, from snacks, to ice cream and bread. A small amount in an occasional snack like is ok and alongside a healthy diet with plenty of omega-3-rich foods (wild caught oil fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds). Sunflower oil is also the better of the two evils, as most canola is genetically modified (GMO). These snacks are also high in salt and again, opt. for the plain unflavoured version.
My pick: Macro Air Puffed Fava Beans which are cooked in sunflower oil and have slightly more fava beans but more salt than my second choice, The Happy Snack Company Roasted Fava Beans, cooked in canola oil.
4. Ceres Organic Roasted Seaweed Nori Snack
Pro’s: Seaweed is natures richest source of iodine which is vital for healthy brain growth and development and thyroid function, especially in early life and one packet of these will provide 100% of your child’s recommended daily intake of iodine. Ceres Organic Roasted Seaweed Nori Snack are thin, crunchy and lightly salted which makes them more appealing to kids than a chewy sheet of nori.
Con’s: Like the fava beans and popcorn, these all use a small amount of vegetable or seed oil in the roasting process, so just remember, in moderation and alongside a healthy diet.
5. Freedom Foods Barley+ Seven Seeds Bar
Pro’s: Muesli bars have been a lunchbox staple, since forever, but I’ve been hard pressed to find one that I’d come close to recommending. The new Freedom Foods Barley+ Seven Seeds Bar is a real muesli bar game changer – packed with 7 types of seeds and 2 types of grains, it’s a great source of fibre and resistant starch (this is what our gut bacteria love to feed on the most) and most impressively, contains less than half the sugar in your average muesli bar. These are good to have in the cupboard if anyone looks like they’re running late and might be skipping breakfast.
Con’s: They are a little more fiberous than your average muesli bar, so they may not past the test of some selective eaters. Give them a go, and I’m positive you’ll be happy to take them for work lunch if the kids don’t like them! Barley is also a gluten-containing grain, so not suitable for anyone with gluten sensitivities. Only available at Coles.
5. Naked Bars
Pro’s: A good alternative to chocolate bars these naked bars contain all-natural ingredients. The sweetness comes from dates that are high in fibre and potassium, and seeds provide a little protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats to fuel kids energy throughout the day. They also contain cocoa, which may help to improve focus and concentration in the classroom (this is not an excuse for them to eat more chocolate). The Kez’s Kitchen bars are also the perfect 125g kids portion size.
Con’s: The major ingredient here is dates, which makes them high in sugar – even though this is natural sugar, it’s still going to spike your kids blood sugar, and what comes up, must comes down. I’d treat these as an energy bar or chocolate bar alternative.
6. Mini Babybel Cheese
Pro’s: Cheese goes down well with most kids and if your child can tolerate dairy it makes for a great macro nutrient balanced snack and lunchbox addition. Cheese is also a source of calcium for healthy teeth and bones and muscle function. Mini Babybel is 100% natural cheese that’s free from preservatives, colours and falvours. It also comes packaged in the perfect 20g kids serving size
Con’s: Perishable, you’ll need a cooler block or frozen popper in your lunchbox to keep this cool until snack time. Choose dairy from an organic or pasture-fed source when you can.
8. Thinkfood Munch
Pro’s: A good muesli bar alternative, the Thinkfood Munch bites are sweet and crunchy and contain half the amount of sugar in a standard muesli bar. Pumpkin seeds are a great source fibre and minerals like zinc (which most kids are deficient in), calcium and magnesium, all which work together to support energy production, muscle function, immune system and brain health. Sesame, flax and sunflower seeds contain calcium, omega-3s and vitamin E.
Con’s: These do contain added sugar as both rice malt syrup and cane sugar, but when compared to a muesli bar, the amount is relatively low. The ones with added dried fruits will have a higher sugar content so opt. for the fruit free versions. They’re very moorish, so portion them out accordingly.
9. Rice Crackers
Pro’s: These work well as a gluten free alternative to wheat crackers and the flavour, MSG and additive laden rice crackers (yes even the “plain” ones have plenty of these, so read the ingredients list) that make up the majority of the rice cracker market. Good for dips and topped with cheese or avocado.
Con’s: Like the rice cakes and popcorn, they hold little nutritional value, but they do contain fibre and a small amount of nutrients in the brown rice. The addition of flaxseeds in the Mary’s Gone Crackers offer a little extra protein and healthy omega-3 fats and the seaweed in the EatRite crackers a little iodine. Choose a healthy topping or dip to boost their nutritional value.
Pro’s: Yoghurt contains protein, carbohydrates and fat which makes them a perfectly balanced snack for your kids lunchbox. Choose a natural unflavoured version to avoid added sugars and always check the ingredients list for hidden sugars – plain yoghurt should really only contain milk, cream and active cultures. Buy a tub and portion some out in to a lunchbox container, and if you need to flavour or sweeten it, add a little honey and cinnamon or fresh berries. Pouches offer more convenience so I’ve listed my pick for both tubs and pouhces below.
Con’s: Yoghurt pouches will contain added ingredients like rice starch, thickeners, gums and gelatin which modify their consistency for the pouch. Yoghurt pouches marketed “For Kids” will often contain added sugars too, so always read the label. Perishable, keep a cooler brick or frozen popper alongside it in their lunchbox, or freeze and let it defrost in to a yoghurt slushie by lunchtime, yum!
Before I go, all this plastic packaging is having a terrible impact on our environment, so please, where possible, reduce your packaging needs and instead of buying things individually portioned, decant in to stainless steel containers, silicone pouches or beeswax wraps which can all be reused.
Disclaimer: I am no way affiliated with any of these products, brands or retailers. My recommendations come based on my nutritional expertise and personal experience.