Kids' lunch snacks review

You want healthy, your kids want cool for school.
 
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  • Updated:1 Jan 2005
 

01 .Introduction

Kidslunchsnacks

In brief

  • It’s important for children to eat healthily, and variety and balance are key. Build a tasty, nutritious school lunch by including starchy food, protein food, some dairy food, fruit and veg and a drink. See What makes a healthy school lunch? for details.
  • Snacks help kids keep going through the day, and there are plenty of convenient prepacked snacks to choose from that kids will enjoy. But only a quarter of the snacks we reviewed met all our nutrition criteria (see our table), so watch which ones you put in your kid’s lunchbox.

Please note: this information was current as of January 2005 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Lunchbox safety

Food-poisoning bugs can grow quickly in foods like cooked meats, fish, chicken and salads, particularly in warm weather. And because lunchboxes may sit around for several hours before the food is eaten, there’s plenty of opportunity for this to happen. Follow these suggestions to help keep food safe.

  • Hygiene. Make sure your hands, chopping board and utensils are clean and dry before preparing food.
  • Keep the food cold. Use an insulated lunchbox and/or put a freezer pack in with the food to keep it cool. Alternatively, include a frozen drink bottle in the lunchbox — it should defrost by lunchtime. Make sure the lunchbox is refrigerated when it gets to school, if facilities are available.
  • Preparation. Save time and keep food cool by freezing sandwiches the night before (or even prepare and freeze sandwiches for a week in advance). Foods suitable for freezing include bread, cooked meat, cheese, peanut butter, baked beans, mashed eggs and Vegemite. Yoghurt and fruit like grapes and banana segments can be frozen too.
 
 

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02.What makes a healthy lunch?

 

Eating healthy food helps children concentrate and learn, so a healthy lunchbox at school is vital. The best lunch is one that’s nutritious and quick to prepare, but also fun and easy to eat. Encouraging your children to be involved in choosing foods and preparing their lunch can help ensure that it not only gets eaten, but enjoyed as well.

You can build a healthy lunch with the following:

Starchy food

  • A carbohydrate-based food is a good starting point for a lunch to fill hungry tummies. This can be bread, pasta, rice, potatoes (not chips!) or couscous, for example.
  • Given that sandwiches are often the lunchbox staple, keep kids interested by using a variety of breads, including wholemeal, white, rye, rolls, pita, bagels, focaccia and rice cakes.

Protein food

  • Lean meat, tinned tuna, egg, tofu and baked beans are good high-protein foods for filling sandwiches, or for adding to food like pasta or rice salad. Importantly, most provide iron as well.
  • Nuts and peanut butter are also good protein sources, but check that your school doesn’t have a ‘nut-free’ safety policy before packing them.
  • Protein-rich dairy foods like yoghurt and cheese are also good sources of calcium, which is vital for growing bodies, especially for strong bones.

Fruit and veg

  • For plenty of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre, try to include at least a serve each of fruit and veg in every lunchbox.
  • Kids might find vegetables more interesting served as sticks with dip, mixed together with pasta, or as topping for a mini pizza.
  • Pack fruit and veg that are manageable and easy to eat: fruit salad, mandarins or pre-peeled oranges, seedless grapes, cherry tomatoes or snow peas, for example.
  • If you don’t mind paying a bit extra, look out for THE WIGGLES Applesnax and KIDEDIBLE packaged fruit in the fresh fruit and veg section of your supermarket, which have been specially selected for their child-friendly size.

Drinks

  • Don’t forget a drink. Active bodies need plenty of fluid to keep them well hydrated, and water is the best choice, although milk –– both cow’s and soy with added calcium –– is good too.
  • Drinks can linger in kids’ mouths, so sugary ones may increase the risk of tooth decay; 100% fruit juice can be diluted. Drinks with added sugar that don’t provide the same nutritional goodies as fruit juice –– sweetened juice drinks, cordial and fizzy drinks, for example –– are best left out altogether.

For more lunchbox tips, check out:

Snacks are just as important as main meals to keep children going –– the key is to provide ones that are nutritious as well as tasty and appealing. While the taste side of it can be left up to the kids, the nutrition factor is harder to judge. And with the masses of convenient lunchbox snacks on the market –– and the associated pestering from your kids to have the latest fad: a cheese ‘dipper’ or a fruit ‘strap’, perhaps –– it’s easy to lose track of what’s good and what’s not.

We looked at around 100 snacks to see how they measured up, and found 25 that met all our nutrition criteria (see the table for details). Here’s how we decided which snacks are suitable to eat more often, and those that are best kept as treats:

Energy

Kids need energy from food to last through the day, and ideally a snack will provide enough energy to keep them going and be nutritious as well. However, too much energy combined with not enough exercise can lead to excessive weight gain.

  • We looked for lunchbox snacks with less than 600 kilojoules per serve — about the equivalent of a banana.
  • Some snacks, particularly biscuits and chips, only meet our energy criteria because they’re small servings, so don’t be tempted to put more than one in.

Saturated fat

Too much saturated fat in the diet is associated with an increase in coronary heart disease, and even kids need to limit the amount they eat. Fatty snacks are also energy-dense and so can contribute to weight gain.

  • Watch out for biscuits –– some, like BISC & BISCUITS Milky Way and PARADISE Kidz Choc Pinkies, contain more saturated fat than chips.
  • A lot of muesli and cereal bars are stuck together with fats and sugars, so pick carefully.
  • Many of the cheese snacks have too much saturated fat to meet our lunchbox snack criteria. But some are OK and they can also provide valuable nutrients like calcium and protein. For a good source of calcium, check the labels for ones with at least 100 mg calcium per 100 g.

Sugar

Foods high in added sugar often have minimal nutritional value, so don’t make very good everyday lunchbox snacks. And if they stick to kids’ teeth they can encourage decay, so are best avoided.

  • Lollies are the worst, but fruit straps can be particularly sticky, and fruit bars in general were the most sugary snacks we looked at. The majority were around 65–75% sugar –– that’s about three teaspoons (15 g) of sugar in each little 20 g bar. While fruit sugars contribute to this total, most are only around 25% fruit, so added sugar makes up the bulk.

Sodium

Too much sodium (generally from salt) is associated with raised blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. So it’s important not to have too much, whatever your age.

  • Snack combinations of biscuits with dip or spread are often very salty. ARNOTT’S Shapes Big Dippers Tasty Cheddar, for example, contains close to a quarter of the maximum recommended daily intake of sodium for 8–15-year-olds in a single 55 g serve.
  • Chips can be high in sodium too, so check the labels before you buy.

Fibre: We didn’t include fibre in our ratings, even though it’s an important nutrient for children. This is partly because manufacturers aren’t required to provide this information on nutrition information panels, so many products don’t give this detail. But it’s also because it’s something other lunchbox items such as fruit, vegies and wholegrain bread provide if you include them.

It’s also good to vary snacks so you have a balance of nutrients. For example, try not to include sugary snacks very often. Likewise if you’re packing a sandwich with a salty filling like VEGEMITE, avoid tipping the scales by adding a salty snack to the lunchbox as well.

Cost of convenience

Lunchbox snacks from the supermarket are usually available in multi-packs and are relatively cheap –– you can get most snacks for under $1 a serving. Even so, in most cases you’ll be paying extra for the convenience of individually wrapped portions, rather than for a novel product or any additional nutrition benefits. Examples:

  • A multipack of snack-size GOULBURN VALLEY Fruit Paradise Two Fruits costs $5.57, or 93 cents for a 140 g tub. In comparison, an 825 g can of Two Fruits costs $2.84, only 48 cents for a 140 g portion.
  • Instead of a 25 g pack of ARNOTT’S Cheese & Bacon Shapes, you could buy a 200 g box and send the same portion off to school in a reusable container for three quarters of the price.

These savings can add up over time, so as long as you can convince your child not to hanker for the funky packaging, it can be worth forgoing the convenience.

✓ = Products meet all four of our nutrition criteria and are the best picks for a lunchbox.

• Means a product is OK for that particular nutrient; a blank means it contains too much of it to be recommended.

Nutrition 3
Brand / product1 and serving size 2(g) Energy Sat. fat Sugar Sodium
MUESLI / CEREAL BARS AND BITES
MOTHER EARTH Fruit Topped Muesli Bars Apricot (30)
UNCLE TOBY'S Bites Muesli Shotz Red Fruits (30)
UNCLE TOBY'S Chewy Muesli Bars Apricot (31.25)
BLUEBIRD In-cred-i-bites Choc Hazelnut (25)
HOME BRAND Rice Bar Treats (22)
KELLOGG'S LCMs Corn Flakes Honey (22)
KELLOGG'S Muesli Bars Choc Chip (31.25)
DAYDAWN Apricot & Yoghurt Muesli Bars (31.25)
GO NATURAL Fruit Delight Snack Pack (28)
KELLOGG'S LCMs Cereal & Milk Bars Coco Pops (22), Rice Bubbles (20)
KELLOGG'S Muesli Bars Choc Malt (31.25)
SANITARIUM Fruity Bix Bars Strawberry (25)
UNCLE TOBY'S Yoghurt Topps Muesli Bars Apricot (31.25)
WHITE WINGS Space Food Sticks Chocolate (16.7)
CAKE / MUFFIN BARS
TOP TASTE Disney Yummy Tummy Muffin Treats (27)
BALFOURS Kids Treats Double Choc Mini Cake Bars (55)
KELLOGG'S K-time Muffin Bar Apple (45)
MILLS & WARE'S Muffin Bars Apple & Cinnamon (42)
TWINKLES Choc Lamington Fingers (21)
BISCUITS
ARNOTT'S Shapes Cheese & Bacon, Pizza (25)
ARNOTT'S Shapes Barbecue, Cheddar (25)
ARNOTT'S Tiny Teddy Choc Chip, Chocolate (25)
BISC & BISCUITS (various toppings) (24.3 26.8)
PARADISE Kidz Aussie Animals, Choc Pinkies, Uglies (25)
AUNT BETTY'S Wheelies (30)
CHIPS / POPCORN
COOLPAK Popped Corn (20)
HEALTHERIES Kids Care Rice Wheels Cheese (18)
NU-VIT Rice Crackers (15)
REAL MCCOY Air Popped Corn (13)
NU-VIT Honey Corn (15)
REAL MCCOY Burger Man, Sweet Corn Corny's (15)
SMITH'S Crisps Original, Doritos (20)
SMITH'S Twisties (20)
Nutrition 3
Brand / product1 and serving size2(g) Energy Sat. fat Sugar Sodium
DIPS / SPREADS WITH CRACKERS
BLUEBIRD Dunkaroos Choc Hazelnut (22.5)
HOME BRAND Cheddar Cheese Dip & Crispbread (25)
KRAFT Snackabouts Cream Cheese with Chicken Biscuits (28)
KRAFT Vegemite Snackabouts (26)
ARNOTT's Salada Dippers, Jatz Dippers Tasty Cheddar (26)
ARNOTT's Tiny Teddy Dippers Strawberry (27)
BI-LO Snack Packs Cheese (25)
FARMLAND Snack Pack Cheddar Cheese (25)
FERRERO Nutella Hazelnut Spread (20)
KRAFT Peanut Butter Snackabouts (26)
KRAFT Snackabouts Cheddar (26)
NEW DAY Dippits Cheddar (25) (Aldi)
UNCLE TOBY's Le Snak Original (25)
ARNOTT's Shapes Big Dippers Tasty Cheddar (55)
DAIRY DESSERTS / CUSTARDS
COLES FARMLAND Chocolate Dairy Snack (100)
DAIRY FARMERS Choc Custard (100)
HUNT's Snack Pack Scooby-Doo! Cookies & Scream (99)
HUNT's Snack Pack Squeez ën Go Chocolate (64)
NESTLE Chocolate Dairy Dessert (100)
CHOCOLATE STAMPEDE Dairy Snack (100) (Aldi)
FOSTER CLARKS Snak Pack Chocolate (140)
NESTLE Milo Energy Dairy Snack (150)
PAULS Choc Shock Chocolate Dairy Snack (100)
YOGO Twins Chocolate (150)
YOGHURT
DAIRY FARMERS Yogurt Strawberry (100)
NESTLE Real Fruit Yogurt Strawberry (100)
NESTLE Xplogo Yogurt Sundae Strawberry (115)
PAULS The Wiggles Yoghurt with Real Fruit Strawberry (100)
YOPLAIT Go-Gurt Yogurt Tubes Strawberry (70)
SKI The Incredible Gulp Slippery Strawberry (200)
YOPLAIT Petit Miam Strawberry (100)
FRUIT
COLES FARMLAND Diced Two Fruits in Natural Juice (140)
GOLDEN CIRCLE Fruit Bites Fruit Salad in Light Syrup (140)
GOULBURN VALLEY Fruit Paradise Two Fruits, Peach, Apple (140)
SPC Fruit Salad in Juice (120)
SWEET VALLEY Two Fruits in Syrup (120) (Aldi)
FRUIT BARS, STRAPS, JELLIES, ETC
GOLDEN CIRCLE Splurtz Apple & Strawberry Fruit Puree (65)
JELLY JOY Jelly with Real Peach Slices (200)
SPC Fruit Snacks Two Fruits in Strawberry Jelly (120)
BELLIS Strawberry School Bars (20)
BI-LO Fruit Bars Strawberry (20)
COLES FARMLAND Strawberry Fruit Bars (20)
GOLDEN DAYS Apricot Bites (40)
GREENS Looney Tunes Fruit Snacks (25)
HEALTHERIES Kids Care Real Fruit Waves Raspberry (14)
HOME BRAND Fruit Bars (20)
IXL Fruit Bars Strawberry (20) (A)
IXL Fruit Snacks Noughts & Crosses Raspberry (15) (A)
NEW DAY Fruit Bars (20) (Aldi)
UNCLE TOBY'S Fruit Roll Ups Rainbow Berry Fruits (15.6)
UNCLE TOBY'S Real Fruit Bars Strawberry (20)
ZING Fruit Drops (24.2)
NU-VIT Fruit & Yoghurt Snacks (40)

Table notes

1 Brand / product The products are listed within groups in order of the number of nutrition criteria they meet, then alphabetically (see note 3, below, for the criteria). The products were bought in Sydney supermarkets in July/August 2004. Where they come in a variety of flavours, we state the flavour/variety reviewed.

2 Serving size All the products we bought come in individually packaged, lunchbox-sized servings. We treated each individually packaged product as one serving, even in the occasional case where the label said a serving was only a portion of the pack (such as half a small bottle of drinking yoghurt) or slightly over one pack (a box and a bit of sultanas). We think most parents would behave this way too. The majority of the products are available in multi-packs.

3 Nutrition We compared products per serving and per 100 g to assess whether they met our four criteria:

  • Energy: 600 kJ or less per serving.
  • Saturated fat: 5 g or less per 100 g.
  • Sugar: less than 15 g per 100 g. If some of the sugar comes from real fruit or lactose, less than 25 g per 100 g.
  • Sodium: 200 mg or less per serving.

A dot means a product is OK for that particular nutrient; a blank means it contains too much of it to be recommended.

To get a better idea of the nutrition impact of different snacks on a kid’s daily diet, we took a look at the lunchboxes of two active 10-year-olds, Jackson and Daniel. On an average day, they look like this:

Jackson Daniel max. recommended for whole day (age 10)
Food in lunchbox Juice drink Water
Cheese sandwich Egg sandwich
Apple Banana
Chips Popcorn
Cheese dipper Fruit yoghurt
Fruit bar Muesli bar
Energy (KJ) 3242 2523 9000
Saturated fat (g) 16 8 25
Sugar (g) 64 39 110
Sodium (mg) 1002 539 2300

On the surface they both look healthy enough, but Jackson’s lunchbox could be improved by making just a few small changes:

  • The sweetened juice drink and fruit bar combined mean that Jackson’s lunchbox has almost double the sugar of Daniel’s, which isn’t great for his teeth. Changing the drink to water and only providing a fruit bar occasionally would make a difference.
  • The cheese sandwich, chips and cheese dipper in Jackson’s lunchbox together contribute a lot of sodium, and double the saturated fat, of Daniel’s lunchbox. Switching the dipper for yoghurt, for example, would keep the calcium but cut back on the salt and sat fat. Swapping the chips for popcorn would also help, and provide more fibre at the same time.
  • Both boys could benefit from having their sandwich fillings varied, perhaps including salads and lean meats or dips like hummus, as an alternative source of protein.