Times have changed since the days when kids went off to school with a Vegemite sandwich, a piece of fruit and a homemade slice or, very occasionally, a muesli bar.
Today, the supermarket shelves are near to collapsing under the range of pre-packaged snacks aimed at busy parents who don't have time to whip up a slice, some muffins or a batch of pikelets before 8:00am. Pre-packaged snacks are convenient and last a long time in the cupboard (if the kids don't find them first). No wonder they're popular!
Hello to good buys
For most parents there's no shaking that nagging feeling every time we pop another foil-wrapped goodie in the school lunchbox: how healthy is this, really?
With the masses of convenient snacks on the market – and the associated pestering from your kids to have the latest a cheese 'dipper' or a fruit 'strap' – it's easy to lose track of what's actually good for them and what's not. We compared around 100 snacks to see how they measured up, and found only a quarter met all our nutrition criteria for healthy options.
The four key nutritional criteria
When buying pre-packaged snacks, always consider the following four key nutritional values:
Kids need energy from food to last through the day, but too much energy combined with not enough exercise can lead to excessive weight gain. Look for lunchbox snacks with less than 600 kilojoules per serve – about the equivalent of a banana.
Some snacks, particularly biscuits and chips, will only meet this energy criteria because they're small servings, so don't be tempted to put more than one in.
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 can contribute to weight gain.
Watch out for biscuits – some contain more saturated fat than chips – and muesli and cereal bars are often stuck together with fats and sugars.
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 were the most sugary snacks we looked at in our test. The majority were around 65–75% sugar – that's about three teaspoons (15g) of sugar in each little 20g bar.
While the body requires salt in small doses for good health, the amount of salt creeping into foods, especially children's food, is concerning.
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 a dip or spread are often very salty. One brand we tested contained close to a quarter of the maximum recommended daily intake of sodium for 8- to 15-year-olds in a single 55g serve.
Other things to consider
Fibre is an important nutrient for children. Manufacturers aren't required to provide this information though, so many nutrition panels don't give information on fibre content. Fruit, veggies and wholegrain bread are all good sources of fibre.
Many cheese snacks have too much saturated fat, but some are OK and can also provide valuable nutrients like calcium and protein. Check the labels for ones with at least 100mg calcium per 100g.
Yoghurt is an even better source of calcium.
It's good to vary snacks to give a balance of nutrients. 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
In most cases you'll pay extra for the convenience of individually wrapped portions. Consider buying a full-size box or container of the food, and sending a portion off to school in a reusable container to save up to three-quarters of the price.
For example, in our shop we found:
- A multipack of snack-size Goulburn Valley Fruit Paradise Two Fruits costs $5.57, or 93 cents for a 140g tub. In comparison, an 825g can of Two Fruits costs $2.84, or only 48 cents for a 140g portion.
- Instead of a 25g pack of Arnott's Cheese & Bacon Shapes, you could buy a 200g box and send the same portion off to school in a reusable container for 75 percent of the price.
As you would imagine, the price range across the multitude of different lunch snacks available for children varies greatly, but the best way to budget for your weekly shop is to work out how much each comparative product costs per serving (factor in differing serving sizes) and calculate the best value options from there.