Getting kids ready to head off to school in the morning can be tough. Between making sure that teenager actually gets out of bed and helping a grade-schooler pick an outfit to wear, taking time to prepare a sack lunch for children to eat at school is the last thing on parents’ minds.

Getting kids ready to head off to school in the morning can be tough. Between making sure that teenager actually gets out of bed and helping a grade-schooler pick an outfit to wear, taking time to prepare a sack lunch for children to eat at school is the last thing on parents’ minds.

Many people just grab a pre-packaged lunch kit, some single-serving chips and juice and a few cookies and toss the whole lot into a brown paper bag.

But when you do that, what are you really putting into your childrens’ mouths?

“The convenience foods ... they may be convenient for the parent, but they’re sure not convenient for the health of the child,” said Chris Willis, clinical dietician at OSF St. Mary Medical Center in Galesburg.

The Lunchables product line from Oscar Mayer, which includes make-your-own-pizza, hot dog and chicken chunk varieties, has been a popular lunchbox staple for several years. In 1997, nutritionists launched a campaign against the on-the-go eatables, saying they contained nearly three-quarters of a child’s recommended daily allowance of salt. The products also were added to the Sensible Solution’s line in late 2005 in an effort make them healthier.

A traditional turkey and cheese Lunchable with Capri Sun Splash Cooler drink clocks in at a whopping 690 calories, 200 of those from fat. Alone, the Lunchables has 340 calories and 180 fat calories.

With its six crackers, six slices of roast white turkey with “smoke flavor added” and six slices of “pasteurized prepared cheddar cheese product,” according to Kraft Foods’ Website, Lunchables gives kids 1,390 milligrams of sodium, 58 percent of the recommended daily value, and 106 grams of carbohydrates, 62 grams of which come from sugars.

In addition, 23 grams of fat are ingested, 35 percent of the daily value. Eight of those grams are saturated fat, which makes up 40 percent of a child’s recommendations for one day.

“That’d be almost six teaspoons of fat (children are) eating” in one Lunchables product, Willis explained.

Add to that a single-serving package of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies and a one-ounce bag of Cheetos to provide a filling lunch, and you’re giving your children 1,040 calories, 370 of which come from fat. That’s more than half of a 2,000-calorie diet in one meal.

But, short of preparing a gourmet, wheat-germ-and-granola lunch in vacuum-sealed bags every day, what can a parent do to balance convenience with nutrition?

“It becomes habit,” Willis said, citing portion control and good habits reinforced at home as the best ways to help children learn to live a healthy lifestyle.

Instead of just pulling a pre-packaged Lunchables out of the refrigerator in the morning, for example, send your child to school with five Reduced Fat Ritz crackers and two slices of Oscar Mayer oven roasted turkey breast. He or she still gets to “build” a lunch and have the same flavors a Lunchables provides, but saves 220 calories and 165 fat calories. Add a stick of Kraft String-Ums reduced fat mozzarella string cheese for the calcium and cheesy flavor, and the food swap totals a mere 190 calories and 6 grams of fat.

Pop 10 baby carrots in a plastic baggie, pour two tablespoons of Kraft Light Done Right! Ranch dressing into a small container and toss in a box of apple Juicy Juice and a cup of Jell-O sugar free strawberry gelatin, and your child has a lunch that is sure to chase away that mid-afternoon energy slump.

But calories and fat grams are not the only things to consider when packing a lunch. Sodium, for example, is easily overlooked in many diets, with many children ingesting well over the recommended daily allowance of 2,400 milligrams in processed foods. In total, the pre-packaged lunch packs in 1,820 milligrams; the swap lunch, however, still clocks in at 1,486 milligrams, a savings of less than 400 milligrams. But, removing the Ranch dressing will save 303 milligrams, and opting for sliced turkey from the deli section instead of preservative-packed lunchmeat will also shave off some of the salt.

To help save time in the hectic hours before school, Willis suggests pre-portioning all the ingredients and keeping them in the refrigerator, ready to put into a bag the next morning. If you’re making your child a sandwich, she added, plan on making that fresh in the morning, but package everything else the previous night.

“People always underestimate the number of calories they’re taking in,” she said. “You hope that ... there are parents out there that do incorporate healthy food choices in their home ... at least 99 percent of the time, (children are) eating healthy.”

Traditional pre-packaged lunch
Turkey and cheese Lunchables, Capri Sun Splash Cooler drink, single-serving Chips Ahoy cookies, one-ounce package Cheetos
Calories: 1,040
Calories from fat: 370
Fat: 42 g
Saturated fat: 12.5 g
Cholesterol: less than 50 mg
Sodium: 1,820 mg
Carbohydrates: 148 g
Fiber: less than 3 g
Sugar: 76 g
Protein: 21 g

Swap lunch
Two slices Oscar Mayer oven roasted turkey breast, five Reduced Fat Ritz crackers, Jell-O sugar free strawberry cup, apple Juicy Juice box, 10 baby carrots, two tablespoons Kraft Light Done Right! Ranch dressing, Kraft String-Ums reduced fat mozzarella string cheese.
Calories: 372
Calories from fat: 117
Fat: 12.9 g
Saturated fat: 3.1 g
Cholesterol: 43 mg
Sodium: 1,486 mg
Carbohydrates: 38.3 g
Fiber: 2 g
Sugar: 21.1 g
Protein: 23 g

Recommended daily values
Based on a 2,000-calorie diet
Fat: less than 65 g
Saturated fat: less than 20 g
Cholesterol: less than 300 mg
Sodium: less than 2,400 mg
Carbohydrates: 300 g
Fiber: 25 g

Contact Michelle Anstett at