Top 'Worst Snack' may be in your kid's lunchbox

nuggetLunchables may be mom-friendly and child-approved, but it's not exactly healthful nourishing food. In fact, Oscar Mayer's Lunchables (snack size) appears in the top four of WebMD's "Not-so-healthy snack" list, sharing top billing with such obvious selections as chocolate-covered doughnuts, mini doughnuts and snack cakes; snack pies; and "movie theater" popcorn.

Two types of the popular lunchbox filler -- bologna and American cheddar cracker stackers, ham and cheddar with crackers -- "contain about half a day's worth of the suggested amounts of fat, saturated fat, and sodium for someone eating around 2,000 calories a day." In my opinion, this makes the Lunchables worse than the Little Debbie Zebra Cakes, which have less fat (but way more sugar, at 32 grams far more than the AHA recommends your child eat in two days), but actually seem healthy from across the room.

WebMD doesn't mince words. Under fruit pies, this: "The Safeway fruit pies even say 'great snack!' on the package. This makes sense only if by 'great snack,' they mean high in calories, total fat, saturated fat, and sugar, and low in protein, fiber, and other healthy nutrients."

Movie popcorn is targeted not just for its obscene fat content, but its use of trans fats. Cheetos, chips, cheese crackers like Cheez-It brand, and frozen snacks like Hot Pockets, Toaster Strudel and Ore-Ida fries all appear on the list thanks to their high fat content and minimal-to-nonexistent nutrients. A few times, the writer mentions that a package label serving size is one ounce; though most of us snack in two-ounce (or more) portions.

It's worth pointing out, here, that all these foods have one thing in common: they're highly processed, the sort of foods that substitute for real food like bread, homemade pie, sandwiches, ethnic "hand pies" like calzones and pasties and spanakopita. They're also quite expensive, compared to snack foods that appear on any pediatrician's or sports coach's "yes-so-healthy" list such as apples and nut butter and whole grain bread.

They're meal replacements, for the most part, but intended to be eaten between meals, or in place of healthy breakfasts and lunches for children. In other words, each of these foods is exactly the kind Jamie Oliver inveighs against in his Food Revolution TV show; and any number of food writers before him have called out in a variety of shocking terms, no more shocking than Jamie's: he says these foods are "killing our kids."

So this is a good time to bring up the other entry on the eight not-so-healthy snacks list: Tyson Fun Nuggets. Oliver spent a lot of time focused on chicken nuggets in his show -- his kid experiment subjects ate them despite Oliver's gross-out making-of demonstration -- and, as a result, many parents reconsidered nuggets' starring role in their kids' typical diet. "They may seem like a good snack choice because they're high in protein (14 grams)," writes the WebMD author. "But there are ways to get your protein without all the extra fat, saturated fat and sodium."

The items on the more-healthy list are the ones you could have come up with on your own -- whole grain bread with peanut butter, quesadillas, "fun-to-eat frozen vegetables" like edamame beans, a smoothie made with plain yogurt and fresh fruit. The healthy options are cheaper, but there's one thing: you generally have to do one or two more (extremely easy) steps other than simply putting the item in the oven or microwave.

I say it's worth it. And I'd add plain fresh fruit (my kids love apples) and vegetables with healthy dip (my favorite is asparagus spears with a pesto-yogurt dip I make) to the list.

The evaluation isn't that much of a leap: take foods that are expensive and "killing your kids" with their fat and sugar contents, add in a number of chemicals and preservatives whose effects on the human body haven't been extensively tested. Compare that with cheap, simple whole foods whose nutritional benefits are proven and yet take the smallest amount of additional work. I've already made my pick. You?
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