As my two kids get older, I’m starting to feel like there are fewer and fewer moments in the day. I’m also feeling like feeding them both is a full time job all by itself. So, I’ve started wondering about some common convenience, pre-packaged foods — are they healthy for my kids? For some foods, the answer is yes. But there are also a lot of surprisingly unhealthy options out there. Hidden salt, sugar, and trans fat abounds, not to mention lengthy lists of unpronounceable chemical ingredients. Just because the food industry wants our kids to eat this stuff, doesn’t mean they should. Below the jump are 11 of the worst pre-packaged kids’ food offenders.
Cheese and Sandwich Crackers 1 of 11Cheese-flavored and sandwich crackers can seem like a satisfying and quick snack option, but beware -- even a single serving of these little crackers can have nearly 15 percent of the DV for fat and almost 10 percent of the DV for sodium, and many are loaded with trans fat, high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and artificial dyes. Next time you kiddo needs a quick snack, put a slice of real cheese to a whole grain cracker with plenty of fiber.
Make your own whole grain cheese crackers
Image: Dwight Burdette
Sugary Cereals 2 of 11Brightly colored, sugary cereals are made for and marketed to kids, so they can't be that bad right? Think again. Many sugary kids' cereals are over 50 percent sugar by weight.
More on what's really in kids' favorite breakfast foods
Image: Tim Skillern
Chicken Nuggets 3 of 11Chicken is a great source of lean protein, and kids love the fun of dipping it in various sauces. But there's a lot more on the ingredient list of chicken nuggets than chicken. In fact, nuggets are made with parts of the chicken that aren't usually eaten, and are held together with meat glue (also known as transglutaminase). If that's not enough to turn you off, chicken nuggets deliver around 25 percent of the DV for fat and sodium.
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Box Mac and Cheese 4 of 11Open my cabinet and you'll find a few boxes of this stuff. It's great in a pinch, and kids really love it. But I wish they'd change the name to shells and cheese powder or something like that. Covenience aside, boxed mac and cheese can pack a salty punch -- one of the leading brands of boxed mac and cheese has 580 milligrams of sodium per serving -- that's almost 25 percent of the RDA for adults. For a healthier option, try making your own.
Ditch the box: make homemade mac and cheese in 15 minutes
Cereal Bars 5 of 11Parents love cereal bars because they're an easy grab and go snack or breakfast, and made right, they can be a life saver. But some bars can have loads of sugar, fat, trans fat, and little to no fiber or protein. Look for a balanced bar that's easy on the sugar and big on whole grains, fiber, and protein.
More on selecting a better breakfast here
Canned Tuna 6 of 11Although some other fish species are higher in mercury, tuna is of particular concern because it is high in mercury and the most widely consumed fish in the United States. Mercury's not good for anyone but it's especially bad for fetuses, babies, and children because it impedes brain development. The Natural Resources Defense Council publishes a list that offers guidelines on how much tuna is safe to eat depending on weight, but some research suggests that there may be more mercury in tuna than assumed and the amount can vary greatly from can to can. As alternative, try using cans of skinless, boneless salmon.
Yogurt Smoothies 7 of 11Smoothies are a great way to give kids a fruity sweet drink that they'll love, while also ensuring that they're getting valuable nutrients like calcium and protein. And, if you can't always make your own, picking up pre-made smoothies can be a real time saver. But beware, some smoothie drinks marketed to kids sneak in ingredients like high fructose corn syrup or lots of plain old sugar (a few smoothies have a jaw-dropping 47 grams of sugar per serving -- 10 grams more than a can of Coke), artificial food dyes, and other sketchy additives. Look for a smoothie that's sweetened with fruit juice and has a relatively short list of ingredients.
Make your own smoothies at home
Hot Dogs 8 of 11Recent studies have linked the consumption of processed meat with dramatic increases in heart disease and diabetes, but the culprit might not be the one you think it is. According to The New York Times, it's not the high levels of fat and cholesterol in these popular foods that make them unhealthy, rather, it's the huge amounts of sodium and the presence of chemical preservatives. So, when selecting pre-packaged meats for your kids, look for lower-sodium alternatives without the preservatives.
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Image: Renee Comet, United States Department of Health and Human Services
Pre-made Lunch Kits 9 of 11For busy parents, a pre-made lunch in a box, and especially one that kids actually love, can be a godsend. But the truth is, this is a pretty unhealthy option, for kids or anyone, for a myriad of reasons. Start with sodium, even so-called "healthier" versions can have up to 25 percent DV of sodium. There's also the relative dearth of nutrients, an epic list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients, and lots and lots of sugar -- as much as 33 grams. So next time, you might want to skip the package and make a turkey sandwich.
Make your own lunchables
Image: Jamie Mormann
Frozen Kids Dinners 10 of 11Hidden sugar, sodium, chemicals, and preservatives are a big reason to ban these foods from your list, but they're also just not healthy. Serving up kids' junk food favorites, like chicken nuggets and corn dogs, many of these meals feature a junky mix of refined fried carbs, corn, and juice-sweetened applesauce. This isn't to say that none of the frozen kids' meal options are healthy, just that you may need to read a few labels to find one that's a healthy choice for your family.
How to select a healthier frozen meal
Image: Smile Lee
Sport or Fruit Drinks 11 of 11Regular fruit juice can have a lot of (naturally occurring) sugar -- so much so that many doctors say it's comparable to soda -- but punch, energy, or sports drinks are even worse. In fact, some of these drinks, which target kids in their advertising and falsely claim health benefits, have been linked with childhood obesity and tooth decay, and some doctors suggest these drinks should only be offered to children during or after vigorous exercise.
Looking for an alternative? The surprising reason you might want to try a banana