Kids' lunchbox snacks - real food or just filler?

Make every mouthful count: Make food fuel, not a filler. Photo: iStockphoto
Make every mouthful count: Make food fuel, not a filler. Photo: iStockphoto

The words on the front of a pack of Potato Stix are reassuring - 75 per cent less fat than regular potato chips, no preservatives and no artificial colours or flavours. But the ingredient list on the flip side tells you there's not much else in there either, unless you think a mix of potato powder, rice flour, palm oil, salt and vinegar flavour – and anti-caking agent - counts as real food.

I wouldn't mind so much if the product's brand name - Healtheries Kidscare - didn't imply that it's somehow a wholesome snack for kids. I don't know what your definition of nourishing food is but couldn't we do a bit better than potato powder mixed with palm oil? Or have we reached a point where 'less fat' and 'no artificial colours' are a benchmark by which we decide that a food is good for kids?

We all know that snack foods like chips aren't the best food to pack in a lunchbox but there's a whole grey area of other processed snacks aimed at kids that aren't great either – it's just that the packaging makes them sound healthier - and for busy parents looking for something easy to put in a lunchbox, these foods can seem like the answer.

Kellogg's LCM Split Stix made with rice bubbles, for instance, have 'all the goodness of rice' according to the front of the pack, yet their fibre content is a tiny 0.4g. Kellogg's haven't been stingy with sweetener though – Split Stix is more than 30 per cent sugar.

Reading labels like this makes you realise that there's a question we need to ask before we buy this stuff: will this food actually nourish my kids - or is it just filler?

"You try to get something easy that's healthy and when it says 'low fat, no sugar, no artificial colours' you think it's a healthier option," says Angela Mallon, a spokesperson for  The Parents Jury, the  network of parents, grandparents and carers dedicated to helping children eat healthier. "Parents need to be able to read labels quickly and the food industry has a responsibility to create labels parents can read at a glance."

One way of navigating snack food labels more easily is FoodSwitch the free smartphone app developed by the George Institute for Health and  health insurance company Bupa that lets you scan the barcodes of packaged foods using the camera on your phone – the app then gives information about a product's nutritional make-up and a list of healthier choices.

Even simpler is sidestepping packages altogether and providing fresh food snacks – you don't need to read the label on a piece of fruit, Mallon points out.

Pre-packaged foods might seem more convenient but healthier DIY options aren't hard work if you have a plan and a few reusable containers – and they're generally less expensive than packaged snacks, says Lucy Westerman, a parent of two primary school children and member of The Parents' Jury.

Westerman has a lunchbox plan stuck to the fridge and does some advance prep on the weekend that includes filling small containers with snacks like cherry tomatoes and cheese cubes or homemade popcorn. She bakes a wholemeal fruit loaf or mini savoury muffins and freezes them in portions. She also creates her own version of packaged biscuits and dip combos with containers of rice crackers paired with hummous or avocado mashed with lemon juice and cream cheese.

"I think it's harder for parents who are new to the school routine but once you get into a rhythm it's not hard," says Waterman.

"My approach is to make every mouthful count. Occasionally you have to have some leeway and put in a surprise. To me school is where kids go to nourish their minds and to do that they need fuel to nourish their bodies - not just fillers."

What kind of snacks go into your child's lunchbox?

This story Kids' lunchbox snacks - real food or just filler? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.