Kiddie Foods That Are Surprisingly Unhealthy

Most parents have the very best intentions of feeding their kids well and healthy. But time, schedules, exhaustion, and the incessant voice begging from the back of the car for chicken nuggets can deter even the most stalwart parents and caregivers. Even when we feel like we're on the right track -- prepping plenty of snacks, whipping up homemade dinner, filling lunchboxes with items out of the organic aisle -- we could still be filling our kids' bellies with surprisingly unhealthy foods.

Don't be deceived by foods that appear healthy but are really packed full of sugars, sodium, artificial sweeteners and flavors, and high-fructose corn syrup. We've condensed that list for you to use as a guide when you peek in your cabinets, sort through your fridge, and wheel your grocery cart through the store.

Kiddie Foods That Are Surprisingly Unhealthy

1. Ditch the kids' yogurt and replace it with simple, real, wholesome yogurt not marketed as a "fun" food or to kids.
Why? The plastic tubes are tempting, especially to throw in a child's lunchbox or for a snack on the go. Unfortunately, lots of kiddie yogurt is less healthy because of the amount of sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, and artificial flavoring in it. The favorite in our house? Rachel's juicy flavors, just redistributed into tinier lunchbox-friendly containers. (Love this post by Brett Blumenthal on choosing truly healthy yogurts.)

2. Can the instant oatmeal and instead opt for whole oats you can microwave.
Why? Yes, it's convenient and was a staple for any parent who was once a kid growing up in the 80s. But the sugar, which can be up to three teaspoons for flavors like maple, detracts from the nutritional benefits of oatmeal. Microwaving whole oats with water or low-fat milk and adding fruit makes for a naturally sweet and much healthier breakfast for the wee ones.

3. Forget fruit juice and pack a piece of fruit.
Why? Even the fruit juices listed as "natural" can contain artificial sweeteners. Even worse for the kids is the juice made from concentrate. Pour only one 8-ounce cup of "100% natural fruit juice" per day. Otherwise, give out fresh fruit with water or milk. My suggestion for preschoolers? Clementines, which are easier to peel than oranges and have sections perfectly sized for smaller kids.

4. Steer clear of kids' meals on menus and order a half-portion or other "adult" option from the menu.
Why? Kid meals are often high-sodium and high-fat. As a mom, it drives me crazy to be at a great, healthy restaurant that only offers smaller diners fried foods and pizza. Although the dietitian who created this list says the better option is to insist on a half-portion for your child, the reality is that not every restaurant will accommodate that and not every kid can eat that much. If you have two kids, order up one entree. Otherwise, I've had much better luck ordering an appetizer for my son or making a "tapas plate" for him with samples from the adults' entrees at our table.

5. Forget frozen fish sticks and just make the healthier homemade version.
Why? They are swimming with fat and artificial ingredients. Instead, grill or make fish, which only takes a few minutes. I make crunchy fish of my own by coating strips of fresh fish with panko, Japanese bread crumbs, and baking them in the oven. Fish tacos are also a big hit once kids can choose their own toppings and roll them up themselves.

6. Be picky about the peanut butter you choose and pick the brands with fewer ingredients.
Why? Peanut butter is touted as one of the healthiest foods you can eat, right? Not if it is a brand that has lots of sugar, hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated fat in it. Rather than base your choice on the brand that's on sale, check the label and buy the kind that is made only with peanuts or peanuts plus salt. Another option? Soy butter, almond butter, or sunflower butter that is allowed in classrooms where peanuts are banned due to allergies.

7. Get rid of rice cakes and stock up on whole wheat pita chips.
Why? First -- people still eat rice cakes? Touted as the dieter's dream in the 90s, rice cakes have a healthy connotation but are really just made up of empty calories that will not fuel a kid's energy, let alone fill them up. Buy whole wheat pita chips or make your own by cutting pita bread into quarters and baking until slightly browned and crispy. Dip in hummus as a snack. Or make an edamame spread by throwing edamame, a bit of extra virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt into the food processor until it is a spreadable, creamy texture.

8. Don't make a meal out of breakfast bars and give kids yogurt with a cup of low-sugar cereal mixed in to eat on the go.
Why? Granola, cereal, and breakfast bars are often made with refined or enriched flour and have more than their share of sugar and fat. These ingredients won't sustain your child for very long, so they will be hungry sooner and likely eat more than if they have a regular meal.

9. Enough with the fruit snacks! Offer up real fruit.
Why? The bottom line is that there isn't any fruit in chewy fruit snacks or roll-ups, only high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, artificial flavors and colors, and other stuff that is as awful as it sounds. Our pediatric dentist says these snacks are terrible for tiny teeth and are so sticky it is hard for kids just learning to brush their teeth (and sometimes, even their parents) to get it out of molar crevices and in between teeth. An apple might not cut it for a kid who sits next to someone who always has fruit snacks in her lunch, but raspberries, blueberries, and other tiny, cut-up pieces seem to be more enticing at our house.

10. Finally, don't dole out the fat-free foods.
Why? Fat-free foods are not necessarily healthy, and they are often higher in sugar calories than other foods. Since sugar turns into fat in the body, the dietitian explains, fat-free foods caltn actually end up being more fattening for your kids and for you. She suggests being an avid label reader and that parents pay attention to both sugar and fat content per serving before making a choice of which foods to buy.

Are these swaps doable for your family? And are there surprisingly unhealthy kiddie foods we've missed on this list that you avoid feeding your children?

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  1. Even better than pita and humus (which is high in fat and calories) is to make a yogurt, cucumber and dill dipping sauce. It is traditional in the middle east, is much lower in fat and calories and becomes addictive. Make sure you toast the pita first, gives it a bit of a crunch.