DEAR DR. BLONZ: I am lobbied by my 7- and 9-year-old kids to include fruit snacks in their school lunch boxes. I have learned from experience that if they don't get them from me, they trade with friends to get what they want. My boys are active and usually eat well, but they yearn for those packaged fruity chewables to eat along with their sandwiches. I have tried snacks that claim to be "made with fruit," but I am skeptical and hope you can provide some guidance. -- L.B., Poway, California
DEAR L.B.: Your plight is by no means unique. Convenient lunchbox snacks are a gold mine for food manufacturers, so you'll find many options. All one needs to do is check the kids-eye-level shelves at the market or watch the array of promotions on all forms of broadcast, including games and social media.
Be wary of products labeled "made with real fruit" as their sole brag -- as you seem to suspect, they may be gummy sugar concoctions with just a hint of actual fruit. Check the food's ingredients list on the package, which lists ingredients in order of decreasing prevalence. A good food will have a short list, with real fruit at the top. It's best not to see sweeteners, including sugar and corn syrup, listed above the fruit; such snacks are rarely the equivalent of the whole food. Check the ingredients list, also, to see if vitamins are present as additives or are naturally occurring. Consider sharing this information with your children -- they might apply this knowledge and begin reading labels and ingredients lists on their own.
A better way to add taste and nutritional value to the lunch box is to include actual dried fruits. Not only do they offer the flavor and natural sweetness kids crave, but their nutritional profiles are impressive, including the healthful nutrients and phytochemicals of the whole food. Dried blueberries contain 6 grams of dietary fiber per half-cup serving; figs and dates contain 9 grams; dried apricots contain 8 grams; prunes contain 7 grams, and raisins contain 5 grams per serving. By comparison, a slice of whole-wheat bread or a half-cup of broccoli has about 2 grams of dietary fiber. The typical American consumes about 15 grams of dietary fiber daily -- roughly half the recommended 25 to 30 grams per day.
Blueberries, cranberries and raisins are also loaded with other nutrients and antioxidants. In addition to their fiber, figs are one of the richest nondairy sources of calcium. One half-cup of figs contains 130 mg of calcium, which places them higher than milk on an ounce-by-ounce comparison. Figs are also a good source of iron, potassium, vitamin B6, magnesium and copper. Dried apricots are a standout because they provide iron, copper, potassium and beta carotene (vitamin A).
A good lunch box option is to use nuts, seeds and a healthy breakfast cereal as the base of a homemade snack recipe, to which you can add dried fruits and other healthful items. Consider holding a tasting with your kids to allow them to sample and choose the ingredients for themselves. Each child can develop a personalized trail mix recipe with their favorite flavors, using your rules as guidance.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.