My kids eat a diet made up of mostly real, whole foods—the way food was meant to be consumed. Unlike processed foods that have artificial ingredients, additives, and preservatives, a ton of sodium, salt and saturated fat, are chemically engineered to appeal to kids’ brains and are altered so much that they’re unrecognizable.
Eating a whole foods diet means my kids are getting the vital nutrition they need for their growth and development. My hope is that eating this way will also lower their risk for a host of diseases and health conditions that have nothing to do with childhood obesity.
But let’s be real. As a full-time working mom with two kids, a household and a husband, I would be lying if I said that my kids don’t eat processed foods.
For my family, sometimes feeding them processed foods is a matter of convenience and saving time while other times, I’m trying to strike a balance and teach them that healthy eaters can—and should—also make room for treats.
Although they don’t eat them everyday, here are 8 processed foods I feed my kids—and why.
1. Dried fruit
Fresh, whole fruit is the ideal way for kids to get fruit in their diets, but dried fruit is a good source of vitamins, minerals and fiber and can be a healthy addition to their diet as well.
I make my own trail mix with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds or nuts along with raisins or dried cranberries which makes for an easy, quick and portable snack. Or I’ll sprinkle some dried fruit on their morning oatmeal, which gives it a hint of sweetness.
Since dried fruit is high in calories and sugar and it’s easy to consume too much in one sitting, I pay attention to portion sizes and don’t allow them to go overboard.
2. Boxed macaroni and cheese
When I don’t want to cook on a Saturday night or when life gets too hectic, my kids love boxed macaroni and cheese, but they only eat it a handful of times each year.
Since it’s made with white, refined carbohydrates, boxed mac and cheese lacks filling fiber to fill them up and keep their blood sugar steady.
Sure, it might be organic and “made with real cheese,” but once it’s transformed into dried powdered cheese, there’s nothing real about it.
Plus, with more than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving, the only redeeming quality of macaroni and cheese is protein—about 9 grams per serving.
3. Fruit and nut bars
If my kids could have a fruit and nut bar every day, they most certainly would.
Bars make for easy, convenient snacks especially when we’re running to an after-school activity or we’re taking a road trip. They can also be a good source of protein and fiber.
Since many bars are high in sugar and are so high in calories they might as well be a meal however, I buy those made with real ingredients like fruit and nuts and always read labels.
My daughter likes to pair baby carrots with hummus as a snack or even for breakfast, and it’s fine by me.
Thanks to chickpeas, hummus is a good source of protein and fiber and can be a healthy snack. Yet not all brands of hummus are created equal. Many contain added sodium and unnecessary ingredients like potassium sorbate, sunflower oil and xanthan gum so I always read labels and compare brands first.
5. String cheese
Lately, I’ve been sticking mostly to goat cheese but from time to time, my kids will ask for string cheese.
Cheese is a good source of protein—about 8 grams per serving—and makes for an easy, portable add-on for school lunch or as a snack.
Some brands however, contain less than 50 percent real cheese, are heavily processed and contain artificial ingredients. When I do buy string cheese, I stick to those made with 100 percent real cheese and those without any additives.
6. Flavored yogurt
Since leafy green vegetables are a better source of calcium anyway, yogurt isn’t something I heavily rely on in my kids’ diets. But yogurt is a good source of protein and makes for an easy snack at school or after-school.
Since many brands of yogurt are high in sugar and artificial ingredients, I read labels carefully. Although I’d prefer to serve them plain yogurt and add fresh fruit—which we also do—I buy Activia yogurt because the probiotics are added back in.
7. Canned salmon
Salmon is an excellent source of protein, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids which support kids’ brain health and development.
When I’m not serving fresh or frozen salmon, I’ll open a can of salmon for lunch or a quick dinner.
Canned Alaska salmon is always wild caught and it’s also ranked by the FDA as a low-mercury fish that’s safe for kids. Since many types of canned foods can be contaminated with BPA, I also choose brands that avoid the chemical.
With a variety of bright colors and their cute little fish faces, Pepperidge Farm has done a great job of creating crackers that kids recognize and can’t get enough of—including mine.
They might not have artificial flavors or preservatives and be made with “real cheese,” which is actually highly processed, but these crackers offer no nutritional value whatsoever.
Still, I want my kids to have a healthy relationship with food and not label foods “good” or “bad.” So although it’s something they rarely eat, I allow them to indulge in these crackers as an occasional treat.