Is Lunchables healthy for a diet?

Lunchables are pre-packaged lunch combinations marketed to children and busy families. They typically contain crackers, cheese, processed meat and candy or a sweet treat. Lunchables are convenient, portable and appeal to kids due to the fun shapes and bright packaging. However, many health-conscious parents wonder if Lunchables are too high in fat, sodium and preservatives to be part of a healthy diet.

Nutritional Profile of Lunchables

The nutritional value of Lunchables varies greatly depending on the specific variety. In general, most Lunchables are high in sodium, saturated fat and preservatives:

  • Sodium – Most Lunchables contain 500-1000 mg of sodium, which is 20-40% of the recommended daily value. Such high sodium levels are concerning, especially for children.
  • Saturated Fat – Many Lunchables get 20-40% of calories from saturated fat from cheese and processed deli meats. This is double the recommended 10% limit.
  • Preservatives – Lunchables contain preservatives like sodium nitrite and potassium sorbate to extend shelf life. Certain varieties also contain MSG.
  • Sugar – Candy and desserts contained in Lunchables can contribute significant sugar, ranging from 5-15 grams per serving.

On the positive side, Lunchables do provide protein from cheese and meat as well as some essential nutrients like calcium and iron. However, the high amounts of sodium, saturated fat and preservatives are problematic.

Lunchables Nutrition Facts

Here is the nutrition information for some popular Lunchables varieties:

Turkey and American Cracker Stackers

Serving Size 1 package (5.8 oz)
Calories 400
Sodium 1030mg
Protein 18g
Sugars 4g
Saturated Fat 6g

Pizza Lunchable

Serving Size 1 package (5.5 oz)
Calories 360
Sodium 820mg
Protein 12g
Sugars 5g
Saturated Fat 4.5g

Ham and Cheddar Lunchable

Serving Size 1 package (5.6 oz)
Calories 350
Sodium 1070mg
Protein 16g
Sugars 4g
Saturated Fat 6g

As you can see, sodium levels are consistently high across popular Lunchables varieties. Saturated fat and preservatives are also a concern.

Health Effects of Processed Lunch Meats

Many Lunchables contain processed deli meats like turkey, ham and salami. There are several health consequences tied to frequent processed meat consumption:

  • Increased risk of heart disease and diabetes – Processed meats are tied to a 42% increased risk of heart disease and 19% increased risk of diabetes.
  • Higher cholesterol – Processed meats contain high amounts of cholesterol-raising saturated fat.
  • Cancer risk – Frequent processed meat consumption raises risk of colon cancer by 18%.
  • Greater inflammation – Nitrites used to cure meats promote inflammatory responses in the body.

Given these risks, processed meats in Lunchables should be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy diet.

Health Effects of Additives in Lunchables

In addition to high sodium and saturated fat, Lunchables contain chemical preservatives and artificial ingredients:

  • Sodium Nitrite – Used to preserve color and prevent botulism in processed meats. Linked to cancer and organ damage with high intake.
  • Potassium Sorbate – Preservative that inhibits mold and bacteria growth. Considered safe in low doses.
  • MSG – Flavor enhancer that may cause headaches and numbness in sensitive individuals.
  • Artificial Colors – Dyes like Red #40 and Yellow #6 may promote hyperactivity in children but are considered safe.

While these additives are considered safe at low levels, children eating Lunchables several times per week may go over optimal intake levels.

Are Lunchables Nutritionally Balanced?

Lunchables make it easy to check off components of a balanced meal – grain, protein, dairy, vegetables. However, the ingredients and portions are far from optimal:

  • Grains – Highly processed white flour crackers instead of whole grains
  • Protein – High-sodium processed meats
  • Dairy – Small amounts of natural cheese overwhelmed by processed cheese
  • Vegetables – Tiny serving of a pickle or two

While Lunchables have improved by adding whole grain crackers, more produce and reduced fat cheese, they still cannot compare nutritionally to a freshly prepared sandwich and snacks.

Healthy Lunchable Alternatives

Here are some ideas for making healthier DIY Lunchables at home:

DIY Pizza Lunchable

  • Whole wheat English muffin or pitas
  • Tomato sauce
  • Low-fat mozzarella cheese
  • Turkey pepperoni
  • Veggie toppings like mushrooms, peppers, onions

DIY Cracker Stacker

  • Whole grain crackers
  • Sliced turkey or ham
  • Cheese slices
  • Lettuce
  • Mustard

Build Your Own Lunchable

  • Whole grain crackers, bread or wraps
  • Lean protein like turkey, ham, tuna, egg
  • Cheese slices or cottage cheese
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Yogurt cup
  • Small dessert like fig bars

The key is choosing fresh, whole food ingredients that are low in sodium, fat and sugar. Portion sizes can also be better controlled at home.

Tips for Packing Healthy Lunchables

Here are some tips for packing homemade Lunchables:

  • Use sectioned, bento-style lunchboxes to keep components separate.
  • Pack a cold pack to keep perishable foods like meats and cheese cold.
  • Include moist towelette packs for easy clean up.
  • Cut sandwiches into fun shapes with cookie cutters.
  • Portion out snacks like crackers, fruits and veggies into small bags or containers.
  • Consider meals that don’t require reheating like wraps and finger sandwiches.

Following basic food safety guidelines will ensure your homemade Lunchables stay fresh and safe to eat.

Healthier Purchased Lunchables

If preparing homemade Lunchables isn’t realistic, there are some healthier store-bought options:

  • Organic Lunchables – Contain organic crackers and uncured meats without artificial additives.
  • Whole Grain Lunchables – Choose varieties with whole wheat crackers instead of white flour.
  • Lower Sodium Lunchables – Some contain 500-600mg sodium instead of 900mg+ per package.
  • Lunchables with Fruit – Pick options that contain fruit cups or applesauce.
  • Fun Shapes – For kids, choose packages with fun cracker shapes like stars or dinosaurs.

Reading nutrition labels and ingredients lists can help identify the healthiest store-bought Lunchables for your needs.

Are Lunchables Suitable for a Healthy Diet?

Lunchables have improved by reducing fat, sodium and including healthier options like whole grains. However, most varieties still contain concerning levels of sodium, saturated fat and preservatives. Frequent consumption promotes chronic disease risk in both children and adults.

Homemade Lunchables using fresh, nutritious ingredients are a far healthier choice. For pre-packaged Lunchables, read labels carefully and choose organic options without artificial additives whenever possible. Lunchables should be an occasional convenience food rather than a daily lunchtime staple.

The Bottom Line

While Lunchables seem like an easy, kid-friendly lunch option, most varieties provide excessive sodium, saturated fat and preservatives that don’t align with a healthy diet. Children and families would benefit tremendously from focusing lunchtime choices around whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. Homemade Lunchables assembled from healthy ingredients can provide balanced nutrition for a growing child. If opting for store-bought, choose thoughtfully and focus on the most nutritious options available. An occasional Lunchable won’t do harm, but making it an everyday habit can set the stage for poor nutrition and chronic health issues down the road.

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