pantry

The Best Pre-Packaged Snack Foods

When I was a kid, one of our family food rules was I could eat fruit and vegetables anytime I wanted. If it was something else however, I had to ask first.

My childhood best friend (who is still like a sister today) used to think this was so weird. Her house had anything from Dunka Roo's to String Things and every other childhood favorite from of the '90s.

As a kid, I thought this was AWESOME. I loved going over there and knowing all the "fun foods" I would get to eat in total freedom. No asking. No limits. I could eat as much crinkle-packaged, "kid food" as made me content. Even more fun was the novelty of every item being individually-wrapped. My family never bought the single-serve packs of anything, so mini bags of chips, cereal, and cookies seemed to make snack time all the more irresistible.

Now as a dietitian-mom however, I have to admit this kind of permissive food environment makes me cringe. I am not saying this in scrutiny over my dear second mom's decisions, nor to judge any mom out there who currently stocks up on more potato chips than produce. I am saying this because I think there is a reason kids struggle to eat at meal times and yet will snack indefinitely.

There is a lot of power and opportunity in the snack foods we serve our kids. Not only does it/does it not fill their nutritional gaps, but it also sets the stage for how they view snacking and what foods they are more likely to reach more when between meal hunger hits. Allowing too many "fun foods" at snack time while trying to get our kids to eat mainly "everyday foods" at meal times is a mistake.

This post addresses the different types of snack foods, and how pre-packaged, sometimes foods can have a healthy place in your child's diet.

 

Types of Snack Foods

Remembering the above examples, I think to what balance I want to recreate in my home now as I raise my own kids. I want my daughters to delight in the foods we are fortunate enough to have fill our pantry, fridge, and freezer. More so, I want our daughters to grow up in a food environment that establishes healthy habits. That's something I am forever grateful was instilled in me starting at such an early age. It is something I too seek to repeat for our girls, as they grow and develop their own relationships with food.

Although my parents didn't restrict all pre-packaged foods and allowed us plenty of "fun foods," I feel as though I understood what in fact a "fun food" versus an "every day food" was at an early age because of how they raised me to relate to all foods.


Fun Foods

Fun foods are those that tend to be energy-dense while offering little to no nutritive value. These foods can displace more nutritious foods in the diet when over-consumed; however, it can also backfire when parents are overly restrictive towards these foods. Consider allowing your child to choose one fun food per day, or limiting fun foods to less frequent, special occasions in younger children who may eat less food overall. This may mean such fun foods are included as part of a Love it, Like it, Learning it meal or offered as the occasional special treat. Just remember that when given as a snack, the empty calories of these fun foods may displace other more nutrient-dense options at your child's next meal.

Examples of fun foods are: cakes, cookies, french fries, potato chips, ice cream, soda, candy, and donuts.

Sometimes Foods

Sometimes foods are the foods that offer minimal nutritive value - more so than fun foods but less so than everyday foods. Such foods may include: crackers, These foods may have more healthful alternatives that make them more appropriate everyday options (like making them whole grain or no sugar added), but in general sometimes foods are foods that should not be eaten everyday.

Such sometimes snack foods may include: muffins, sugar-sweetened canned or dried fruit, sugar-sweetened cereal, cheese, processed deli meats, cereal bars, or crackers to name a few. 

Everyday Foods

Everyday foods are the ideal in any diet. While no one has a perfect diet, everyday foods are what everyone should aim to eat more of. Foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins, lean proteins, healthy fats, and dairy are all the pillars to meeting our daily nutritional needs. These should be offered with structure according to Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility in Feeding, but otherwise there should be minimal limits enforced over how much your child consumes of these items.

Examples of everyday snack foods include: fresh fruit, low-sugar added yogurt, veggies, hummus, nuts and seeds, nut butters, and whole grains like some granola, breakfast bars, and crackers.

A Time and a Place for Sometimes Snack Foods

Based on the above descriptions, we know that the ideal is to serve fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins as many chances as we get. These are first and foremost the snacks I recommend to help parents fill in the nutritional gaps in their children's diets.

As a mom with two kids three and under though who are often on the go, I also understand the application for "sometimes" foods. Whether it's the 25 minute drive we face between our country house and the closest grocery store or keeping a small stash in the swim bag for the post-swim lesson snack attack, I feel no shame in sharing - my kids eat out of crinkle packages sometimes too. All the better when they are single-serve also.
 

I imagine most of you can relate. There are times and places when you need to spring for the single package of snack foods. It can be hard though to stand in the aisles of the grocery store and find something healthy, especially with the stigma of "processed foods." 

That's why I have created this list of My 20 Favorite Pre-Packaged Snack Foods from Target. Get it here!

For this List

I have personally walked through the aisles of Target for hours observing all the snack options specifically so you don't have to. I have absorbed all that overwhelm for you about, "What are the best pre-packaged snack options to buy?" In doing so, I was blown away by the number of "healthy" snack options we have to choose from as moms. As a dietitian, I am concerned over how confusing it is though to make an informed snack choice amidst all the seemingly "healthy" options. There were too MANY snack items I myself may have grabbed in a hurry (i.e. while shopping with my girls) and assumed were healthy options to offer my kids. Because I did this field research without my littles in tow however, I was able to look past the marketing claims on the front of packages and onto the nutritional facts and more importantly, the ingredients list. That's how I narrowed down my list of favorite options to the top 20 I would actually purchase for my own family. 

Of note,  I was looking specifically to single-serve, pre-packaged snack items. Although I saw other healthy options for "pre-packaged" snack foods out there in larger containers that are intended for sharing or serving into snack-size portions at home, these are not included on this list.

This list isn't intended to override or negate the importance of wholesome, "everyday foods" in our familys' diets. This list is intended to be a practical application for the busy family who's doing the best they can to make sensible snack options on the go. The goal of this list is to take advantage of snack times using "sometimes foods," instead of having to stop last minute and splurge unnecessarily on a "fun food."

 

Save "fun foods" for fun times with family or friends.

Use snack time as the ideal time to fill in nutritional gaps, first with everyday foods (when available). Then, round out on the go eating with some more healthful, pre-packaged snack options like those sometimes foods shared on this list. With the exception of those that may pose a choking hazard to my young children, I otherwise would offer any of these to my own children when in a snack-time pinch and a pre-packaged food is our most realistic option.

Submit using the button below to receive a free printable of my favorite "Sometimes Foods" found at Target! Then, let me know your greatest snack time struggles in the comments below. The more I understand about you and your snack time struggles, the more I am able to tailor content that serves you better.

 

Thanks for reading, and here's to happy snacking ahead!

What is the best infant formula?

If you saw my most recent post in “Saying Grace,” you know that with both daughters I was one month short of having each exclusively breastfed up to one year.

Ultimately coming up short is not something most moms want to admit, especially those of us who consider ourselves breastmilk advocates and highly invested in pediatric health. However finding myself in this position, twice now, has led me to ask myself a question so many moms wonder:

 

What is the best infant formula for my baby?

 

Your job is to feed your child the best you can. If formula is the way your family needs to go for whatever reason, this post will help support you in thinking through that decision and ultimately, in deciding which option is most appropriate for your child’s needs and family’s situation.

 

Types of Infant Formula

For most parents and pediatricians, the conversation of “which formula to feed our baby” starts and ends with the type: Milk-based, soy-based, and partially or fully hydrolyzed formulas. Each of these is intended for infants with specific health needs and dietary tolerances.

Milk Based

Majority of the infant formula on the market is made from cow’s milk. This type of formula is the most well-researched and considered nutritionally adequate for majority of infants.

Soy Based

For infants with known or suspected cow’s milk protein allergies or lactose intolerance, soy formulas are the next suitable option. Being both readily-available and more affordable than the following options, soy formulas may be worth trying if your child needs to avoid cow’s milk based formulas. However research shows that, “Eight to 14% of infants with symptoms of cow's milk allergy will also react adversely to soy,” so children with milk and soy allergies may need a formula where the large protein is broken down, being either partially or extensively hydrolyzed.

Hydrolyzed


These formulas are either partially or extensively hydrolyzed to promote tolerance, depending on how much processing is required for an infant’s gut to adequately digest and absorb the given infant formula. Many of your partially hydrolyzed formulas are those that are marketed for improved comfort, gastrointestinal ease and reduced spit-up (such as Enfamil Gentlease and Gerber Good Start Gentle and Soothe). While some people may see their infant benefits from a partially hydrolyzed formula, these are not hypoallergenic. For this reason, most infants allergic to cow’s milk will react to the large pieces of milk protein in partially hydrolyzed formulas as well. For this reason, many infants with a milk-protein allergy will need an extensively hydrolyzed formula, such as Alimentum or Nutramigen. For infants who need a hypoallergenic formula, extensively hydrolyzed formula work for a reported 90% of infants with a cow’s milk allergy.
 

Elemental

Lastly, formulas such as Elecare or Neocate are the most elemental, or “pre-digested,” form of infant formula available. They offer complete nutrition to infants who are unable to tolerate even those that have been extensively hydrolyzed. If after evaluating this is the type of formula your child needs with your child’s pediatrician and/or pediatric registered dietitian, call your insurance to see what type of coverage may be available. Depending on your plan and child’s condition, some insurance companies may help to offset the out of pocket expenses for this formula.

 

A Visual of it All

Back when I worked at Texas Children’s Hospital, I remember we used to explain the different types of formulas to parents like this: 

Some parents may be inclined to quickly move down the pyramid, thinking the more pre-digested the formula the fewer issues their infant will have. However, it is important to remember that very few babies require this specialized of formula. Symptoms of occasional gas, fussiness, spit-up, and irritability are typically normal aspects of infant life. If you have concerns that your child is experiencing any of these excessively (i.e. constipation, diarrhea, blood or mucous in stools, vomiting, eczema, fatigue and weakness), they are struggling to gain weight on a given formula regimen, or they have other health issues that may be impacted by their infant formula, talk to your pediatrician and/or a pediatric registered dietitian nutritionist about what other options may be available for promoting tolerance. While some children may need to switch to a different formula, it is not recommended to change formulas frequently, especially without first seeking medical advice.

The main goal is to find one formula that fits your infant’s needs and your family’s lifestyle, and to stick with it solely or ideally as a supplement to breastfeeding until age one.

  

Most sites that came up when I googled, “what is the best formula,” left the conversation at this. Once you know what type of formula your child assumptively may need, you are apparently good to go. Head to the grocery store, but then be prepared to stand completely overwhelmed with options. Because as Today’s Dietitian puts it,

"There are so many things added now…Prebiotics, probiotics, lutein for eye and brain development, and increased levels of vitamin E…There are different protein sources, different ratios of casein to whey, partially hydrolyzed protein, extensively hydrolyzed protein, or even elemental formulas. There are formulas with 19, 22, or 24 kcal per ounce instead of 20. There are even human milk fortifiers, used to increase the nutrient content of breast milk for preemies.”

 

I am a pediatric dietitian and all these options make even my head spin.

 

So let's chat about some of the issues to consider when qualifying which infant formulas are best to meet your infant’s needs and family’s lifestyle.

My advice is to also consider the convenience, cost, and quality of the formula options at hand.

Consider Convenience

How long will you be offering your infant formula? The duration of how long you will give your infant formula may impact the means you are/are not willing to go through to access premium formula, how much you can afford to spend during that time frame, and other convenience factors such as the form of powder formula, concentrate, or ready to feed.

How will you purchase the formula? Be realistic with your and your family’s shopping habits. If you need an option your husband can pick up at any given store while you are at home with a newborn, consider which may be the most readily available. If you know you tend to shop a few different grocery stores each week, you may be able to shop around to see what infant formula options specialty stores carry. If you are open to ordering online and someone who tends to plan at least a few days to weeks in advance, you may be able to explore more domestic or international options than those available locally in stores.

How will you prepare the formula? For some families, powdered formula is not an issue. They get accustomed to measuring the water and then adding the powder, can maintain safe feeding practices using powder, and don’t have an issue preparing it this way. This is the ideal option as it provides you the greatest number of options for choosing an infant formula. If however, there may be a childcare situation with a busy working mom, an older caretaker, or a less mature babysitter that demands the convenience of already prepared, ready to feed infant formula, powdered may not be an everyday option. For such families, the convenience factor may be worth the peace of mind that the formula is being mixed properly every time, in exchange for the reassurance that they have selected the most premium product available (in powder).

 

Consider Cost

While I agree with the remarks from one food analyst of the Cornucopia Institute that not all organic formulas are made equal (as restated in a popular article on FoodBabe found here), I also don’t believe that means you have to buy the most expensive option either. Although breastmilk is by far the most economical option, we are forced to consider what our families can afford when it comes to including infant formula to our “food budget” as well.

Consider where you are most willing to spend your money. If you need a ready to feed formula, there will be an added cost for that when compared to the same product in powder. If you can sacrifice the convenience factor of ready to feed formula however for a higher quality product, you could invest such money on a superior powdered infant formula, such as many shared here. If you can’t afford ordering premium European formula options, consider which organic options available in the states may be more affordable options.

 

Consider Quality

This could be a whole post of its own, but for the sake of including key factors I believe parents need to consider as part of the “big picture” of formula feeding, I would be remiss to exclude the aspect of quality in this post.

From the types of milk protein to fatty acids added to sugar types used to sweeten infant formula, many parents feel like there are red flags everywhere when it comes to the ingredient lists on formula. Unfortunately, just purchasing any old infant formula with an organic label in the United States does not ensure you will get the highest standards either. Instead, what many parents discover are the disturbing the differences in the FDA’s United States standards compared to those from the European Union. Many purists in the formula world will recommend using a European formula option instead of even organic options available in the states. Such options include brands like Hippe and Holle.

While there are some key ingredients to keep a closer eye on that distinguish even organic U.S. formulas from those available in Europe, parents also need to use their discretion when ordering such formulas and the sources they get these from since European formulas are not regulated by the FDA.

 

A Note on Homemade Infant Formulas

This may need to be it's own post at some point, but for now I want to be sure to include a strong advisory against homemade infant formula. I believe in the power of real foods and advocate to optimize nutrition starting as early as possible. However, dietitians from all over the world are seeing homemade baby formula as an increasingly popular trend. Often seen as a "healthier alternative" to infant formula when breastmilk is not an option, parents assume real food, "clean" ingredients must then make a superior product to a manufactured powder. Unfortunately such claims by certain organizations (like Weston A. Price) are not well-substantiated by science. Additionally, too many people are unofficially publishing such homemade formula recipes without the rigor and scrutiny required to ensure these options are safe for infants. An alternative option may be to consider human milk sharing options such as “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” and “Eats on Feets."

 

In Summary

What all parents need to know is that infant formulas on the market are designed to provide baseline nutrition for all infants. While I don’t believe all products are created equal nor all formulas are on the same playing field, parents need to find a bit of peace in the fact that any formula technically “will do.” With this said, there are several other factors discussed above that impact your decision as to which formula is the best fit for your family, starting with the type. Furthermore, families need to consider other aspects including:

  • Convenience
  • Cost
  • Quality

What I Buy and Why: Lunch Meat

 
sandwich.jpg
 

Do you remember when it seemed like Subway restaurant was one of the healthiest places to stop for quick service? In the late 1990's, many of us may have took to Subway's "7 under 6" menu for low-fat options on the go. We quickly learned that by picking a lean lunch meat, omitting the mayo and cheese, requesting extra veggies, and ordering on whole grain bread, we could get away with sinking our teeth into a sandwich just about any time we wanted to.

Things have changed over the past 20 years though. Now, we know eating something as seemingly innocent as turkey sandwich a day can contribute to our cancer risk. So...what does that really mean? Am I actually telling you that you're supposed to stop packing sandwiches in your family's lunches?

Let's get realistic. Take a look at what I buy and why.

What Ingredients I Look to Include/Exclude

The #1 ingredient I don't want to see in the ingredients list of my lunch meat is sodium nitrite. Other unwanted ingredients may include added sugars (i.e. honey, dextrose) and food preservatives like Sodium Phosphate, Sodium Diacetate, Sodium Erythorbate, and "Natural" Flavors.

Although these are considered "Generally Recognized As Safe" (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many also appear on the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives. I shop using a more conservative criteria than the FDA allows as GRAS. Because of this, if I see any of these in the ingredient list I put the product back. No questions asked. There are better, more clean eating lunch meat alternatives out there without these added, unnecessary ingredients. No need to spend money on ingredients I don't want my family to eat.

What Nutrition Criteria I Consider

From a nutrition facts standpoint, the best criteria to use comes from the American Heart Association.

American Heart Association® Certification Guidelines for Deli Meats

Recommended Sodium Intake

If you are a label reader, this information can be helpful for choosing which deli meat is among your best option. Unfortunately, all the jargon on the front of the label is often what sells to more of us. We get so distracted by flashy terms that sound "healthy," we assume the sandwich meat must be.

Terms to Know

While Oscar Meyer still sells plenty of products that are packaged almost identically to how they were 20 years ago, most other mainstream lunch meats have gotten up with the times and put token marketing phrases on their packages of lunch meat. Terms like, "No Nitrates/Nitrites," "All Natural," "No Added Hormones," "No Antibiotics," and "No By Products" may appear on lunch meat to make them look like they are healthy for you. The problem is, none of these highlight if you should even be buying that processed meat to begin with. The marketers of course are for it. Many health organizations and evidenced-based findings suggest you don't however, in an attempt to lower processed meat intake.

So without giving you a headache explaining each of the marketing terms mentioned above, I want you to turn your mental attention to what matters more.

Questions to ask

Many of you have all sorts of questions about what's okay, what's not, and which kinds to buy when it comes to lunch meat.

Read through these FAQs, then grab your free Shopper's Guide below for a download to "What I Buy and Why: Lunch Meat."

What are nitrites? Why do I care?

Sodium nitrite is one of the most commonly used nitrites in lunch meat. It appears on the ingredients list of almost every type of traditionally processed meat. It is also one of the top ingredients of concern on the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) new Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives.

According to the American Meat Institute, sodium nitrite is "a salt and an anti-oxidant that is used to cure meats like ham, bacon and hot dogs. Sodium nitrite serves a vital public health function: it blocks the growth of botulism-causing bacteria and prevents spoilage. Sodium nitrite also gives cured meats their characteristic color and flavor."

For more information on Sodium Nitrite, please see the EWG's brief statement on Sodium Nitrite.

If the label says a product is "all-natural" with "no nitrates or nitrites added," is it okay to eat?

"Natural" and organic lunch meats often use more natural ingredients for nitrites, like celery powder and sea salt. Although these nitrites are naturally occurring, it is still poorly researched what their impact on one's health is. For this reason, they may offer a better alternative to traditionally processed meats (with sodium nitrite), but they still don't necessarily give you a free pass to pack sandwiches every day for lunch.

Is it better to buy from the deli-counter or from pre-packed brands?

Most people's perception is that ordering from the deli counter is "healthier." There is something about seeing someone slice your meat that makes it feel more fresh and in turn, healthy. This is a misconception however. Lunch meats brought from the deli-counter and pre-packaged BOTH hold the same health concerns.

With either option, you may try to seek out the "all natural" option, which specifically states "no nitrites or nitrates." From my experience, VERY few grocers carry this type of lunch meat at the deli counter even if in theory it exists (ie. Boar's Head has such a product but never have I actually seen it in a store).

Does the recommendation to reduce lunch meat intake apply to all lunch meats (ie. chicken, ham, turkey, bologna and roast beef)? Or is one better than another?

Using the nutrition criteria above, you will see some lunch meats meet the criteria better than others from the standpoint of heart health. When considering which meats are associated with increased cancer risk, all fall under the same umbrella of "processed meat."

For this reason, your best options for lunch meats come from the truly natural forms of these meats. Slice your own turkey breast, cut chicken pieces off of a roasted rotisserie, or shave your own slices of beef from a rump roast.

How much lunch meat "can I get away with"?

According to the press release from the IACR, eating approximately two ounces of processed meat per day can increase cancer risk by 18%. That's equivalent to the amount of lunch meat included on a six-inch Subway sandwich every day.

The cancer risk continues to rise as processed meat consumption increases, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. For this reason, AICR recommends avoiding these foods, except for special occasions. 

Can I still go to Subway (or the like of sandwich shops)?

Of course you can. Just be mindful of how often you do and what you are ordering. Many places (Jason's Deli is a favorite of mine) offer sliced chicken breast instead of lunch meat. It is easy to opt for meatless options as many specialty sandwich shops as well, thanks to so many savory toppings like specialty cheeses, avocado, and decadent smears.

 

Ratings from a Registered Dietitian

Want to know what I would recommend if we were on a grocery shopping tour together? Click the link below to get your FREE "What I Buy and Why Download" for my good, better, and best lunch meat recommendations!

 

Final Remarks

It is unrealistic to assume most Americans are going to ditch eating sandwiches all together. 50% of us eat them every.single.day.

For this reason, I think it deems at least stating that the occasional sandwich isn't going to kill you. Risk is not the same as cause. So although eating sandwich meat every day may increase your risk to certain cancers, we recognize that there are several other factors that also come into play (ie. your diet, exercise, genetics, and other lifestyle-related areas). However the link between diet and disease, and in this case lunch meat and cancer risk, is undeniable. This makes what you put between your two pieces of bread important in creating a healthy lifestyle for sandwich eaters everywhere.

Make conscious decisions about which lunch meats you buy. If nothing else, check out the EWG Food Scores tool and see what lunch meat option may be both available and affordable as part of your family's lifestyle. Chances are, you could at least find out that is all around healthier for a similar price point.