Burning Questions: Kids' healthy lunches

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A turkey breast sandwich, lettuce and vine ripe A turkey breast sandwich, lettuce and vine ripe tomatoes. Photo Credit: iStock

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Erica Marcus Erica Marcus (face disguised) is Newsday's food writer.

Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998.

How can I make my kids' sandwiches healthier?

"Healthy" is a moving target these days, but let's posit that a healthy diet relies on unprocessed foods, whole grains, fresh produce and as little added sugar as possible. When you apply those lofty goals to sandwiches, here's what you come up with:

Unprocessed foods

"Luncheon meats" are among the most processed of foods. I'll just quote from the top of the ingredients list of Oscar Mayer "lower-fat" turkey bologna: mechanically separated turkey, turkey, water, modified cornstarch, corn syrup ... and so on. If your kid likes turkey, consider buying a fresh turkey breast and roasting it at home. Ditto pork roast, roast beef, etc. Or buy these freshly roasted at the deli counter. Check the ingredients for cheeses, too. Here's what's in Kraft American Singles (which is, legally speaking, not a cheese at all but a pasteurized, prepared cheese product): milk, whey, milk fat, milk protein concentrate, salt, etc.

Whole grains

The label on that loaf may be festooned with sheaves of wheat and other bucolic signifiers, it may trumpet "unbleached wheat" or "multigrain" or some other evocative phrase, but unless the first ingredient listed is "whole wheat flour," it is not whole-wheat bread. Furthermore, a bread made from whole wheat may well contain other, less attractive constituents such as high-fructose corn syrup, the third ingredient in Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse 100% Whole Wheat Soft Bread.

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Fresh produce

A couple of leaves of lettuce on a sandwich is a great way to get kids to eat vegetables. For an iceberg upgrade, try hearts of romaine (which come already washed) or, if your kid's adventurous, some baby arugula. Most kids like red peppers, and these are a more flavorful sandwich option than out-of-season tomatoes. (Jarred roasted peppers are great on sandwiches, too.) Cherry or grape tomatoes are perfect for the lunchbox.

On the fruit front, think small: little Gala apples, clementines or baby bananas are perfect for the lunch box, self-contained and happy to wait at room temperature.

Little added sugar

Sugar lurks everywhere, often in the guise of corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup (a cheaper and easier-to-blend form of sugar). In addition to most breads and crackers, it shows up in condiments such as Grey Poupon Dijon mustard and Hellman's mayonnaise. (I'm a big fan of Trader Joe's mayo, entirely sugar free.) But sugar's greatest triumph may be the conquest of yogurt. A serving of Dannon Fruit on the Bottom strawberry contains 25 grams of sugar, 2 grams more than a Klondike Bar.

Yes, the supermarket shelves teem with things you don't want in your kids' lunchboxes. But luckily, the ingredients of every product are right there on the package. Make sure you read them.

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