When it comes to packing lunch, parents know to avoid products with excessive sugar, fats, and additives. But there’s another important item that sneaks into many favorite foods: high amounts of salt and sodium. Why is this an issue? According to the CDC, 90% of school aged children consume too much sodium; on average, over 3,000mg a day. Which is double the American Heart Association recommended limit of 1,500. And almost half of that comes from, you guessed it, snack and lunch.
But before you panic or only pack carrot sticks, take a moment to re-evaluate that lunch routine. Then, to play with your food! Once you discover the high sodium ingredients that need to get tossed, use the following list for equally tasty (and easy!) swaps. Not only will you avoid excess sodium and rely on less processed foods, but you’ll also introduce more nutrient-rich foods to your kid’s mid-day meal. Not to mention, color, flavor, and fun. So roll up your sleeves and get those tiny hands involved, too. It’s time to makeover lunch into a truly happy, healthy meal.
Sodium Sneak: Bread
Whether it’s tuna, PB&J, or turkey on wheat, sandwiches are a lunchbox staple for kids and adults alike. But they can also be a huge source of excess sodium; bread being a major player in these high numbers. Most bread contains around 80 to 200mg of sodium, per slice. Even a slice of wheat contains around 140mg of sodium. A 6-inch flour tortilla lands around 200mg sodium, depending on the brand. And a medium egg bagel contain close to 500mg sodium; which is one third of the recommended intake, without cream cheese or other high sodium toppings.
Healthy Swap: Start by comparing nutritional labels and choosing products with lower sodium. For example, most corn tortillas contain less than 20mg sodium per serving. So pick products wisely. But remember, this is a great opportunity to get creative (and get your kids involved in the kitchen!). So think “outside the bread,” and putting favorite sandwich fillings into a lettuce wrap, rolled in seaweed sheets, stuffed into a hollowed cucumber “baguettes”, in that corn tortilla, or on wheat-free cauliflower bread.
Sodium Sneak: Cheese
Salt is one of the main ingredients used to make cheese. It naturally keeps moisture and bacteria growth out, while boosting taste and texture. But a single ounce of cheddar can contain 200mg or more of sodium, per slice. A single ounce of other varieties may even exceed the amount of sodium in a bag of chips! And even healthy sounding 1% cottage cheese may contain more than 800mg sodium per cup.
Healthy Swap: The good news is that low-sodium cheeses do exist. Certain types (like Swiss, ricotta, Parmesan, and no-salt-added cottage cheese) will contain less than 60mg of sodium per serving. So check labels constantly for options. But if you wish to cut down on the dairy or ditch it altogether, look to vegan and raw chefs diets for inspiration. Then, when you want something to sprinkle (like in veggie-packed quesadillas), simply mix shredded yellow squash and zucchini with a smaller portion of cheese. When you need something rich and saucy, use pureed carrots or butternut squash. And for something to spread, blend steamed cauliflower with cashews or pine nuts until creamy.
Sodium Sneak: Cold Cuts
According to the American Heart Association, about 6 thin slices of deli meat will equal more than half the day’s 1,500mg of sodium allotment. A beef hot dog, on average, equals around 400mg sodium. And even 3oz of canned tuna can equal around 300mg sodium; with 3oz of smoked salmon clocking in at over 500mg sodium.
Healthy Swap: Like cheese, low-sodium or no-salt-added deli options do exists. So take the time to talk to your butcher or buyer to find these products. And always check labels! But there’s an equally easy way to replace the cold cuts, cured meats, and canned items. Simply prep a bunch of roasted chicken, meatballs, grilled salmon, or hard-boiled eggs on a slow Sunday. Then use these cooked proteins throughout the week to mix into pasta salads or that cucumber baguette — great for adult lunches, too! As for cured meats, make your own sausage, bacon, and smoked fish from scratch; without salt or added sodium. Or on a meatless Monday, try something fun, like these squash dogs, to add more nutritional punch to a favorite meal.
Sodium Sneak: Sandwiches
At this point, it’s pretty easy to see how one single sandwich — made from bread, spread, cheese, and deli meat — easily equals half or all of the day’s recommended sodium intake; if not more.
Healthy Swap: Start by mixing and matching the previous ideas for bread, meat, and cheese replacements. And then, in place of higher sodium mayonnaise, spreads, or cream cheese, slather your slice substitute with creamy cauliflower “ricotta,” broccoli yogurt spread, smashed avocado, or Greek yogurt (mixed with herbs, smashed peas, or blended beets!)
Sodium Sneak: Savory Snacks
It’s right there in the name. Many favorite snacks tend to be covered in salt or salty spice mixes to get that savory flavor. Pretzels, on average, contain over 700mg per sodium for 10 pieces; popular fish-shaped crackers contain about 200mg per 40 pieces; and even “healthier” wheat crackers mean over 200mg per 16 piece serving.
Healthy Swap: As with all the other foods, start by comparing labels and stick to small portions. Or, get creative with more nutrient-rich ingredients! Make crackers out of pasta or square-sized sheets of toasted seaweed. Introduce roasted chickpeas or oven-fried tofu bites in place of those cheesy crackers. And replace “chips” with thin rounds of raw jicama, apple, and cucumber, or these easy microwave chips. Then, use DIY spice blends — like garlic powder with nutritional yeast “parmesan,” BBQ, bagel, or even bacon flavors– to add a big flavor boost!
Sodium Sneak: Pizza
With the dough, tomato sauce, cheese, cured meat, and other salty toppings, a single slice of pie can equal around 800mg sodium; or more than half of the day’s sodium allotment.
Healthy Swap: So let’s start this makeover by looking at the crust. The first options is, of course, to buy lower-sodium dough or make it yourself. But remember, this is an opportunity to mix things up and work more veggies into that noon-time meal. So, instead, skip the dough and make an equally easy (and way more healthy) crust from chickpea flour, tortillas, or riced cauliflower! And since we’re breaking rules, take those favorite pizza fillings and stuff them inside zucchini boats, a roasted sweet potato, or tortilla hand pies. Then, for sauce, skip the higher sodium red stuff, and use cauliflower “ricotta,” homemade vegetable pesto, or use pumpkin or butternut squash sauce instead. And when it comes to toppings, go untraditional and skip the cured meats and use thinly sliced yellow squash and zucchini, cauliflower chorizo, or fruit instead.
Sodium Sneak: Sweets
Just because sweet treats tend to be filled with sugar, many items may also contain an unexpectedly high amount of sodium. Frosting, for example, means around 70mg sodium per 2 tablespoons, depending on the brand. And when you consider generous slathering as well as the high amount of sodium in prepared cake mixes (over 300mg per serving, for popular yellow cake brand) as well as baking powder (400mg per 1 tsp) and baking soda (1,249mg per 1 tsp), this simple cupcake suddenly equals the sodium in a piece of pepperoni pizza, or more.
Healthy Swaps: Keep the sweet tooth satisfied while keeping extra sodium at bay, and ditch prepared frostings for a homemade version, made with Greek yogurt and (surprise!) vegetables. With the help of steamed purple sweet potatoes, red beets, and orange carrots, you can make almost all the colors of the rainbow. Add a little lemon or orange zest and powdered sugar to get the desired zing and sweetness your palate wants. Then frost away.
And here’s another sweet tip. A typical glazed donut will mean about 200 to 300mg of sodium. And let’s be real: Who can stop at one? But skip the donut shop and give kids a sweet treat with fresh apples instead. Core them and then cut into round rings, about 1/2-inch thick. Complete the sweet makeover by drizzling the apple “donuts” with melted dark or white chocolate (or some of that veggie frosting!) and decorating with a sprinkling of fun toppings, like dried cranberry crumble, ginger and lime zest, and of course, colorful jimmies.
All sodium values and references come from the CDC, AHA, or the USDA National Nutrient Database Release 28. Please check those resources for changes and updates.