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Explore nutrition tips, kids’ meal plans, kids’ activities, recipes and more from pediatric nutritionist, Melissa Halas, MA, RDN, CDE.

Swapping Lunchbox Sweets: Healthy “Desserts” for Lunchtime

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It’s no surprise that kids just like adults love dessert. But, what is the best choice?  When it comes to lunchtime desserts, you don’t have to rely on the old standbys, like candy or cookies.

Whether it’s school or summer camp, the daily lunch-packing ritual reigns. Along with making sandwiches and packing snacks, the nagging question remains:  When I pack a special treat or dessert what is the healthiest? Should I even include dessert at all?

While exceptionally packable, they are often high in solid fats and added sugars – two nutrients the current dietary guidelines recommend that Americans limit or avoid. Instead of the usual high-fat, high-sugar choices, here are some quick, easy, and healthy lunchbox sweet swaps. These low- or no-prep desserts still give your child a tasty ending to the mid-day meal, but have less added fat and sugar. Additionally, they deliver an extra boost of nutrients, including calcium (for bone-building and strong teeth), fiber (for prolonged feelings of fullness and regularity), and protein (for building muscle and growth).


SWAP IN: Whole wheat graham crackers with peanut or almond butter
SWAP OUT: Chocolate sandwich cookies

Swapping two of the perennial lunchbox favorite “double stuffed” cookies with two whole wheat graham crackers spread with one tablespoon of natural almond or peanut butter provides roughly the same number of calories and comparable grams of total fat. Thanks to the whole grains in the graham crackers and the nutrients in the nut butter, this swap also boasts the healthy additions of dietary fiber, protein, healthy fats, and vitamin E.  (3,4,5)


SWAP IN: Home-made grape jello (grape juice and gelatin)
SWAP OUT: Full-fat pudding cup

By replacing your child’s daily full-fat pudding cup with healthy jello, you’ll eliminate added sugars and fat from dessert altogether while still satisfying his sweet tooth.


SWAP IN: Small, dessert-flavored low–fat yogurt
SWAP OUT: A fun-size candy bar (or two!)

A mint chocolate mini yogurt cup satisfies your kid’s love of the sweet stuff while providing ten percent of the Daily Value for calcium and eight grams of protein. Swapping in the yogurt for two fun-size candy bars (e.g., Snickers or Milky Way) cuts your child’s fat intake by up to seven grams and reduces calories from dessert by 60 percent!


SWAP IN: Low-sugar granola bar
SWAP OUT: Soft-baked chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies

For some chocolate or cinnamon flavored sweetness plus added fiber, swap in low-sugar granola bars for store-bought soft cookies. A reduced-sugar chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin granola bar provides the same flavor profile with fewer calories, half the added sugar, less fat, and more dietary fiber than a common lunchbox soft-baked cookie


SWAP IN: Clementine oranges
SWAP OUT: Flavored applesauce cup

If your kid already prefers fruit to chocolate or baked goods, make the switch from flavored applesauce to two easy-to-peel clementines. This swap cuts added sugars from dessert by roughly ten grams and provides nearly double the dietary fiber to help your child feel full until the bell rings!

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About the Author

Picture of Sally Cohen, DI

Sally Cohen, DI

Sally Cohen is a 2015 candidate in Boston University’s Didactic Program in Dietetics / Master of Science in Nutrition & Dietetic Internship. She is especially interested in pursuing a career in community nutrition education, and getting the word out about how easy it can be to eat healthily every day. She lives in Boston with her husband.

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