Peanut Butter and Jelly or a Ham-and-Swiss Sandwich?
The better choice: PB & J.
Two tablespoons of any kind of peanut butter provides about eight grams of protein. And peanut butter is a great source of monounsaturated fats, which help increase good-cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease. (Ham is much higher in sodium, and cheese adds saturated fat.) You can also use low-sugar jelly to reduce calories, says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).
Keep in mind: Even though peanut butter is a healthy choice, it still has 16 grams of fat a serving. Spread it sparingly and, ideally, on whole-wheat bread.
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Puffed Rice Cereal or Raisin Bran?
The better choice: Raisin bran.
"Iron-rich raisins pack a nutritional punch, and one cup of raisin bran has around seven grams of fiber, which kids don't get enough of," says Elisa Zied, M.S., R.D., the author of Feed Your Family Right! (John Wiley & Sons, $17, amazon.com). Fiber recommendations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) range from 19 grams, for 1- to 3-year-olds, to 31 grams, for 9- to 13-year-old males. Also, cereals with flakes retain more of their nutritional value than puffed varieties, according to a 2006 study published in Food Chemistry.
Keep in mind: Be sure to brush after eating the sugarcoated raisins―one serving of raisin bran has 19 grams of sugar.
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Apple Juice or Orange Juice?
The better choice: Orange juice.
When comparing apples to oranges, OJ is the clear favorite. Eight ounces of 100 percent natural juice has more than twice the amount of vitamin C recommended by the USDA for children ages 1 to 13 (and six times the amount found in an equal serving of apple juice). Even if your child drinks a small glass (more like four ounces), she'll probably get her daily fix.
Keep in mind: For complete nutrition and a fuller, satisfied feeling, nothing beats going directly to the source. Eat an apple or an orange instead.
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Hamburger or Hot Dog?
The better choice: Hamburger.
Headed to a barbecue? Opt for a burger, which is lower in saturated fat than a hot dog, contains a healthy dose of B vitamins (which keep the immune and nervous systems humming), and is an excellent source of protein (18 grams in three ounces of 95 percent–lean beef). "A hefty nutritional package," says Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler. Plus, a study of more than 37,000 women found that frequent consumption of processed meats, like hot dogs, may be linked to type 2 diabetes.
Keep in mind: When making burgers at home, use ground meat that is at least 90 percent lean, since 85 percent lean has nearly eight more grams of fat per three-ounce serving than 95 percent–lean meat.
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Pretzels or Cheerios?
The better choice: Cheerios.
When packing the ubiquitous snack bag to toss to a kid in a car seat (or to quiet a screamer in a stroller), choose the O's. Not only are they fortified with vitamins and minerals, but a one-cup serving also contains six milligrams of iron, which is just shy of a kid's daily allowance. Iron is crucial for development of the brain and the nervous system. In addition, Cheerios are made with whole grains and little sugar―a rarity in a cereal (or a snack, for that matter).
Keep in mind: As snacks go, pretzels aren't bad. They're low in fat and calories. To increase their nutritional value, choose whole-wheat pretzels and low- or no-sodium varieties.
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Yogurt or Applesauce?
The better choice: Yogurt.
Growing bones need calcium, and six ounces of yogurt provides about 200 milligrams of it―a substantial amount, considering that USDA guidelines call for 800 milligrams daily for kids four to eight years old. In addition, yogurt has five grams of protein (applesauce contains neither calcium nor protein). To get the most nutritional bang, look for brands with live and active cultures, which are beneficial bacteria that aid in gastrointestinal health. Keep in mind: Yogurt can be high in sugar. Yoplait Kids, which has 25 percent less sugar than the average yogurt for kids, has 13 grams, about the same amount in a fun-size pack of chocolate candies. A better call: plain yogurt, which has the most calcium of any dairy product. Sweeten it with honey or fruit.
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Carrots or Peas?
The better choice: Carrots.
Peas are a fine choice, but carrots have more nutritional value on their résumé. They are higher in antioxidants, including beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A, an essential for eyesight, a strong immune system, and the upkeep of cells and tissues.
Keep in mind: Peas have plenty to offer, including fiber and folate, two nutrients that may help fight heart disease and cancers. The bottom line? "Don't worry about the vegetables your kids avoid. Capitalize on the vegetables your kids like, then try to introduce other produce gradually," advises Ward.
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Cheese Pizza or Grilled Cheese?
The better choice: Grilled cheese.
Cheese is a good source of calcium and protein, no matter the dish, but this battle comes down to how and where the meals are made. Pizza probably comes from a delivery person; grilled cheese is usually made at home, where you can control the type of cheese, the amount of butter, and the bread. (Ward suggests reduced-fat Cheddar, Olivio spread in place of butter, and whole-wheat bread.) Plus, grilled cheese has built-in portion control. A large pizza often lingers for breakfast.
Keep in mind: A pizza is a better vehicle for vegetables, like red peppers, broccoli, and extra tomatoes, if you can slip them in.
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Chocolate or Vanilla?
The better choice: Vanilla.
"Chocolate products contain a small amount of caffeine," notes Melinda Johnson, M.S., R.D., a spokesperson for the ADA. "If a child overdoes it with chocolate, he may be a bit more wired than usual. Most adults won't feel the effect."
Keep in mind: Birthday treats are just that―treats. Let kids have no more than one slice of cake, which is packed with saturated fat, and one scoop of ice cream.
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Spaghetti or Macaroni and Cheese?
The better choice: Spaghetti.
If your child likes to slurp up marinara with his spaghetti, then you've got a winner by an(angel) hair. Tomato sauce is significantly lower in fat and calories than the melted Cheddar that's all over the elbow macaroni. It also contains lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that may prevent certain types of cancer and heart disease. Make sure you have a jar of the red stuff on hand, as noodles with butter won't give you the healthy lift.
Keep in mind: To lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes, pick whole-grain pasta instead of ones made with enriched flour. Whole-grain pasta can have a strong flavor, so don't skimp on the sauce. (You can also replace marinara with a lean-meat Bolognese.)
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Chicken Nuggets or Fish Sticks?
The better choice: Fish sticks.
"Fish sticks have omega-3 fatty acids, and the nuggets don't," says Johnson. "And every little bit of these acids helps. They are critical for neurological and cognitive development, and they may reduce asthma, eczema, and allergies." You are more likely to get your toddler to eat fish sticks than a salmon fillet, so get those omega-3s in where you can.
Keep in mind: Chicken nuggets and fish sticks are both high in fat. Frozen varieties range from 10 to 20 grams per serving, with up to five grams of saturated fat and 500 milligrams of sodium.
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SpaghettiOs or Chicken Noodle Soup?
The better choice: SpaghettiOs.
A canned pasta that might sit on a shelf for months might not scream "fresh and nutritious," but SpaghettiOs are fortified with nine vitamins and minerals and have quite a bit of fiber and protein. They also have less sodium than canned chicken noodle soup. One drawback: They are sweetened with 13 grams of sugar per one-cup serving.
Keep in mind: Homemade chicken noodle soup is the best call, whether you've got the flu or not. Add diced carrots and other vegetables to up the nutritional value.
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Fruit Leather or Granola Bar?
The better choice: Fruit leather.
One hundred percent natural fruit leather has about 45 calories and a short ingredient list―usually fruits and juice―making it the obvious choice. Even fruit-leather brands that add corn syrup are significantly lower in fat and calories than granola bars.
Keep in mind: "Neither is a great choice when it comes to dental health," says Zied. "They're very sticky and gooey." That means bits get lodged in the teeth and usually need a good brushing to become unstuck. At the very least, have kids drink a glass of water to wash away some of the cavity-causing remnants.