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#7 Is Deli Meat Safe? And Healthy Lunch Ideas!

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In this episode, I share the research and latest recommendations on deli meat and other processed meats like sausage, bacon, pepperoni, and jerky. 


Kristen asked,  “Hi Kacie, my name is Kristen and I have a 3 and a 2 year old who are very picky eaters. My little one often doesn’t eat when my older one refuses, so he’s catching onto his bad habits. My question is, do you think that trying to give them new foods, like is lunch meat okay to give or I was always told as an adult it was too processed and too much salt. So I don’t know if I should even bother giving that to my kids, but they don’t really eat that much, so I was just looking at my options, but didn’t want to give them unhealthy food. Thank you. Bye.”


So lunch meat, deli meat, whatever you call it, in the episode we explore: 

  • Is processed meat bad? 
  • What about the high sodium content?
  • How much is safe for kids?
  • What about organic, or nitrate free?
  • What are other alternatives to serve?

Is deli meat bad for kids?

Deli meats are part of a larger category- processed meats. Processed meat is a known carcinogen. That means it can increase the risk of chronic disease including cancer, specifically colorectal cancer.  

The WHO defines a processed meat as one that has been transformed through:

  • Salting
  • Curing
  • Fermentation
  • Smoking
  • Or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation

This also includes hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and pepperoni, to name a few.

BUT that doesn’t mean that eating it occasionally WILL give you or your kids cancer.

What is the risk associated with processed meat?

According to the most recent estimates by the Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organization, about 34 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat.

This is compared to about 1 million cancer deaths caused by tobacco smoking. So the number of cancer deaths estimated to be caused by diets high in processed meat is about 3% of the deaths related to cancer caused by smoking. 

Still, I don’t want you or your children to be part of that statistic. I just want you to understand the relative risk compared to smoking so you can see it in a bigger context.

But be assured that the WHO explicitly states processed meat is NOT as dangerous as smoking.

Why is processed meat bad for you? Is it the nitrates, is it the salt, what is it?

Scientists believe nitrates are part of it, but not necessarily the whole picture. 

And research tells us that even processed meats labeled nitrate-free aren’t necessarily better for you. There are still naturally occurring nitrates in many of these products and your body can turn them into nitrites, which can be harmful. Even uncured and organic products don’t escape the potential harm.

Smoked meats and those with a lot of charring or burnt pieces on them also contain something called Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, which is a cancer causing agent.

Is the high sodium in processed meats bad?

I forgot to answer Kristen’s question about sodium content while recording the podcast. But here is the answer.

I don’t worry as much about high sodium, regardless of the food, as long as most meals are made at home, and you only serve processed foods sometimes. 

I worry more if high sodium, high saturated fat, low fiber, high calorie meals are a regular everyday thing, vs. just serving some high sodium foods sometimes. 

There’s not good research to say that we need to be afraid of sodium, unless there’s a pre-existing medical condition that requires low sodium. Fast food and highly processed frozen or packaged meals that fit that criteria I mentioned above (high sodium/high saturated fat/low fiber/high calorie) should be limited to once a week or less. 

What guidelines are there on the amount that is safe to eat?

For kids we don’t have one specific answer. Research isn’t able to determine an exact amount right now. I’d recommend you limit to 1 or fewer servings a day of processed meats, with one serving being approximately:

  • 2 slices of bacon
  • 1 to 2 oz sausage
  • 1 regular sized hot dog, (not the foot long)
  • 1 to 2 oz deli meat (a few slices, it depends how thick it’s sliced, but just think about the amount you’d put on a sandwich)

Ideally, you would serve processed meats less than 3-4 times a week.

What is a good alternative to deli meat?

  • Baked, grilled, or roasted chicken breasts, thinly sliced
    • Can buy pre-made from many stores in the prepared foods section
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Safe Catch brand tuna (low mercury, safe for toddlers) or canned salmon
  • Roasted turkey
    • Some grocery stores, like Whole Foods, have an in-house roasted turkey breast that is basically the same as you roasting a turkey at home
  • Hummus or beans
  • Nut butter


Make lunchtime less stressful with the Meal & Snack Survival Guide! What’s inside:

  • Low & No-Prep Meals: Throw together a simple meal or assemble a relatively balanced place in a matter of minutes.
  • Picky-Eater Friendly: I teach you to buy the basics and put them together. Just choose the basics your picky eater will eat!
  • Better Convenience Foods: Easily swap in more nutritious versions of the foods your kids love.
  • No Label-Reading Required! I give you photos of the exact products you need, to save you time and brain space!

Get the Survival Guide here.

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Where you share your real life struggles with your toddler, and I help with real life solutions.

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