White bread bologna sandwich. Cookie. Apple. White bread peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Cookie. Banana. Sometimes a bag of chips. That, in a nutshell, was the dietary equivalent of the school lunches my mother put together as she rushed four kids to the bus stop every day. Usually, the sandwich was trashed or stashed in my locker to become a future science experiment, and the cookie and fruit were supplemented by vending machine junk. (Swiss rolls, anyone?) Times have not changed much. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that middle-school cafeterias are responsible for 40,000 pounds of waste a year to landfills — and 70 percent of that is discarded food. Donna Jaffe of Marietta, Ga., changed her lunch-making practices years ago, when she discovered her boys didn't want to eat what she had packed. So she got them involved in the process. "I decided not to stress, " she says. "If they want to pack last night's cold spaghetti and tomato sauce, that's OK. A bagel and cream cheese sandwich was fine too. "If you are doing all the right [healthy] things for breakfast and dinner, it's not such a big deal." Lisa Cronic of Decatur, Ga., agrees. She likes to make lunches her children don't want to trade at lunchtime. "Get them involved in choosing their own lunches, " she says. Cronic enlists the help of her 5-year-old son, Asa, who loves cheese. They try out samples at the Whole Foods counter, then select a few favorites. She also looks for creative ways to pack a lunch for her 9-year-old daughter, Terryl. A favorite is homemade mini-tacos stuffed with chicken and cheese. She heats them in the morning in the microwave, then double-wraps them in foil and packs them in an insulated lunchbox. Apples are cut into wedges and given a squirt of lemon so they don't turn brown. She also bakes mini-muffins and banana bread and throws them in the freezer to pull out later for lunches. They're thawed by the time the lunch bell rings. Most experts agree: Don't introduce your child to exotic foods in the lunchbox; it's almost a guaranteed toss. But you can make the foods your child does like more appealing. There is a reason kids gravitate to those pre-packaged Lunchables — they look cool. "A healthy lunch is one that kids will eat, " said Cristina Caro, a registered dietitian and program coordinator for Healthy Lifestyles at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. "Packing lunch is a delicate balance between what's good for them and what they're willing to eat."
Cut a sandwich into three or four pieces.
Try some variety in the fruit. If your child will eat only apples, get Granny Smiths, Golden Delicious and McIntosh for variety.
Think color and texture — fruits and vegetables that are bright, like baby carrots, and things that are chewy, like dried fruits.
Also consider your child's lunchtime. Some schools have lunch scheduled as early as 10:45 a.m. Your child might not be hungry for a big lunch then, Caro says.
Pack healthy finger foods as a quick snack or light lunch. "Even older kids like to eat with their hands, " Caro said.
Pat McQuarrie's children are grown, but the Peachtree City mom says it was "a challenge to send lunches, as they did not like the school lunch. I found that younger children liked to 'dip, ' so I created 'inside out' sandwiches."
Start with a crispy breadstick, then build out in any way that sounds good to them. For example: thin-sliced cheese wrapped around the breadstick, then lunchmeat (ham, turkey etc.), then lettuce. Wrap this snugly in plastic. Send a small container of their favorite salad dressing, like ranch or honey mustard.
She suggests a variation of the inside-out sandwich, with mozzarella, then salami, and the dipping sauce could be marinara.
Milk, juice or water?
These days, there are multiple milk choices for kids, from "snow cone" vanilla, to chocolate and strawberry. Flavored milks are OK, because they do provide calcium and vitamins A and D, but parents should be aware of their high sugar content, Caro said.
Best-case scenario: Children should drink skim or 1 percent milk.
Look for 100 percent juice; about 4-6 ounces is OK, Caro says. And plain water is always a good choice.
INSPIRATION FROM THE INTERNET
If your kid is trading — or trashing — his or her lunch, here are some ideas from Web sites to keep them happy for the school year. All sites have recipes on them. www.laptoplunches.com
Tip: When you're deciding what to cook for dinner, think about how you might incorporate leftovers into lunch for the following day. Make extra servings for dinner and set them aside for the next day's lunch.
Tip: Don't assume that your child's uneaten lunch is a sign that he did not like the food. If you ask a few questions, you may find that your child does not have enough time to eat or that he is spending more time socializing with his friends than actually chewing.
Tip: To maintain food at a cool temperature, pack a frozen juice box or water bottle in an insulated lunch bag. You can also use a freezable gel pack. Try to position the coldest item at the top of the bag since cool air settles.
Tip: "I know some marketing genius is developing soy yogurt tubes even as we speak, but in the meantime I'm trying my hand at homemade: I filled a snack-size zip-lock bag with about 1/2 cup cherry soy yogurt and froze it overnight. This morning I cut a very small slit in one corner of the bag. By lunch, it can be squeezed out."
• The "You can be in my club — sandwich": Divide two bread slices, crusts removed, into horizontal halves. Spread one slice with mustard, top with a slice of ham and a slice of your child's favorite cheese. Cover the second bread slice with chicken or turkey and mayonnaise. Cover the third slice with mayonnaise, tomato and cucumber slices. Stack the layers, top with the fourth bread slice, and cut in half. Insert an umbrella toothpick, if desired, into each stack.
• Cheesy tortillas: Spread half a flour tortilla with refried beans, a slice of cheddar, Monterey Jack or mozzarella cheese and mild salsa. Fold the tortilla in half, place between two paper plates and heat in a microwave until the cheese is melted (to heat in the oven, wrap in foil). Cut into triangles or leave whole; wrap in foil. You can also layer one tortilla over another or roll a single tortilla, Mexican fashion.
From www.parentzone.babyzone/com/momtomom/stories: Try packing a scoop of tuna or chicken salad into an ice cream cone. They aren't packed with sugar and kids love them. In a zip-top bag, put cut veggies that your child can use to decorate the head of the cone. Use carrot strips for hair and cherry tomatoes for eyes.
From busycooks.about.com: Small children may not eat very much at one sitting. Think about packing appetizers instead of a large sandwich and whole banana. You can also include more choices if the quantity of each is smaller. Fill mini muffin paper cups with small amounts of food, wrap with foil and pack in the lunchbox.
From www.parentstalk.com: Make Pineapple Kebabs: thread on toothpicks pineapple chunks (1/2-inch pieces), marble cheese cubes (1/2-inch pieces) and slices of nitrate-free ham cut into 1-inch squares.
Other Web sites to get ideas: www.mealsforyou.com www.mealsmatter.org www.kidshealth.org/parent/nutrition
Banana Dog 1 serving Hands on: 10 minutes Total time: 10 minutes
1 hot dog bun (whole wheat, if possible)
1 tablespoon peanut butter or cream cheese
1 tablespoon strawberry or other jam, or honey, if preferred
1 whole unpeeled banana
Raisins, shredded coconut, chopped peanuts
Spread one inner surface of split hot dog bun with peanut butter or cream cheese. Spread other side with jam or honey. Wrap in plastic wrap. Pack a whole banana (in the peel) and a small container of toppings, such as raisins, coconut and peanuts, or whatever else you can think of. At lunchtime, your child can peel the banana and place it in the bun, and sprinkle on the toppings and eat. — Recipe from www.kaboose.com Per serving: 366 calories (percent of calories from fat, 26), 10 grams protein, 63 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 11 grams fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 281 milligrams sodium.
Ultimate Tortilla Roll-up 1 serving Hands on: 5 minutes Total time: 5 minutes
1 whole-wheat tortilla
1 or 2 slices soy cheddar cheese (like Veggie Cheddar)
1 Romaine lettuce leaf, shredded
2 slices tomato
1 teaspoon vinaigrette, your choice
1 baked, skinless chicken breast
Lay tortilla flat. Add cheese. In a small bowl, toss lettuce and tomato with vinaigrette and set aside. Slice chicken, and lay on top of cheese. Top with lettuce and tomato, roll, then wrap with plastic wrap to secure. — From Leanne Ely, author of the "Saving Dinner" cookbook series Per serving: 480 calories (percent of calories from fat, 28), 15 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 27 milligrams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 119 milligrams cholesterol, 49 grams protein, 716 milligrams sodium.
Turkey Roll-ups 6 servings Hands on: 15 minutes Total time: 15 minutes Cut these up into pinwheels for a fun treat. They keep up to three days in the refrigerator.
6 (8-inch) whole-wheat tortillas
3/4 cup fat-free sour cream
1 teaspoon dry ranch dip
12 thinly sliced fat-free turkey breast slices, halved
Microwave tortillas on high 10 to 15 seconds; set aside. Combine sour cream and dry ranch dip; spread 2 tablespoons mixture on 1 side of each tortilla. Top each tortilla with 4 turkey slice halves and spread with 1 1/2 tablespoons preserves. Top tortillas evenly with lettuce and cheese. Roll up tortillas; wrap with plastic wrap. Chill up to 8 hours. — From the upcoming cookbook "Cooking Up Some Changes" produced by the Healthy Lifestyles program at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, due to be released in December. www.choa.org/fitkids Per serving: 290 calories (percent of calories from fat, 21), 15 grams protein, 8 grams fat (3.5 grams saturated), 7 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 510 milligrams sodium.