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Thinking Outside the Lunchbox

It's no secret that the choices offered in most school cafeterias leave something to be desired, both nutritionally and taste-wise. And convenience "kid" lunches-you know, those pre-packaged cracker, cheese and meat slice combos you find in the refrigerated section at the store-aren't a great alternative. They're loaded with sodium, artificial flavors, preservatives, extraneous packaging and do little to teach your child about healthy eating habits.

Instead, why not send your children off to school every day armed with a homemade school lunch that is packed with vitamins, lean protein and other good stuff to feed their growing bodies and developing brains?

Of course, the nutritional value of the lunch you pack for your child is null and void if it ends up getting tossed in the trashcan or traded for a pack of Double Stuf Oreos. That's why you need to think outside the lunchbox when putting together a midday school meal that will really make the grade.

Guidelines for Assembling an A+ School Lunch

The most important thing is to plan out meals each week or at least the night before. If you feel rushed in the morning, you're more likely to be forced to throw together an unappetizing amalgam of the week's leftovers or yet another sloppy PB&J.

Choose meals that are appropriate for your budget, your child's tastes and that are realistic for your time constraints. Listed below are a few guidelines for assembling a winning school lunch:

  • Invest in a cute/cool insulated lunch bag, a Thermos and a few reusable containers in a variety of shapes and sizes;
  • Chances are good that your child won't have access to a refrigerator or microwave, so choose foods that don't require either;
  • Use ice packs for any items that need to stay cool;
  • Pick foods that aren't likely to spill or require too much assembly on your child's part;
  • Kids love things that are bite-sized or miniaturized and are more likely to enjoy something that is tailored to their small hands;
  • Throw in an individually wrapped antibacterial hand-wipe and a napkin;
  • Know your child's school policy on peanuts and whether they are banned from kids' lunches and snacks; and
  • Be sensitive to your child's humiliation factor and don't pack anything "stinky" (hello, egg salad!).

Forget Boring Bread

Revamping your child's school lunch may be as easy as changing up the bread you use for their sandwiches. Instead of the same wheat bread day in and day out, try one of these fun alternatives:

  • Small bagels, or bagel bread;
  • Flat "deli" rounds, like those from Pepperidge Farm or Arnold Select;
  • Pita pockets;
  • English muffins or English muffin bread;
  • Croissants;
  • Rice cakes; and
  • Gourmet breads like banana bread or homemade zucchini bread.

Kids love finger foods that are easy to grab and fun to eat. Use soft tortillas to create wraps or rollups using sliced turkey, cheese, guacamole and lettuce. Make sure the wrap is tightly rolled to prevent it from falling apart and cut into kid-friendly pieces, or wrap in aluminum foil and show your child how to unwrap as they eat to prevent spillage.

Alternatives to Peanut Butter & Jelly

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a quintessential American school lunch staple, but even the classics get a little dull after a while. Mix it up by trying something new, like peanut butter with honey and bananas, honey peanut butter, cashew butter, hazelnut butter or almond butter.

Or, take a break from peanut butter altogether and try sandwiches made with new and interesting flavor combinations that will delight and possibly even expand your child's palate:

  • Fresh veggies and vegetable cream cheese;
  • Turkey and diced avocado; or
  • Light cream cheese and jam.

Want to save both time and money? Use last night's leftovers to build your child's school lunch sandwich. With a little finesse, they'll never notice it's a rerun. Dice a boneless chicken breast and mix it with corn and canned black beans (rinsed and drained) and roll up into a tortilla, or use the meatballs from last night's spaghetti to create a mini-meatball sub.

Skip the Sandwich Altogether

Your child's lunch doesn't have to revolve around a sandwich. At least once a week, try replacing the sandwich with something a bit unexpected, but equally satisfying:

  • Pack a Thermos of homemade vegetable soup, made with pasta in fun shapes and a pack of crackers;
  • Hummus or vegetable puree (roasted pepper, for instance) with fresh vegetables and pita triangles;
  • A smorgasbord of cheese cubes, grapes, crackers, sliced apples, pears and peanut butter-and-cracker "sandwiches";
  • A slice of homemade pizza or bagel pizza cut into small pieces; or
  • Rollups made with lean, low-sodium sliced turkey, ham or chicken rolled with cheese (like a wrap, but minus the bread).

Lunch Accompaniments and Fun Sides

Your child's outside-the-lunchbox midday meal isn't complete without a side or two. But instead of throwing in an apple, a juice box that's loaded with sugar and a baggie of processed cookies or crackers, choose side items that are more natural and are fun to eat:

  • Homemade trail mix (cashews, dried cranberries, chocolate chips, granola, etc.);
  • Frozen grapes;
  • Carrot sticks, grape tomatoes and sliced bell peppers with a small container of light ranch dip or cottage cheese;
  • Lightly salted unshelled edamame (or soy beans, found in the frozen vegetable section). Kids have fun "popping" the soy beans out of their pods;
  • Celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins, otherwise known as "ants on a log";
  • Sliced and diced fresh fruit with homemade fruit dip or vanilla yogurt; and
  • Cheesy popcorn (mix shredded cheese with warm microwave popcorn).

Healthy drinks are just as important as smart food choices, so resist the convenient pull of the juice box. Instead, pack a small, reusable water bottle filled with naturally flavored water, real fruit juice and seltzer water or chocolate soy milk.

Fun School Lunch Ideas

Once you've gotten into a groove of experimenting with new flavor combinations and school lunch alternatives, you can up the creative ante by occasionally putting together a themed lunch, such as "The Lunch Round-up" with round foods (Ritz crackers, a bagel sandwich and fruits and veggies cut into circles) or alphabet themed meals (cold cuts, cheese, crackers, carrot sticks, cucumbers and a cookie for "C" day).

A little creativity-cheese cut into hearts and stars, or sandwiches cut out with cookie cutters-goes a long way in putting together a great school lunch that is good for your kids and won't put them to sleep.