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A “make-your-own” lunch like cracker sandwiches with shaped lunch meat and cheese can bring fun to your children’s lunch.
AP photo by Larry Crowe
A “make-your-own” lunch like cracker sandwiches with shaped lunch meat and cheese can bring fun to your children’s lunch.

Lunch in a crunch
Packing your child's meal doesn't need to be a nightmare

By Annmarie Timmins
For The Associated Press

If you don't know what to put in your child's lunch box, look to the wide variety of lunch boxes out there for inspiration.

Insulated bags and boxes often come with separate compartments to keep food at different temperatures, and everything in its place. And there's plenty of room for individual tiny containers, so children can have fun "making" their own food.

"I've had four kids, and if the lunches are fun, parents aren't going to get resistance," says Kit Bennett, founder of the family advice site "It's worth a little bit of extra effort the night before if you know you are providing healthy food."

For example, in an insulated, multi-compartment lunch box, pack a "make your own taco" kit, complete with lettuce, shredded cheese, meat and salsa your child can use to assemble a have-it-your-way healthy Mexican meal. Or instead of assembling a sandwich yourself, pack the ingredients separately and let your child put it all together at lunch (or eat it in deconstructed fashion).

Of course, you'll need to make sure you're packing foods your child likes in the first place.

"Get kids involved so they are more likely to eat it," suggests Deanna Cook, director of creative development for FamilyFun magazine. "I often talk with my kids about how lunch went that day. I ask them if there was something someone else had that looked good."

Several times a year Cook even joins her daughters, ages 6 and 10, for lunch at school to see what their peers are eating.

Many parents are inclined to underestimate how adventurous their children's palates are. But if your family is like many today who eat out more, often at ethnic restaurants, your child already may have expanded tastes. So don't be afraid to borrow some ideas.

Bennett said her children enjoy Asian and Mediterranean foods, so she has packed sushi, falafel and Greek salads. And the once-exotic hummus is now so mainstream many children enjoy it as a dip for vegetables.

Once you've sussed out what the little ones want, put as much energy into finding appealing and functional ways of packing it.

Let your children help select their lunch boxes. Many lunch box companies now sell models intended to be customized, either with craft supplies or professional monograming done when they are ordered.

The food itself can be fun, too. Bennett likes to pack lunches with themes. For "zoology," cut your child's sandwich with a lion or bear cookie cutter. Add "bugs" on a log (cream cheese filled celery with raisins on top) and decorate a banana with monkey stickers. If Bennett is going for a circus theme, she'll add sides of popcorn and animal crackers.

She also keeps a stockpile of comic strips, riddles, jokes and Mad Libs and includes one with the lunch.

It sounds like a lot of extra work, but it doesn't have to be.

"Get organized. A little bit of effort on the weekend can save you a lot of stress," says Bennett said. "Keep everything in one place so you aren't running around in the morning looking for things."

Make lunch interesting

Some simple suggestions for packing lunches your child won’t want to trade.

  • Take your child grocery shopping. Even pre-schoolers can give you some idea of what they do and don’t like.

  • Keep a master list of your child’s
    favorites, categorized by main courses and sides, and include them in your weekly menu planning.

  • Don’t forget that peer pressure occurs in the cafeteria, too. Keeping your children involved in the selection and packing of their lunches will help them be more comfortable eating it, especially if it’s different from what their friends are eating.

  • If you have a garden, encourage your child to incorporate some of the harvest into lunch. That’s worked for Deanna Cook, director of creative development for FamilyFun magazine, whose daughters choose their own lunch box sides from the family garden. A grocer’s produce section can stand in if you lack a yard or green thumb.

  • Don’t hesitate to resort to humor. Cut a comic strip out of the morning newspaper and slip it into your child’s lunch. Or write a knock-knock joke on the outside of her lunch bag. Write the punch line on the dessert bag.

  • Freeze juice boxes and water bottles. It keeps the drink cold (but will thaw by lunch) and doubles as a chill pack.

    The Associated Press

    Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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