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Back-to-school means back-to-lunch - Why not pack a meal that will be the highlight of their day?

As the first day of school approaches, many parents are preparing to face the daily ritual of packing lunches, an often daunting task. What exactly is going to go into those shiny and often fashionable lunchboxes every day for the next several months?

A healthy lunch provides kids the fuel they need to get through those draining afternoon hours as well as their after-school activities and sports. And at a time when concerns over childhood obesity are at an all-time high, packing their lunch is one very tangible way parents can make a healthy difference in their child’s day at school.

While some children can eat the standard ham and cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich day after day, most kids like variety. When packing them a lunch they will love, chances are better that it won’t end up in the trash or being traded for another kid’s junk food. But packing a meal that is healthy, portable, and creative can be a challenge. Here are some ideas that will keep kids interested and excited to open their lunchboxes every day.

One simple way to make sandwiches more exciting is to give them a new look by using cookie cutters to fashion them into fun shapes. Or make a wrap with your sandwich ingredients, rolling everything up in a slice of bread or a large tortilla. Mix it up by substituting bagels or English muffins instead of loaf bread, and make the healthy choice of whole-wheat instead of white whenever possible. Ever think about making mini submarine sandwiches by using hot dog buns? Or ditch the bread altogether and use the meat and cheese to make lunch rollups. Get creative by adding pickle spears, cream cheese, and other condiments. If the kids don’t mind cold items that are usually served warm, like grilled cheese or quesadillas, those can be welcome additions to the lunch repertoire.

Tuna-fish, egg, or chicken salad can be good options, especially if one uses Tupperware with different compartments to separate sandwich elements so they don’t get soggy. Kids love to assemble things themselves. It’s easy to make your own lunch snack combinations similar to the name brand ones that feature crackers, cheese slices, meat, and some fun extras such as apple slices and let your child’s creativity take over.

Another idea is a spin on homemade pizza, using toasted bagels or cut up tortillas and sending a container of pizza sauce and shredded cheese.

Mexican food is a tasty lunch alternative. Wrap up some grilled chicken, black beans and rice and top with cheese, salsa, and sour cream, or make a simple burrito of refried beans and cheese. Tacos and burritos can be as simple or complex as you want and always travel well. A tamale dinner will likely provide extra portions to send as lunch the next day. Homemade nachos are as easy as tortilla chips with chili for dipping and cheese on top.

Leftovers are great candidates for being reheated and sent in a thermos for a hot lunch. Meals that are good for this include soups, mac-n-cheese, casseroles, spaghetti or other pasta dishes, and stir fry with rice. It’s better to heat these dishes on the stove or in the oven before packing in the thermos, as microwaved food doesn’t hold the heat long enough to make it to lunchtime.

Cold foods that work well are potato or pasta salad, chicken fingers, and fish sticks. Kids love to dip, so send along some ketchup and tartar sauce in small containers. Cut up vegetables with ranch dressing or a hummus dip, and fruit with cream cheese or yogurt dip. Sliced apples and peanut butter are always a hit snack.

Baggies of chips, pretzels, or popcorn are other simple snack ideas. Send apple sauce, yogurt, or fruit cups but don’t forget a spoon! String cheese or hard boiled eggs are good sources of protein. Pre-peel the egg and send in a separate bag with some salt and pepper packets if desired for flavor. Mixed nut trail mix combined with dried fruit or chopped up granola bars that are high in fiber are also healthy, yet yummy snacks.

For drinks, try flavored water packs as substitutes for sugary juice boxes or soda, or look for drinks that are 100 percent juice.

Finally, let your kids have input on what they like in their lunch, giving them several options or having them choose their snack items. Remember that proper portion size is the key to any healthy, balanced meal.

A special note in their lunchbox wishing them luck on their test or simply saying “I love you” is that extra touch that can make both packing and eating lunch something to look forward to. With these ideas, don’t let this year’s lunch packing intimidate you but have fun creating this important meal.

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