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Lunch Lessons: What's in, what's out, what's always

When it comes to packing school lunches, it is always good to get a mini refresher course on what’s in, what’s out and what’s always, along with some packing tips and favorite foods. The good news is stores are overflowing with fun lunch-box accoutrements – colorful little containers and lunchboxes to make a lunch stay delicious and safe and sound.

A good rule of thumb is to pack a lunch that your child likes (of course, that’s stating the obvious), that will stay reasonably cheery by lunchtime (that’s where the safe and sound comes in), and leans toward the healthy, not-too-processed side. You also don’t want to pack anything that you know is going to end up in that big round file (trash bin) in the lunchroom. And sometimes it is the good stuff (fruit) that ends up there if it competes with the salty, sugary stuff (like chips).

Here are some secrets to lunches that pack a punch using the theme—what’s in, what’s out and what’s always. By following these trends and tips, you can make a school lunch that’s relatively healthy, safe at the plate and cool all at the same time:

What’s out: The “same-old, same-old” choices: overly processed lunch-time snack packs. They are just too high in sugar, salt and other stuff that we don’t want in our children’s lunches. Also sandwiches on white bread with bologna or cold cut slices; they are also on the outs. However, sandwiches in general are always a favorite with kids, so use a little creativity. Different breads, textures, colors with grilled chicken or hummus spread, sun butter and dried cranberries or banana slices all get outside the sandwich mold.

What’s in: Also, mini sandwiches, half sandwiches or mixing-it-up sandwiches are all in: besides varying the bread or sandwich cover, choose cool spreads (hummus, spicy mayo or chutney), a sprinkle of arugula or a leaf of red-leaf or romaine. Smaller sizes are also in: a taste of this and a taste of that allows your child to have a little smorgasbord at school, and everything will be easy to eat. Pack a portion of last night’s dinner: chicken satay skewers with curry sauce; a few tablespoons of corn, tomato and bean salad, Asian coleslaw, even a mini-muffin or half-size waffle with a spread of sun butter. Get creative and use the final bounty from the Farmer’s market or your garden.

What’s always: Fresh veggies or fruit served or cut in bite-sized portions: carrot sticks, mini carrots, fresh fruit, cuties already peeled. Cut an apple ahead of time, then reassemble it like an apple and wrap it up so it is air tight; add fresh berries, pack a few watermelon sticks; on the vegetable side, cherry or grape tomatoes are perfect and even cut up raw vegetables like broccoli or jicama sticks with a dipping sauce like Ranch dressing (always put the sauce in a separate container). Even if the sauce has a touch of sugar, it outweighs the negatives if it encourages your child to enjoy veggies. A few cubes of cheese or a raisins-and-toasted-almonds combo is another “always” favorite.

Here are additional well-seasoned tips from a combo of nutrition professionals, chefs and kid professionals (local moms):

Key ingredients in a great packed school lunch:

#1: Likability: It goes without saying, but it is best to do a gut-check with your child. If you can agree on some favorite foods up front, and maybe involve them in the shopping and lunch-making, all the better. When your child has some say, there is a better chance the lunch will go in the tummy, not in the trash.

#2: Fresh is best: There are all kinds of lunch aides on the market, but most are packed with salt, sugar and extra calories. If you have time and can make some of these things yourself, you may save money.

#3: Less is More: As Kristin Spoden, a mom of three youngsters from Naperville, pointed out, “Don’t feel like you should pack Thanksgiving dinner into your child’s lunch.” If you get most of the food groups, with a focus on fruits/veggies and protein or whole grains, you are on the right track. It is better to have a few good things so that you know your child will have to eat something healthy than have too many items and only the chips get eaten, but not the fruit slices.

#4: Make it easy to eat: The lunch hour doesn’t usually go beyond about 20-30 minutes, and if your child is a slow eater or likes to gab with friends, there is even less time. Make your child’s lunch easy to eat and enjoy; fruit needs to be sliced/cut ahead of time; cut salads in small pieces so they are easily digested and enjoyed. I know it seems the opposite of what we often teach – slow down, eat slowly – but when it comes to school lunches, you need to finish in time.

#5: Add a personal touch: Of course, if your child has a favorite sandwich (sun butter with raspberry jam and banana), snack or salad, that personalizes it. Another way is to add a post-it note, a sticker or even a little card with a quote for older kids. Just something that says I’m thinking of you while they are at school. Nancy McCarthy, president of McCarthy Communications from Oak Brook, said that her kids, who are now in their twenties, still talk about the notes she inserted in their homemade lunches. “As corny as it sounds, they looked forward to them and missed them if they weren’t there.” Even an occasional (or regular) note that says “Good luck on the test,” “I’m rooting for you!” or “love you” is remembered.

#6: Have a ball and do it with a twist: Use a melon baller for a different shape to a fruit salad. And, it makes it easy to eat with a spoon, fork or even your fingers. Another way to do a fruit salad is to cut the fruit into tiny pieces. That way when you eat a spoon full, you get all the flavors at one time, not just the taste of cantaloupe. Delicious!

#7: Pep it up: If your child is quite active or involved in after-school sports or activities, make sure to pack an extra snack or hydrating beverage. Again, a box of berries, a granola bar or nut-butter on carrots can do the trick with a water bottle or sports drink

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