The new school year is underway, and many parents know what's ahead: the lunchbox grind.
Peanut butter and jelly again? Yawn.
"It seems like you either get stuck in a rut, or your kids get bored," says Paula LacKamp of Towson. "Then they don't eat their lunch, and they come home starving."
But with a little planning and some inspiration, creating healthy and fun lunches for kids doesn't have to be a major chore.
LacKamp tries to make lunchtime more interesting for her daughter Hannah, 11, and son Nathaniel, 8, by doing things like switching out sandwich bread for alternatives such as tortillas, pita or crackers. She has also found new ideas on blogs and websites, including a kid-friendly sushi variation that involves pressing regular sandwich bread flat and adding peanut butter and jelly before rolling and cutting into slices.
Though LacKamp doesn't always make lunch for her children, she does like the assurances it gives.
"When you pack a lunch for your kids, you have more control over what goes into their mouths," she says.
She usually looks for foods that have been minimally processed. She also tries to buy lunch meat that has been roasted in-store so there are fewer preservatives and additives. Sometimes, she gets the deli to cut the meat a little thicker so it looks like Lunchables (but isn't highly processed like the pre-made lunch packs).
But it's not just about making the food itself look appealing. What you pack it in can also make a big difference.
"My kids are all about the presentation," says Nikki McGowan, owner of CKCS Foods Studio, which offers cooking classes for kids and adults. "Things look fancier than they really are in different containers."
The Ellicott City mom likes to use small side cups with lids to pack different options for her three children. Another alternative is to take a large plastic container and use silicone cupcake liners for smaller compartments.
In addition to trying different breads, McGowan also changes up the sandwich spreads — chipotle mayo is a favorite in her house. She also suggests making fruit "kebabs" using chopsticks instead of packing whole fruit.
But even though she prefers packing to letting her kids buy, McGowan concedes that sometimes it's not the school lunches that are the culprit when it comes to lack of nutrition.
"I think one of the biggest problems parents encounter is kids only eating the 'good stuff' out of the lunch," she says. "If you give them too many options, don't be surprised if your child becomes a picky eater."
Nutrition consultant Susanna DeRocco of Healthy Bodies, Happy Minds says smaller portions that are easy to eat lead to what she calls "deconstructed" lunches. For example, instead of packing a yogurt parfait, you can pack the components separately and have kids build it themselves.
"Kids eat with their eyes first," says the Towson mother of two. "Separating the colors and textures really does make it look more appealing."
When shopping for lunch food, DeRocco's No. 1 rule is stick to the list.
"If you go in hungry or pressed for time, you'll end up buying more of the processed stuff that's easy to throw in the cart," she says.
And when it comes to preschool- or kindergarten-age children, she says not to worry about getting anything specially geared toward young kids. The difference is not in what you give them, but the amount. For example, pack four carrot sticks instead of a whole bag — the key is to not overwhelm them.
When all else fails, chef Diane Bukatman of For the Love of Food cooking school in Reisterstown suggests involving kids in the process by preparing lunch items together over the weekend. It saves time on weekday mornings, and if kids help decide what they eat, they are more excited about it.
"Lunches should never be stressful, for you or your kids," she says. "Getting them involved will help turn it from a chore into a bonding activity."
What to pack
Here are some lunchbox suggestions from the experts:
Core an apple and cut into rings. Use lemon juice to keep the apples from browning. Spread peanut butter over each ring before sandwiching them together with granola and raisins. Sprinkle in a few dark chocolate chips for a surprise.
Tip: If your child has a peanut allergy or the school prohibits peanut putter, use almond butter instead.
Veggie pita wedges
Pack pita wedges in a large container. In a side container, pack hummus for your child to spread on the wedges. Also include containers of diced carrots, celery and other vegetables that can be sprinkled on top.
Breakfast for lunch
Make oatmeal and pack it in a Thermos. In side containers, add an assortment of sliced fruit, nuts and granola for your child to add at lunch.
Tip: "Preheat" the Thermos by putting hot water in it and let it stand a few minutes before dumping it out and adding the oatmeal. This will keep the oatmeal warmer for a longer time.
Take thin slices of turkey and wrap them around whole-grain pretzels or sesame sticks. Pack with cut fruit and colored toothpicks for your child to make his or her own mini-kebabs.
In small containers, pack shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, salsa and sour cream. In a larger container, put leftover ground beef flavored with taco seasoning. Leave enough room for your child to add the other ingredients. Pack with tortilla chips (and a packet of hot sauce for the more adventurous).
Build-your-own yogurt parfait
Pack low-fat or Greek yogurt in a large container. In smaller compartments pack granola and fruit such as blueberries and sliced strawberries. Add a side cup of honey that your child can pour over the parfait.