You wouldn't believe the stuff kids tote to school in their lunch boxes. While the rest of us have been worrying about polyunsaturates and dreaming up new ways to bake brie, children have been wolfing down buttered bread with pepperoni, string cheese, cold pizza and -- aack! -- Shark Bites.
The latter are jelly candies in the shape of fish. In swapping power at the cafeteria, they're right up there with chocolate chip cookies, potato chips and fruit leather in the shapes of turtles, horses and planes.
The swapping season begins this week in most local school districts. The lunch boxes will be dusted off and filled with all kinds of good things, which may or may not make it into the toters' tummies.
"There is more trading going on at school than you would ever dream of at lunch time," says Nancy Walker, mother of Jimmy, 6; Ruthie, 8; and Nikki, 9.
There's also a bit of pitching going on.
Erin Lawson, a fourth-grader, says her mother sometimes slips butterscotch pudding into her lunch box, even though eating that flavor is considered uncool at her school.
"I usually throw it away," she whispered out of earshot of her mom.
Arrgh. If a child will pitch pudding, what are the are the chances of getting her to dine on yogurt, wheat bread, raw vegetables and other nutritious foods?
Pretty good, if the child is the cook. A child is less likely to trade or toss out a lunch that he or she has helped choose and make.
"They eat their lunch a lot better when they help pack it," Walker confirms.
That doesn't mean that Mom and Dad can't make suggestions, or come up with sneaky, fun ways to prepare healthful foods.
If an apple sounds boring, suggest a yummy ambrosia salad of oranges, pineapple and nuts. Instead of plain peanut butter -- the hands-down favorite among children we interviewed -- make Pretzelwiches with pretzels, cheese slices and peanut butter.
And there's no rule that says lunch has to include a sandwich. Kirk Cottman, 10, a fifth-grader, and Kori Bauman, 9, a fourth-grader, say they wouldn't touch one.
In that case, get creative by stringing meat and fruit chunks on toothpicks for miniature kabobs, or baking meat and vegetables into a muffin that's so good it could pass for dessert.
Or follow Nikki Walker's suggestion. Her favorite "sandwich" is mashed banana between Ritz crackers.
Even picky eaters may be tempted by offbeat lunch treats such as the kabobs or muffins. But such protein foods must be packed correctly so they're safe to eat when the lunch bell rings.
Bacteria thrive at 60 to 125 degrees, so foods must be kept hot or cold, advises the cooperative extension service. Vacuum bottles and containers are good bets. For cold foods, so are ice packs filled with commercial gel.
Another trick is to freeze a sandwich overnight, and send it to school in a lunch box or bag. The sandwich will be thawed but still cool at lunchtime.
Lunch boxes should be washed daily so that bacteria do not grow in seams and creases. If brown bags are preferred, only new ones should be used, the extension service recommends. Bags that have been used for groceries may be contaminated with insects or bacteria from raw foods.
Whether to use a bag or box is a decision best left up to the kids. Michael Derr, a third-grader, says all but two or three children at his school carry lunch boxes. Other children, especially older boys, say they wouldn't be caught dead with a Duck Tales lunch pail.
4 large, seedless oranges
2 20-ounce cans pineapples chunks in natural juice
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup toasted, slivered almonds, or sesame seeds
With a sharp knife, cut peel from orange to remove both rind and pith. Cut oranges in slices crosswise, then in bite-size pieces. Drain pineapple, reserving juice. Toss chunks with oranges and almonds or sesame seeds. Drizzle with honey and toss again. Add enough pineapple juice to moisten. Pack in lidded containers.
1 slice American cheese
1 teaspoon peanut butter
8 small pretzels (about 1 1/2 inches wide)
Cut the cheese slice into four squares. For each pretzelwich, dab a little peanut butter in center of each square. Press a pretzel into the peanut butter to make it stick. Turn cheese slice over and repeat same steps on other side to make a sandwich. Pack in a plastic bag. Makes four.
Ham 'n Corn Muffins
1/2 cup melted margarine
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1/2 cup shredded ham
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
XTC In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Stir in margarine and buttermilk. Stir in corn and ham.
Combine remaining ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix well. Pour into the ham and corn mixture, and gently stir until the dry ingredients are mixed in.
Pour into 12 greased or paper-lined muffin cups. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes. Makes 12.