Packed to Please Lunch: Dietitians offer smart tips for fixing school meals that pass concerned parents' muster and finicky children's taste tests.


Kids are worried about finding their way around new schools, finding out what new teachers expect, wondering if they'll make new friends. But parents have a bigger worry, the old 8,000-pound gorilla that lumbers around every school year -- it's called lunch.

Packing lunch for a child can try a parent's patience, fray the nerves, test the sanity and devastate the refrigerator. How, how to make it nutritious, delicious and, above all, something the child will eat?

"Kids have to like the food," said dietitian Jodie Shield. "It has to be fun and we'd like it to be healthy, but it has to be tasty."

There are good reasons to pack lunch for a child: making sure he gets something nutritious, controlling portions, avoiding foods he may be allergic to, matching a child's personal preferences. The youngest students may be intimidated by the size of the school and the newness of the experience, and they find bringing something from home comforting.

But it may be something of a trick to make the packed lunches more pleasing. For a start, ask the kids what they like. Take them shopping.

"Pay attention to the child's input," said Frances Price, a Baltimore cookbook author and dietitian. If a child isn't eating his lunch, or seems uncomfortable about some aspect of school dining, "go to the school and find out why." She noted that "there's a lot of swapping," so it's a good idea to find out what kids are swapping for.

Shield also urged letting children have some say. "If you ask kids what they want to eat, they're much more likely not to trade" or throw the food away, Shield said. She has been surprised to find, she said, that "when it comes to packing lunch, very few parents consult the kids."

In her household, she said, she and her school-age daughters sit down and talk about the week's menu. "We sit down after soccer or something and just talk," she said. "I try to make it a little bit educational. I'm not that worried about fat in kids' food. But I do want them to know there are reasons why we eat the food. I want them to know fruits and vegetables are better."

Fortunately, there's no trick to making packed lunches more nutritious: It's the same thing adults have been doing in recent years to tweak their diets into the healthful range. Just add more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and beans, and cut back on sweets and oils.

For kids' lunches that means making sure you pack three things, Price said: a protein, such as sliced meat or bean spread; whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread; and fruit or vegetables. Some people make roast chicken or ham sandwiches ahead of time and freeze them, she said.

The same ethnic influences that are showing up in adult food are appearing in kids' cuisine -- especially Italian, Asian and Southwest-Mexican influences. That's good news, because it means there are more tasty choices to offer under Garfield's or Esmeralda's smiling face.

Here are some suggestions for packing kid-pleasing meals: Try different kinds of breads, such as mini bagels, mini pita pockets or rice cakes. Or put filling on a tortilla (peanut butter and jelly, canned refried beans, slices of turkey and cheese) and roll it up. Slice crosswise to make pinwheels. Cut sandwiches made on whole-wheat bread into strips or cubes. Pack cream cheese in a container, plus a bagel and some shredded or finely chopped vegetables to decorate it. Cut whole-grain bread into interesting shapes with cookie cutters (use the scraps for croutons). Price suggested using dinner rolls: "Kids like small things."

Shield's children like "banana dogs": Pack a banana and a hot dog bun spread with peanut butter. At lunchtime, the child peels the banana and pops it in the bun.

Cut up fruit and pack it with a container of yogurt for dipping. Or cut up vegetables and send along a container of the child's favorite salad dressing.

Cut a kiwi in half and pack a spoon to scoop it out of the skin.

Pick a geometric theme: One day could be triangles (tortilla chips, sandwich cut in triangles, cantaloupe or other melon cut in triangles), and one day could be round (mini pita pockets with a favorite filling, grapes, raisins or apple rounds), and one day could be square (tuna salad sandwich on whole-grain bread cut in cubes, cubes of melon, carrots pared square and sliced). Let your children help you work out the shapes.

Package the lunch attractively: Use colored plastic wrap, use stickers to seal bags, use theme napkins for Halloween or birthdays. Send a little note, a coded message, a riddle or a joke. "Include a prize or something fun," Price suggested, such as a small helping of sweets or favorite snack crackers.

If you're sending something your kids like but other youngsters might think is "weird," send a little extra, Shield said. That way your child can offer samples, and maybe make some converts.

Be sure to follow standard safety practices. Keep hot food hot and cold food cold. Use a thermos to keep things such as soup hot, and use a frozen juice pack to keep things cold. (It will be nice and slushy by lunch time.) Wash out lunch boxes every day.

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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