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Lunch lessons as kids head off to school


It won't be long.

In a few weeks, children across America will have put away pounds of peanut butter and gobbled gallons of grape jelly. And they'll be terribly tired of turkey sandwiches.

Parents who start this school year vowing to pack nutritious and delicious lunches will soon be facing the realities of a brown bag or lunch box that needs filling day after day.

Successful packed lunches have to be portable, nutritious and tasty enough to please finicky young eaters. Food that doesn't appeal will be traded or trashed.

It's a tall order, but a few tricks and ideas can make the job of a lunch-packer a little easier.

Linda Haynes, author of the "Vegetarian Lunchbasket" (New World Library, $14.95), teaches at a New Hampshire school and watches what kids in grades one through nine munch and what they dump.

Tastes vary from child to child, she says. Some kids love sandwiches, while others can't stand them. Some crave crunchy foods while others like creamy textures. But there are a few basic rules.

Apples, bananas and other fruit are often thrown in the trash because they are bruised or mangled by lunch time, she said.

One solution, she said, is to make a fruit salad. Or, slice an apple in half, take out the core and seeds, and fill the hollow with peanut butter or cheese.

Kids like foods that are fun, she said. A simple bowl of pineapple becomes a treat when it's packed with a sword-shaped toothpick for spearing the chunks.

She's noticed that kids like to "dip and munch" because it gives them control over their meal. Children are more likely to eat fruits and veggies if they are packed with a nice dip, like her Sesame-Yogurt Sauce, which combines plain yogurt, tahini (a sesame paste available at most grocery stores), lemon juice and salt.

Haynes relies on tofu as a staple for many recipes. She uses soft tofu for dips and spreads, and firm tofu as a substitute for chicken or eggs in heartier dishes. Tofu is an ideal base for kid-friendly meals because it is inexpensive, healthful and bland.

When served with dips, the fruits and veggies are - gasp - visible to the naked eye. But parents can also be sneaky about getting nutritious food into the lunch box. Healthful ingredients, including zucchini, carrots and blueberries, can be disguised as cookies, muffins and other treats.

"The Brown Bag Cookbook" by Sara Sloan (Williamson Publishing, $9.95) includes a recipe for Banana-Oatmeal Cookies, which are loaded with healthy ingredients.

Marian Arminger of Baltimore has five kids between the ages of 17 and 4. She packs lunch for them every day and rarely includes a sandwich. How does she do it?

"There are so many of us that I usually make two of everything," she says.

For example, if chicken is on the menu for dinner, she'll cook extra portions and make chicken salad for lunch. Or she'll make a huge portion of spaghetti sauce with meatballs and send her brood to school with leftovers.

Arminger also makes pizzas on bagels or English muffins. She tops them with sauce, adds a little mozzarella cheese and tosses on whatever vegetables or meats are handy. Her kids have access to a microwave at school, but many children (and adults, for that matter) love eating the pizza cold.

One secret to bagged-lunch bliss is to think outside the box - the breadbox, that is. Meats and veggies can be rolled into wraps, stuffed into potatoes or placed on pizzas.

Soups and chilis are popular lunchtime treats, especially if kids can add their own crackers or croutons, says Sloan.

One of Haynes' favorite recipes is Cup-o-Lasagna, made right in a thermos. Spinach can be added if you think your kids will eat it (or not notice).

A thermos can also be filled with smoothies and other substantial drinks. "Consider beverages as easy-to-pack snacks, meals-in-one, energy boosters and probably the very best way to camouflage nutritional necessities for finicky eaters," Sloan writes.

Her blender recipes include a shake made with one banana, two tablespoons peanut butter and three-quarters of a cup of low-fat milk. But she says almost any combination of ingredients will work as long as you use roughly two parts liquid to one part fruit.

Then there are times when nothing but a sandwich will do. Sloan's Kid Pleasers Taco Meatloaf answers that calling. Both Sloan and Haynes include tips on packing food for maximum flavor and convenience.

The title of her book notwithstanding, Sloan prefers lunch boxes and insulated carriers to plain brown bags. Freezer-gel devices can be packed, or a can of frozen fruit or juice can help keep food cold, she says.

Sloan also suggests limiting the number of reusable containers sent along to two, and avoiding containers made of glass.

Haynes prefers flat covered plastic boxes. "I started thinking about how airlines handle moveable meals and decided that a horizontal lunch looked better than a vertical one," she notes.

Both Sloan and Haynes advise separating food as much as possible, so kids can assemble their own meals. Garnishes, croutons and salad dressings can be added by the child when it's time to eat. "Children enjoy separate little packages," writes Haynes. "Kept separate, the food won't get soggy or discolored. Dipping into little, plastic Tupperware-type containers is fun."

And, if all else fails, Haynes notes that "small packages are tradable."

For "The Brown Bag Cookbook," call Williamson Publishing at 800-234-8791. "The Vegetarian Lunchbasket" is available from New World Library, 800-972-6657.

Banana-Oatmeal Cookies

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies

3 bananas

1/3 cup vegetable oil

2 cups rolled oats

1 1/2 cups chopped dates

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

In a large bowl, mash the bananas and add the remaining ingredients. Mix well.

Drop by rounded tablespoons onto a nonstick cookie sheet. Bake 20 to 25 minutes in a preheated 350-degree oven.

Remove to wire rack to cool. These cookies stay moist and freeze well.

- From "The Brown Bag Cookbook"

Sesame-Yogurt Sauce

Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup tahini

2 pinches salt

In a bowl, stir all the ingredients together.

Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to five days.

-- From "The Vegetarian Lunchbasket"


Makes 1 serving

The amounts in this recipe vary according to the size of your thermos. Just keep layering until the thermos is full.

flour tortillas

tomato sauce

shredded mozzarella or mild Cheddar cheese

grated Parmesan cheese

ricotta cheese

fresh spinach leaves, optional

Break tortillas into pieces the size of the thermos bottom. Heat the sauce until it is very hot.

Layer the tortillas, cheese, sauce and optional spinach, which will wilt nicely. Cap quickly and by lunchtime you'll have a warm, melty lasagna.

- From "The Vegetarian Lunchbasket"

Kid Pleasers Taco Meatloaf

Serves 4

1 pound ground beef

4 ounces tomato sauce

1/2 package taco seasoning

1 egg, beaten

1/2 cup corn chips, crushed

1/4 cup grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese

Mix all the ingredients except the cheese. Place in half-loaf-size foil pans and top with cheese. Bake for approximately one hour at 325 degrees until browned. When cooled, slice for sandwiches.

- From "The Brown Bag Cookbook"

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