When he opens his lunch at Prospect Mill Elementary School in Bel Air this year, what would fourth- grader Sean Powell like to see?
"A pizza Lunchable with a certain kind of dessert [cookies or chocolate pudding], and a snack and a drink," the 9-year-old said.
How often is he likely to get it?
"Like, once in 100."
Instead, Sean and his mother, Kathleen Powell, have negotiated a midday compromise. When he brings his lunch - about half the time - it's more likely to contain a turkey sandwich on white bread, a package of Pringles or Doritos, an apple or clementine oranges, juice and maybe a granola bar for dessert.
Nutritional guidelines may have changed over the years, but the typical lunch remains basically the same. And therein lies the struggle for parents who pack their kids' daily fare all school year - and for the students who confront both desirables and duds in the lunch box.
Many local kids and parents who pack say that they've long ago worked out a familiar formula that varies little from day to day. Lunch, they say, is not the time for experimentation or pushing boundaries. Yet many parents want to follow recommendations from nutrition experts that they slip in more vegetables and grains and cut down on sugar.
That's not easy. In a poll conducted this month by America Online's Kids Online Service, 48 percent of 12,000 responses cited pizza as a favorite choice for lunch. Forty-four percent wished for a soft drink, too.
But in interviews around the Baltimore region, students said they almost always end up with a sandwich when packing lunch.
Frequently it's that old standby, peanut butter and jelly. Prepackaged lunch kits, such as Oscar Mayer Lunchables, also were popular.
News about the nutritional content of school-cafeteria lunches is leading some parents to pack lunch more often.
Jessica Virden of Kent Island said she makes lunch for her 13-year-old son Devon "so I can make sure he gets a fruit and a whole-wheat bread." Devon, a pupil at Stevensville Middle School, said he's happy to find a tuna sandwich with a plum or a mango and chocolate pudding - though he occasionally longs for a hamburger.
Although kids usually know what to expect at lunch, they're not above trading away part of that carefully arranged meal to get something they like.
A 2004 survey of 1,000 children 8 to 12 and 1,000 mothers, performed by KRC Research for Lunchables, found that 73 percent of kids throw away part of their lunches each week and 36 percent trade something away.
In the AOL poll, the most popular items to trade were raisins and nuts (46 percent) and carrots (22 percent). In return, 43 percent of those responding wanted money for ice cream and 19 percent would seek a cookie.
Sean Powell sometimes trades to get the pizza he likes. "If somebody has something really good," he said, "I might be willing to offer the dessert."
John Padgett, who is going into fifth grade at Catholic Community School in South Baltimore, said he occasionally exchanges his chips for a different variety or his strawberries for grapes, "just to have something different." His sister Lauren, 7, might swap her chips for peanut-butter crackers.
John, 9, said his father, who packs his lunch, encourages him to communicate his desires. "He says, 'If you ever see something in somebody else's lunch that you like, I'll get it." On Fridays, the children often get their favorite Lunchables as a treat: pizza for Lauren, Chicken Shake-Ups for John. While many parents think the standard lunch of sandwich, chips, fruit, juice and dessert is nutritious, Arlene Swantko, a registered dietitian with offices in Owings Mills and Columbia, says it still probably has too much sugar. One quick improvement: At least sometimes, she recommends, replace the juice box with a bottle of water.
Aware of criticism that its lunch combinations don't pass nutritional muster, Lunchables this year introduced several new or revamped products - including pizza - with reduced fat and sodium.
But even Swantko, whose children are grown, says parents need to be realistic about how far they can go in making lunch more healthful.
"The kid can't be made to feel weird at school," she says. "Realize that maybe that's the meal of the day where you're going to have to give in a little."
Parents should offer more variety - and more of the grains, vegetables, fruit and protein children need - at breakfast and dinner, Swantko said.
Another reason to pack a familiar lunch is that increasing academic demands at schools leave less time to eat. The KRC survey found that 71 percent of students had a lunch period of less than 30 minutes. Forty-eight percent said they typically spent less than 15 minutes actually eating the midday meal.
That's why Lesa Barnes of East Baltimore tries to make sure her 6-year-old son will be eager to consume what she sends with him to Brehms Lane Elementary School.
"I want him to be full when he goes back to class," Barnes said. When she tries to slip in a small container of vegetables, "he usually brings that home."
Her son, Antonio King, says he likes the sandwiches, chips and occasional candy bars his mom sends to school. Raisin bagels with cream cheese are a hit, too. Dislikes? Broccoli and Oodles of Noodles.
At the Matheu house in Perry Hall, carrots often go to school with vegetable-lover Jack, 8. Sister Lauren, 6, might get strawberries or cantaloupe instead because she prefers fruit. But her favorite is: "fruit roll-up, fruit roll-up, fruit roll-up."
Bread is another battleground. Mindful of the new dietary guidelines that stress the importance of whole grains, many parents are trying to get their children to take that peanut butter-and-jelly or ham sandwich on wheat bread.
But the kids often prefer white, especially if they've grown up with it. Potato rolls, which have more fiber than plain white bread, have emerged as a compromise in some households.
That's worked for Bryan Curley, a fifth-grader at Francis Scott Key Elementary School in Locust Point. He's happy when his lunch has bologna or salami on a potato roll, along with a Capri Sun lemon-lime drink, fruit snacks and Cheez-It crackers or mini Oreos.
"She definitely knows what I like," he said of his mother. "Sometimes she might pack me a banana or half an apple.
"Sometimes I eat it."
Dietitians often recommend that parents get kids involved in packing their own lunches or at least in choosing from a menu of healthful options.
Morgan Goodman, 12, and her 7-year-old sister, Megan Taylor, who live in the Gwynns Falls area, put together their own ham-and-cheese sandwiches, water or juice and grapes or peaches. Sometimes their mother, Towanda Vandiver, prepares homemade chicken tenders for them with honey-mustard dipping sauce.
They also take extra sandwiches to tide them over during after-school care.
Shawniece Delaney, 16, packs her own sandwiches, too - though she must use the wheat bread that's kept on hand. "I have no choice but to eat it," she said.
Still, only occasionally will the 11th-grader pack something other than a sandwich. "Sometimes, I switch up whatever's in the house that catches my interest," she said.
Putting the kids in charge of lunch may not always have the intended effect.
Erin Leary, 6, had helped prepare her lunch for camp at the Locust Point Recreation Center recently by spreading peanut butter on apple slices and cream cheese on celery sticks. But when it was time to eat, she licked off the spreads - and left the vegetables and fruit. "I like them," she said, "but I don't eat them that much."
Packing in some nutrition
The American Dietetic Association has recommendations to make lunch both fun and healthful:
To help balance nutrition throughout the day, make sure kids eat a good breakfast - such as yogurt mixed with cereal and fruit, a cereal bar with a glass of milk and a piece of fruit or a peanut-butter sandwich with a glass of milk. If your kids don't like traditional breakfast fare, leftover pasta, pizza or other favorites work just as well.
Sandwiches, raw vegetables, crackers, string cheese, whole fruit and pudding are fun foods that still supply good nutrition.
Let children help plan and prepare school lunches. When they're involved, chances are they will resist trading their carrots for cookies.
Try varying that sandwich by occasionally using a tortilla or pita instead of bread, says local registered dietitian Arlene Swantko.