Look at it from your kids’ perspective.
Every day, five days a week, 36 weeks a year, they open that brown bag or Spider-Man lunchbox or compact cooler and there it is, the same sandwich, the same snack, the same cookies, day in and day out. It’s no wonder so many of them decide to eat paste.
This school year, do your kids a favor: Spice up their lunches with a little variety. They’ll be happier, and so might you.
The first thing to do is to stretch your creativity. We asked readers to send us their outside-the-lunchbox lunch ideas. Here’s a sampling:
For a variation on the old PB&J sandwich — which, as she noted, is often soggy by lunchtime — Dawn Thoman used to make her son peanut butter balls. She’d mix 1 cup creamy or crunchy peanut butter, 1/2 cup dry milk powder, 1/4 cup honey and 1/2 cup raisins (optional), mix and shape into 1-inch balls, then roll in regular or chocolate graham-cracker crumbs and refrigerate. The recipe makes a dozen balls. They’re good for snacks, too, she said.
Tara Richards likes to take one flour, spinach or whole-wheat tortilla, spread with 1 tablespoon of cream cheese, then layer on a handful of crisp lettuce, a couple of slices each of lunchmeat, tomato and onion (the latter two are optional) and spread 11/2 teaspoons of red-pepper jelly over the meat, then fold in the sides of the tortilla and roll it up. She notes that the wrap keeps well for lunch because the tortilla doesn’t get soggy.
Peggy Harvey sent in two suggestions. In the first, she rolls one snack-size flour tortilla around 3 ounces of shredded roast chicken, a few julienne-cut carrot pieces and one large or two small lettuce leaves (stems removed), then packs it with a small container of ranch-style salad dressing, six grape tomatoes, three Oreos and a vacuum bottle of cold milk. Or, she packs one cold grilled-cheese sandwich, a vacuum bottle of warm tomato soup, a small bag of Fritos, an apple, and milk or juice. The kids can tear up the sandwich and put it in the soup, put the Fritos in the soup or whatever.
John Hillbrook said for kids who are allergic to peanuts — or have classmates who are — or who are just sick of PB&J, substitute cream cheese for the peanut butter. Hillbrook, who said he was reliving his childhood, recommended regular cream cheese for the best flavor.
We also asked some recreation leaders for ideas. Erin Coburn, coordinator of the Las Vegas Veterans Memorial Leisure Services Center, said her children (ages 12 and 7) like flour or whole-wheat tortillas spread with peanut butter and rolled up, then cut into 3-inch sections. They also like cut-up fruit, she said, and when she makes sandwiches, she often cuts them into shapes — maybe hearts — with cookie cutters to add a little variety.
Coburn said she also sees kids come into the center with shrimp cups with a toothpick for eating them, or cubes of cheese, or cut-up vegetables with whipped peanut-butter dip, ranch dressing or hummus (remember, she said, to keep them cold with ice packs).
"Some of the kids will bring in sliced meats and they’ll just roll those up," sometimes with tortillas and lettuce, Coburn said. "The older kids can just roll them up the way they want it and add avocado or whatever else they want."
Sherry Alexander, coordinator of the Cimarron-Rose Community Center, is a mom and has been involved in Girls Scouts as well, so she has plenty of ideas.
"Give the child an English muffin or a wrap," she said. "Give them all the ingredients to make their own sandwich or pizza or burrito." If the variables include taco shells and meat, they can make their own tacos.
Or give the child a bag of shredded vegetables, cheese and cooked pasta and have them make their own salads, adding dressing to taste. If you start the night before, they can make their own gelatin mixture, adding fruits and vegetables.
Make fruit kebabs, or fruit-and-marshmallow kebabs, or meat-and-cheese kebabs, she said. Buy chunks of lunchmeat and cheese and cut them into shapes — dinosaurs, maybe — with cookie cutters.
With small children, Alexander said, help them learn their colors with the help of food — red apple slices, orange carrots, etc. Or, Alexander said, let them make pigs in a blanket by rolling up cheese hot dogs in refrigerated dough and baking them.
Whatever ideas you use, however, be sure to keep nutrition and food safety in mind.
"Make sure it’s packed so that it stays safe," said Sue Lednicky, a nutrition educator with Nevada Cooperative Extension. "If they don’t do that, it’s not going to be worth anything."
That means cold foods need to be kept cold, hot foods hot — generally, colder than 40 degrees or hotter than 140 degrees. Use ice packs for cold foods, and keep hot ones in vacuum bottles.
Lednicky also suggested changing things as frequently as possible, using whole-grain bread one day, a wrap the next. And include "lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. They keep well and they add color, flavor and texture. All of those things are important."
She suggested, as an alternative to peanut butter, hummus, which she said is a good source of protein. Sunflower seeds, she noted, make a good snack and have lots of protein, fiber and B vitamins.
"You should include at least three of the food groups with any meal, preferably more," Lednicky said.
If possible, she added, consider having the child buy milk at school instead of sending a beverage alternative that may not be as nutritious. If you do include a fruit drink, make sure it’s 100 percent juice, and not one of the "-ades," she said.
"Anything that a child eats needs to be packed with nutrition," Lednicky said. "They can’t eat that much food. Whatever you’re going to give them, be sure it’s packed with vitamins and minerals."
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0474.