It used to be the biggest decision about packing school lunches was who was on the lunch box. Batman or Barbie? "Star Wars" or My Little Pony?
Now there are myriad choices in lunch totes, bags and boxes some insulated, some compartmentalized, some mere fashion statements. There are also more pre-packaged food choices, from Lunchables-type kits to fruit cups to granola bars, chips and crackers.
But one thing hasn't changed: that parent-child tug of war between what kids should eat and what they do eat.
"When parents pack lunches, the most important thing to do is feed your kids something healthy and something your kid likes," said Luann Shipley, director of child nutrition with the Utah State Office of Education. "As we feed children they're learning how to eat for a lifetime, so it's important to make that a balanced meal."
The ideal lunch should contain a vegetable or fruit, grains, a protein and a dairy food, she said.
But what about kids who refuse to eat fruits or vegetables, or want the same thing every day? Go ahead and pack that same-old ham or PB&J sandwich, but also add a few carrot sticks or other healthy item.
"If you keep offering a little every day, sooner or later they might try it and develop an acquired taste for things that are good for them," said Shipley.
Yet those who spend time in school lunchrooms can tell you that lots of food, whether served in the school lunch line or packed from home, ends up in the garbage. So if you're trying to expand your child's palate, keep his or her personality in mind.
"When I was younger and hated peanut butter, my mom used to put chocolate chips in my peanut butter sandwich so that I'd eat it," said Riley Bell, a sixth-grader at Windridge Elementary in Kaysville. "And it worked."
Some factors to consider:
Slow or speedy eaters: Some kids want finger foods they can eat quickly, so they can get to the playground. Second-grader Micah Bakker said he doesn't like food that needs a spoon or fork, or hard-to-open packaging that requires help from a lunchroom worker.
But Lexi Jensen of Arrowhead Elementary in St. George said she prefers to take her time in the lunchroom possibly because of the 100-degree temperatures outside.
Dippity dos: Sometimes packing a little tub of salsa, ranch dressing or other dip will entice kids to eat carrot sticks or chips. Riley Bell's favorite lunch is German waffles with homemade strawberry jam for dipping.
Choices high in nutrients include salsa, hummus, bean dips or pureed fruit.
Vary the bread: Try crackers, waffles, rice cakes, pita, muffins, bagels or tortillas.
Susan Creager's 9-year-old son refuses to eat sandwiches, so she found success with tortilla roll-ups.
"Combine your favorite cheese and a favorite lunch meat and roll up the flour tortilla no mayo is needed," she said. "Wrap in plastic wrap and it's great at lunch." A couple of her son's favorite combos are turkey with cream cheese, Canadian bacon with two Laughing Cow cheese wedges, or ham and thinly sliced cheddar. If you have a more adventurous eater, grated vegetables are very tasty when mixed in with cream cheese.
LaRue Workman of Provo makes breakfast burritos.
"I buy a family-size pack of sausages when they are on sale, along with a 24-count package of flour tortillas, and make these burritos up and freeze them," said Workman. "One fits perfectly into a sandwich bag. They can be heated in a microwave, or not."
Workman also likes to pile tuna filling into a pita pocket with shredded lettuce and one of the following: diced apple, raisins and nuts, or a half-cup of wheat berries. To make wheat berries, put 1 cup of whole wheat with 2 cups of boiling water in a thermos overnight.
Chill out: Use an ice-pack to keep meat-based sandwiches and other perishables from spoiling during the several hours that they're sitting in the lunch box.
Gayle Jensen of St. George freezes partially filled water bottles, and that morning fills them up the rest of the way. It keeps the lunch cold, and by lunchtime, the ice is thawed for drinking.
"I've also frozen juice boxes," said Jensen.
But make sure the sandwiches and other items are protected for any leaking or condensation. "If it makes my sandwich soggy, that really grosses me out," said Riley Bell.
Snack attack: If your child hates sandwiches, try putting together a snack mix of cereal, dried fruit, nuts, pretzels, etc. Erin Mylroie of St. George suggests packing homemade granola with a container of yogurt that's been frozen.
"By lunch, the yogurt will be thawed, but still cold, and will make a lovely lunch with a sprinkle of the protein- and fiber-rich granola," said Mylroie, who writes a recipe blog at www.prudencepennywise.blogspot.com.
Peanut butter policies: Some schools across the country have banned peanut products to protect students who have severe allergic reactions, which puts the time-honored PB&J sandwich off limiits. Shipley said some schools in Utah have identified themselves as peanut-free. Others don't serve peanut products on school menus but allow students to bring them in home lunches. Some schools have a designated peanut-free table in the lunchroom.
"But the schools don't report that information to us, and policies can change, so people need to check with their individual school," said Shipley.
Fresh fruit alert: Kids like fruits in bite-size pieces, but banana and apple slices turn brown after being cut open and exposed to air. Micah Bakker, a second-grader at Windridge Elementary in Kaysville, prefers taking a whole banana and peeling it during lunch. Lexi and Kirra Jensen of Arrowhead Elementary said they like grapes or an apple.
Cut it out: You can save money by making your own Lunchables-type kits with cookie cutters, said Megan Kunz of Layton. Use cookie cutter similar in size to your crackers and cut out fun shapes in the meat and cheese.
Soup it up: Heat your child's favorite canned soup and pack it in a thermos. It will stay hot a bit longer if you rinse the thermos with hot water before pouring in the soup.
Think about the drink: Many packaged juice drinks contain lots of sugar and little juice, "and my boys got tired of them really fast," said Julie Bakker. She packs a small water bottle, "or they can just buy milk at school for 30 cents."
Have it your way: Workman said sometimes she sets out all the sandwich-making ingredients and has everyone make their own sandwiches together.
"I find shredding the cheese makes it go further, and the veggies can be tossed into salad for the evening meal if they aren't all used in sandwich prep," Workman said.
Pack it up: The best lunches are inedible if they get smashed. Julie Bakker of Kaysvile said her two sons use hard-sided lunch boxes because "the sandwiches and chips get smashed in a soft lunch bag."To keep frosted cupcakes from getting messy, Becky Olsen of the Project Domestication Blog in Provo recommends the Cup-A-Cake brand cupcake holder to protect sweet treats. "You can buy them online for $2.99 for a single or $9.99 for a pack of four. I've also found them at Williams-Sonoma."
NUTTY PEAR-CHEESE POCKETS
1 cup chopped firm pears or tart apples
3/4 cup diced aged cheddar cheese (such as Kerrygold)
1/2 cup diced celery
1/4 cup dried cranberries or raisins
1/4 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1/4 cup lemon yogurt
2 tablespoons mayonnaise or salad dressing
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 whole-wheat pita breads
1 cup baby spinach or leaf lettuceIn bowl, combine pear or apple, cheese, celery, cranberries and pecans. In a separate bowl, combine yogurt, mayonnaise and ginger. Add to pear mixture; blend gently. To assemble sandwich, halve each pita cross-wise, and gently pull apart to form pocket. Line each of 4 pockets with spinach. Stuff with equal amounts of the pear or apple mixture. Makes 4 pita pockets, 2 pockets per seving. Irish Dairy Board
HOMEMADE BROWN SUGAR CINNAMON GRANOLA
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup wheat germ (or additional oatmeal)
1 cup walnuts or pecans (optional)
3/4 cup dried fruit, such as cranberries, raisins, etc.,optional
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil and coat with no-stick cooking spray. In a small saucepan, combine sugar, oil, water and cinnamon. Bring just to a simmer. Meanwhile, place oats, wheat germ, and nuts on prepared baking sheet. Pour brown sugar mixture over the top and toss to coat. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring often, or until granola is crisp. Stir in dried fruit, if using.Brown Bag Lunch suggestion: Place a container of yogurt in the freezer. In the morning, pack the yogurt and a small plastic bag granola. By lunch time, the yogurt is thawed but still cold. It makes a lovely lunch with a sprinkle of the protein- and fiber-rich granola. Erin Mylroie, St. George
2 tablespoons lowfat milk
Salt and pepper to taste
12 sausages, cooked
2 potatoes, baked in microwave, cooled and diced (works best if they have cooled completely)
3/4 cup cheese, finely grated (any cheddar, or jack)
1 12-ounce jar of fresh or bottled salsa
12 flour tortillas
Scramble and cook the eggs and milk together, with salt and pepper to taste. Heat tortillas a few at a time in the microwave just to soften (15-20 seconds).Put about 1/4 cup eggs in center of tortilla. Cut 1 sausage on top of egg, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon potato. 1 tablespoon of cheese, 1 tablespoon salsa. Fold ends in and roll up as a burrito. Place in a bag and freeze until needed. Makes 12. LaRue Workman, Provo
8 ounces low-fat or fat-free cream cheese
2 teaspoons dried ranch dressing mix
1-3 teaspoons low-fat milk
8 large flour tortillas
1 jar pesto
8 ounces shaved turkey
1 cup grated cheese
2 tomatoes, finely diced
1/4 cup onion, finely diced
1 cup finely shredded leaf lettuce or spinach
Mix cream cheese, ranch dressing and and milk to a spreadable consistency. Spread flour tortilla with 1-2 tablespoons cream cheese to 1/2 inch of outer edge of tortilla. Carefully spread 1-2 tablespoons pesto on top of cream cheese. Top this with 3-4 pieces of turkey. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon cheese, 1 tablespoon tomatoes, 1-2 teaspoons onion, 1-2 tablespoons lettuce. Roll up as tightly as possible. Cut ends off or fold under ends. Cut in half if desired. Makes about 8.Options: Finely shredded carrots, minced dill pickles, black or green olives. Substitute guacamole for the pesto and taco seasoning for the ranch dressing mix. LaRue Workman, Provo
2 pieces wheat bread
2 tablespoons grated carrots
1 tablespoon sliced olives
4 tomato slices
4 cucumber slices
4 fresh basil leaves
Avocado slices, optionalToast bread if desired. Spread with fig jam. Top with the other ingredients and remaining slice of bread. You can adjust all the ingredients to your liking.Jane Johnson, Sandy
FRESH GRAPE TRAIL MIX
1 cup green, red, or black seedless grapes
4 ounces jack or cheddar cheese, diced
1/2 cup chocolate or carb chips
1/2 cup almonds, peanuts, or sunflower seedsCombine the ingredients in resealable bags. Keep chilled until ready to serve. Serves 4. California Table Grape Commission
COLORFUL SALAD STICKS
1/2 cup vanilla or banana yogurt
1/4 cup peanut butter
1 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
Pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
3 ounces cheese, cut into 1/2-inch sticks (such as Kerrygold Dubliner Cheese)
2 cups (about 20) raw vegetable sticks such as red, green, or yellow peppers, carrots, jicama, cucumber or zucchini
In a bowl, blend together yogurt, peanut butter, soy sauce and cayenne. Divide in two small containers. Divide cheeses and veggie sticks in half and pack each half with one container of dip.Options: For kids with nut allergies, combine plain yogurt with commercial salsa, or offer bottled salad dressing. The Irish Dairy Board