In the bag

Four rules for making your kids a successful school lunch


Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2004 at 6:19 p.m.

Heard the one about the sack lunch?

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Cool school lunches

Robert Holst/NYTRNG

Facts

BROWN-BAGGING IT

Nutritionists, dietitians, teachers and moms suggested these sack lunch foods:

- Bagels, rolls, pita pockets, English muffins, raisin bread, or tortillas substitute for white bread.

- Use small tortillas or trim down large ones. Look for no-fat flour tortillas made with applesauce instead of lard. Or use a corn or flavored one. Spread with refried beans, sprinkle with cheese. Roll 'em up, wrap in foil, wax paper or plastic.

- Vary the type of bread each day to make lunch more appealing and interesting.

- Jazz up a protein-rich peanut butter and jelly sandwich by mixing the peanut butter with some granola, bacon bits or wheat germ.

- Make lunch a party. Serve raw vegetables with a container of low-fat ranch dressing or dip.

- Consider pretzels, nuts, trail mix, mini rice cakes, popcorn, dried fruit chips, granola bars, fig bars, or yogurt-covered raisins. As an occasional treat, pack chips, cookies, cakes, or candy.

- Thread broccoli, tomatoes, zucchini and cauliflower on a straw to make veggie kabobs.

- Cube fruits, which can be dipped in fruit-flavored yogurt. Send bananas, pears, pineapple chunks, frozen grapes, and single-serve containers of applesauce.

- Have the deli give you thick slices of lean luncheon meats like turkey or ham. Cut them into animal images with a cookie cutter. You and your child can experiment with making these deli animals the night before.

A busy, efficient mom assembled her daughter's lunches a month at time and froze them. Every morning she opened the freezer and handed the girl a brown paper bag.

If you took a lunch to school, chances are you have a story of your own.

Sack lunches are no joking matter. They can be diseases in a bag or a waste of money when the school trash fills with bananas, apples and little containers of warm yogurt. They can be healthy treats.

To be successful, lunch sackers need to heed the four rules for school sack lunches:

1. HEALTHFUL

In Hardin County, Kentucky, the school district nutritionist was so appalled by the caliber of lunches that students hauled from home that the school began its own sack lunch program.

Turn in a lunch box and at lunchtime it will be returned with sandwich, fruit, a baggie of vegetables, a low-fat chip item like pretzels, a low-fat, fresh-baked cookie and milk. All fresh and above locker temperature.

Lunch should provide about one-third of a child's calories, vitamins and minerals for the day. A moderately active 7- to 10-year-old needs about 2,000 a day.

Include all the food groups: bread, meat or protein, fruit, vegetable and dairy.

- Pack at least two servings of grains or bread and some protein, advised Dr. Debby Demory-Luce, a nutritionist at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

- Include sources of vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C and calcium, she added. ''Many foods rich in these nutrients are also good sources of vitamin D, iron, protein and carbohydrates.''

For vitamin A, provide a one-half cup serving of a deep yellow or deep orange fruit or vegetable. Baby carrots, cubed cantaloupe, or dried apricots are good choices, she said.

B vitamins are found in whole grains, meats, nuts and seeds. Demory-Luce suggested these sources of B vitamins, protein, carbohydrates and iron: meat, cheese or peanut butter sandwiches on whole-grain or enriched breads, low-fat cheese with whole-wheat crackers and oatmeal cookies studded with raisins and sunflower seeds.

For vitamin C and calcium, pack calcium-fortified 100 percent fruit juice. Try one-half cup of fresh strawberries, cubed pineapple, citrus fruits and a cup of yogurt for dipping the fruit. Dairy products also provide protein and vitamin D.

- No sodas allowed.

- Check salt, sugar and fat content of prepackaged food. Fruit should be packed in its own juice, not syrup.

2. IRRESISTIBLE

One mom, a college professor in Kansas, put a surprise in her son's lunch every day. Sometimes it was a riddle, sans answer. Sometimes an unusual food. Her son grew up to be a lawyer with a terrific sense of humor.

- Think surprises. Top off the lunch sack with confetti or gummy worms. Include several cupcakes, enough to share with best buddies. Stick in a note that says ''Ice cream's on me after school. Congratulations on the A in math.''

- Another mom put a bag labeled ''this is for trading'' in her daughter's lunch.

- Think holidays. Napkins with little orange witches brighten even Mom's Halloween yogurt. Rice Krispie Treats made with candy corn are a treat for Thanksgiving.

- Pack frozen single-sized juice packs. The juice will thaw by lunchtime, and will keep the rest of the lunch cool.

3. EASY AND COST EFFICIENT

- Let the student help with menus. Make a list of favorites and post it on the refrigerator. Add the items to the shopping list. Shy away from pre-packaged lunches and little bags of chips - both are costly and unhealthful.

- Set aside time to pre-package small snack bags of trail mix, cubes of natural cheese and cut-up vegetables. Include cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, cut-up peppers, broccoli, etc. Use whatever tastes good and looks attractive.

- Individual packages of raisins, dried cranberries and plums (no longer called dried prunes) are handy and tasty.

- Keep food safe. Use an ice pack or determine whether the school has a refrigerator for sack lunches. Sandwiches of peanut butter or cheese can be kept at room temperature. Mixtures of meat or egg with salad dressing cannot.

- Keep it clean. Use hot, soapy water to effectively get rid of bacteria on hands, kitchen surfaces and utensils before cooking. Teach your children to wash their hands before they eat. Also wash fruits and vegetables.

- Wash lunch boxes and food containers every day in hot soapy water. Do not reuse paper bags. Reuse plastic water bottles only if they have been thoroughly washed and are not damaged.

4. ''DON'T EMBARRASS ME''

Avoiding embarrassment is vital.

- Don't draw cute pictures or paste stickers on lunch bags for anyone over 7. A discreet note with ''Break a leg during rehearsal'' or ''Best wishes on the algebra test'' or ''I love you'' tucked under the water bottle is permissible.

- Don't pack food you know your child dislikes, hoping hunger will drive him to eat it. It won't.

- Older children report they don't like plastic containers they have to haul back home.

School youngsters have their own rules: ''Don't embarrass me,'' ''I gotta love it,'' ''Trade-able if I don't love it.''

What a challenge, and only 175 times a year.

BIRDSEED MUFFINS

1/3 cup shelled, unsalted sunflower seeds

2 tablespoons wheat germ

1/4 cup millet

1/4 cup sesame seeds

1 tablespoon flaxseeds

1/2 cup rolled oats

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

1/2 cup unsalted butter, chilled

1/2 cup sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1/4 cup honey

1 1/4 cup buttermilk

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Spread sunflower seeds and wheat germ on baking sheet. On another baking sheet, spread millet, sesame seeds, flaxseeds and oats. Toast in oven for 6 to 8 minutes. Cool.

Turn oven up to 350 degrees. In a food processor bowl fitted with steel blade, combine sunflower seeds, wheat germ, flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Process until sunflower seeds have the consistency of flour. Add oats, millet, sesame seeds, flaxseeds and poppy seeds. Pulse on and off a few times, just to combine.

In electric mixer bowl, cream butter on slow, 2-3 minutes until softened. Add sugar and mix for 2 to 3 minutes until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating between each addition.

Add honey and buttermilk, mixing until incorporated. Add flour mixture slowly, mixing on low until combined.

Pour into muffin cups placed in 1/2 cup muffin tins. Bake for about 25 minutes or until firm and golden brown.

Makes about 24 muffins.

- Adapted from Nancy Silverton's ''Pastries from the La Brea Bakery'' (Villard, $35)

Notes:

A wide variety of seeds are available at Whole Foods and other specialty grocery and health food stores.

For little tummies, bake dough into mini muffins. Be sure to label them. The name is part of the fun.

SUPER CHEESE SPREAD

1/2 cup vinegar

1/3 cup sugar

1 can (16 ounces) drained, chopped, seeded green chilies

1 pound Colby cheese

1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened

In a saucepan, heat vinegar and sugar over low heat until sugar dissolves. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add green chilies and simmer 1 hour. Pour into jar and refrigerate.

Shred cheese using a grater or a food processor. Mix cheeses together in a large bowl. Add 3/4 cup chilled sugar mixture. Refrigerate overnight so flavors mingle.

Serve with whole grain bread or crackers.

Makes about 5 cups.

Note: If your budding scholar likes black olives, add a 4-ounce can of drained chopped olives to the cheese. Or some finely chopped nuts. Personalize with different kinds of cheese, too. For older children and adults, add an 8-ounce can of drained chopped jalapeno peppers to the sugar mixture with the green chilies.

PEANUT BUTTER BREAD

2 cups flour

1/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 egg

1 cup milk

3/4 cup chunky peanut butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter one 9x5-inch loaf pan.

Sift flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together into a large mixing bowl.

In smaller bowl, beat egg until frothy and stir in milk. Stir the milk mixture and peanut butter into the flour mixture until well blended. Pour batter into loaf pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until loaf shrinks from the sides of the pan.

Cool on rack for 10 minutes, then remove from pan. Cool on cake rack.

Makes 1 loaf.

- From ''The Fannie Farmer Junior Cookbook'' (Little, Brown; $25.40)

CRANBERRY-ORANGE CEREAL MIX

3 cups corn squares cereal

3 cups rice squares cereal

3 cups wheat squares cereal

1 cup sliced almonds

1/4 cup butter, melted

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup orange juice concentrate, thawed

1/2 cup dried cranberries

Heat oven to 300 degrees. Mix cereals and almonds in large bowl. Set aside.

Microwave butter, brown sugar and juice concentrate in glass measuring cup on high for 30 seconds. Stir. Pour mixture over cereal, stirring until evenly coated. Pour into large roasting pan. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring after 15 minutes. Remove from oven and stir in cranberries. Cool. Store in airtight container or small plastic food-storage bags for lunches or snacks.

Makes 10 cups of snacks. A 1/2 cup serving has 140 calories.

- Adapted from General Mills

Note: Customize the mix to fit your child's tastes. Sub raisins for cranberries or use both. Use walnuts, also a healthy nut, instead of almonds. Change the cereal ratios. Add a shake of cinnamon.

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