MILLIONS of parents are thinking about what to put in the school lunch box this month. For the children, the main thing may be the box itself, rather than what's inside it. But serious work begins after deciding whether this year's lunch will go in a container decorated with pictures of Robotman, Snoopy, Cabbage Patch Dolls, Ronald McDonald, or characters from one of the TV serials.
At the beginning of the school year it's not difficult to think up ideas for easy-to-make lunches. But as the year wears on, as every parent knows, it gets harder and harder to think of something new that's appealing.
What everyone tries to avoid is the lunch box that returns home unopened or the bag lunch that gets buried at the bottom of the backpack.
The fact is, many children are fussy. They don't always want to eat at lunchtime. Often it's because the foods aren't acceptable to them. So the first step is to sit down with your child and make a list of all the things he or she likes and dislikes in a bag or box lunch.
If your child happens to like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hooray. A recent survey by Restaurants and Institutions magazine showed that this combination rated highest on the list of what adults consider ``comfort foods.'' Good soup also rated near the top.
But just because adults have a nostalgic memory of peanut butter sandwiches, and may still enjoy one once in a while, it doesn't follow that their children will feel the same way.
Some children are happy with one or two consistent choices every day. Others like variety. Try to agree on five different choices, one for each day of the week, or a revolving menu with chicken this week and tuna next.
Be sure that your list of favorites includes fruit, vegetables, and beverages as well as sandwiches. If your child likes fresh tomatoes, pack a few cherry tomatoes in an individual-sized plastic container.
Children like things that are crunchy, so include small sticks of cucumber, zucchini, and green pepper along with the usual celery or carrots. A ready-to-eat peeled orange and raisins can be packed in small containers or plastic bags.
Obviously the simplest snack to include in a lunch box is a piece of fruit. Depending on the season, you can buy apples, bananas, cantaloupe, berries, grapes, pears, peaches, papaya. Get your child used to thinking of fruit, rather than candies, as dessert.
Other commercial foods that you can buy for snacks include graham crackers, unsalted wheat pretzels, granola bars, shelled sunflower seeds, dates, apricots, and other fruit, oatmeal cookies, and various nuts.
If children had their way their lunches wouldn't include lamb, beans, or yogurt, according to a survey by Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Forty-four percent named lamb first among their dislikes, followed by 23 percent who named beans. Just behind at 22 percent were yogurt, sour cream, and other vegetables. The dislikes extended to fish, oatmeal, and berries.
Parents reported that as many as 29 percent of the children make their own lunch. Previous consumer panel research indicates 59 percent of elementary-age students use a lunch box. Older students are more likely to use paper bags if they carry a lunch at all.
More than half (52 percent) of children buy lunch at school and 45 percent take their lunch. Parents in the survey pegged the average cost of a child's lunch -- whether lunch box or cafeteria -- at $1.30.
Here are some ideas for sandwiches from ``The Lunch Box Book'' by Annie Gilbar (Simon & Shuster, $3.95). Mary's Apple Kabobs 1 apple, peeled, cubed 1/4 cup lemon juice 1 cup cubed Monterey Jack cheese (or Swiss or Cheddar)
Dip apple pieces in lemon juice to keep from turning brown. They'll also taste delicious. Alternate cubes of apple and cheese on skewers. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until ready to put in lunch box. Ciji's Carrot-Raisin Squares 1 cup grated, raw carrots 3 tablespoons mayonnaise 1/2 cup chopped, unsalted peanuts or walnuts 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 drop Worcestershire sauce 2 to 4 slices cinnamon-raisin bread
Combine and mix all ingredients except bread. Chill for about 5 or 10 minutes or longer. Toast bread lightly, then spread on carrot mixture. Cover, cut into 4 squares, and wrap. Sylvia's Stuffed Sandwiches 2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped 2 cups chopped cooked chicken, turkey, or beef 1/2 cup sweet pickle relish 2 teaspoons mustard 1/2 cup plain yogurt 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 3 hot dog rolls Butter or margarine
Combine all ingredients except rolls and butter. Scoop out inside of bottom half of rolls and spread with butter. Fill with egg mixture and cover with top half of roll Wrap. You can keep leftover mixture in refrigerator and put in hot dog rolls as needed. Stuffed rolls will keep in the refrigerator overnight. Sonia's Dill Breadsticks 1 cup Rice Crispies (toasted 1 minute in toaster oven) 2 tablespoons dill 1 teaspoon salt 1 package ready-to-bake biscuits 2 tablespoons milk
Blend cereal in food processor or crush by hand. Add dill and salt. Cut biscuit dough in half and roll in shape of sticks. Brush each stick with milk and roll in Rice Krispies. Place on greased baking sheet and bake about 10 minutes in oven heated to 450 degrees F. Bread sticks will keep about 2 weeks in airtight container. Susan's Mini Pizzas 1 English muffin 2 slices salami or 4 slices pepperoni 2 tablespoons ready-made spaghetti sauce 2 slices mozzarella cheese
Slice muffin in half and divide other ingredients on each. Bake or broil in toaster oven until cheese melts. Be sure not to let muffin get too brown.
When done, put immediately on aluminum foil and wrap carefully, to avoid pressing foil into cheese. Pizza should remain warm until lunch time. (And even if it doesn't, some kids like their pizza cold.)
Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.