For some parents, packing a child's school lunch seems more like a daily pop quiz than a piece of cake. There are multiple choices, but few surefire answers.
Not to worry, though, because tips for preparing brown-bag lunches abound. A number follow, but first a reassuring observation or two from an old hand.
Ann Litt is a nutritionist who volunteered for six years in her children's grammar-school lunchroom. She made many mental notes.
"One thing I think parents don't realize is that younger children often want to eat the same exact lunch everyday, and I don't have a problem with that," she says. "To have the same lunch every day often makes kids feel more secure."
Some children, of course, welcome variety, while others need nudging to mix it up. The good news for parents is they don't need a ton of fresh lunchtime ideas. Even a few may do the trick.
One point to consider: Students can eat only so much during short lunch periods, and even that may take a back seat to other priorities, such as talking with friends or playing outside. So when food comes home uneaten, it might simply mean there wasn't time to eat it.
Given this reality, Ms. Litt calls the after-school snack the "most important meal" for school-age kids. "That's a good time to give them something really nourishing like cereal and milk or soup," she says.
Her basic strategy for packing a balanced lunch is to include a protein food (tuna, chicken, meat), grains (sandwich bread is an obvious choice), a vegetable or fruit, a drink, and an optional dessert or snack.
Parents who are keeping an eye on their child's weight may want to skip the dessert. Keep in mind, however, that the lunch that's packed isn't always the one that's eaten. Children will often trade - or sometimes buy - what they want at school.
So parents might want to tuck a sweet into that lunch bag once in a while. Even Litt doesn't take a hard-line approach to dessert. "Sometimes parents think they should send something healthy for dessert," she says, "but dessert is dessert, and it's perfectly fine for it to be junky."
When it comes to that proverbial staple of brown-bag lunches, the sandwich, varying the bread is a good strategy. Whole-grain or whole-wheat rolls, bagels, English muffins, and pita bread are good alternatives, as are soft tortillas for wraps.
School food-service directors report that wraps are very popular with students. They can be made with any combination of cold cuts, vegetables, hummus, or even fruit. The wraps themselves come in a variety of flavors, including spinach, tomato, and wheat.
For a young child, a sandwich made with a bulky roll may be unwieldy. And parents won't want to load a sandwich with so many ingredients that it becomes hard to handle or messy. Half a sandwich may suffice for younger children.
Part of the reason that prepackaged snack-pack lunches are popular is because of their manageable size and neatness, two things lunch-packing parents might want to keep in mind.
Some other sandwich ideas:
Whole-grain breads and low-fat lunch meats are often recommended by nutritionists.
Thin-sliced meats are easier to chew.
Cutting sandwiches into interesting shapes, using cookie cutters, may appeal to younger eaters.
Meat sandwiches can be made in advance and stored in the freezer for up to two months, says Kathy Peel in "The Family Manager Takes Charge." The secret is to spread the bread with softened butter, mustard, or cream cheese, not with mayonnaise or salad dressing.
Even a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich can be made the night before without becoming soggy by sealing each slice of bread with peanut butter and placing the jelly in the middle.
To vary the classic PB&J, substitute raisins, banana slices, or granola for jelly.
Speaking of granola, there are a host of granola cereals - and trail mixes, too - that can make hearty meal accompaniments. They can jazz up yogurt as well. It's easy to peel back the foil top and add some crunchy mix-ins or fruit, such as small pineapple chunks, seedless grapes, or mandarin orange slices, then replace and resecure the plastic lid.
It might be helpful to try out school lunch ideas at home first. Preview the acceptance level of various foods, and even involve kids in planning and shopping.
Getting children to eat vegetables may be the biggest challenge in packing brown-bag lunches. Try bite-sized carrots, celery, cucumbers, or green peppers with a tiny container of salad dressing for dipping. Or sneak in lettuce or pickles on a sandwich, peppers in a pasta salad, and zucchini, carrots, or corn in muffins.
As for fruits, apples and bananas are old standbys. Biting into a big, crisp apple, though, isn't always easy, and if juicy, it can be messy. Precut slices may be best, but squeeze a little lemon juice on them to avoid browning. Bananas, too, lose a lot of their appeal if brown and mushy.
Clementines or orange slices are good options, as is fruit salad with melons, berries, and grapes. Applesauce and dried fruit are other possibilities.
Alternatives to potato chips are bagel chips; pretzels; bread sticks; crackers; and nuts, including almonds, cashews, and peanuts.
A packing strategy that has caught on is to freeze a juice box, which will keep the rest of the lunch items fresh and cool. The juice should thaw by lunchtime. Or put an ice pack into a thermal lunch-size cooler.
A multitude of juice products have flooded the market. Experts recommend ones that are 100 percent juice. As an alternative to juice boxes, favorite juices can be poured from large containers into a smaller one that's packed with the lunch, saving money and eliminating trash.
It can even be helpful for brown-baggers to look at school lunch menus for inspiration. For example, "dippers" are popular, with containers of fresh fruit slices or veggie sticks served with a dip such as low-fat ranch dressing or cheese sauce.
Granola bars or snack bars, a tasty compromise between a snack and meal item, are today's unsung lunch-bag stars. Individually wrapped and nonperishable, they can be left for the next day or for anytime hunger strikes, including on the way home. Finding the right flavor variety is simply a matter of trial and error.
Of course, every parent wants to earn passing grades for the school lunches they pack, but Litt reminds them to keep things in perspective.
"My motto," she says, "is it shouldn't take longer to prepare a school lunch than it does to eat it."
Which is what, about 10 minutes?
During the 2002-2003 school year, food-service directors were asked to rank students' favorite school-lunch items from the cafeteria menu. Here's what they reported:
Pizza (54.8 percent).
Chicken, typically nuggets (26.3 percent).
Mexican foods (8.1 percent).
Hamburgers (3.8 percent).
All others (7 percent).
Corn (29.5 percent).
French fries (21.3 percent).
Potatoes, type not specified (12.6 percent).
Green beans (8.7 percent).
Green salad (8.2 percent).
Carrots (7.1 percent).
Mashed/whipped potatoes (3.8 percent).
Broccoli (3.8 percent).
All others (4.9 percent).
Cookies, typically chocolate chip (52.6 percent).
Fruit (10.5 percent).
Ice cream/ice cream novelties (9.4 percent).
Crisps/cobblers (7 percent).
Cake (5.8 percent).
Pudding/gelatin (4.7 percent).
Brownies (3.5 percent).
Cinnamon rolls/buns (2.9 percent).
Pie (0.6 percent).
All others (2.9 percent).
Source: American School Food Service Association