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For This Chef's Kids, and Yours, a Healthful Lunch Is in the Bag

Often, similar looking products vary widely in calories, sugar, fiber, fat and more. Compare some of your favorite foods and see how, as you shop, you can bring home healthier choices.

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By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Have you seen what the elementary school lunchbox crowd is eating these days? Gale Gand has, and she reports that "it's not good news out there. A lot of prepackaged stuff.

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"I get to play culinary cop, walking the tables to see what moms are packing," says the 51-year-old mother of sixth-grader Gio, 11, and his 3-year-old sisters, twins Ella Nora and Ruby Grace. Gand, who lives in suburban Chicago, qualifies for official busy-mom status: She's a food television celebrity, appearing recently as a judge on Bravo's "Top Chef" and in the "Challenge" series on Food Network; she has part-ownership in five restaurants; and she has written six cookbooks, with a seventh due next spring.

Nonetheless, she manages to send Gio to school with lunch three days a week. Sometimes Gand fills containers with leftover pasta for him to heat in his cafeteria's microwave oven (a boon for expanding lunchtime options). She gives him whole-wheat pitas, tomato sauce and spinach to turn into warm pizzas. She has made pot stickers, which were such a hit that requests came home to send enough for his whole class.

"It doesn't take a lot of time," she says. "I'm looking for things that use real ingredients and whole grains. Not everybody can make the pot stickers, but there is some middle ground" in preparing balanced lunches.

If Gand can do it, it's doable. Here are some younger-child meal strategies, from Gand and Young Chefs Academy, a cooking school franchise that will open a Rockville location this summer for ages 3 to 18:

- Involve children at the start. Let them shop with you and help select the items, Gand says. That way, ingredients they find on their plates will already be familiar to them. Compromise a little, but be in charge of food choices. If organic cheese puffs go into the basket, "that's okay in our house," she says.

If you can get them into the kitchen, ask them to help prepare lunch the night before or make several things Sunday for later in the week.

- Add wheat berries. Chewy and versatile, the unprocessed wheat kernels contain whole-grain goodness and fiber. Gand says to "toss them into any salads your kids eat."

- Presentation is key. "Sorry to be such a chef about it," Gand says, "but I do stuff on toothpicks all the time." She makes a cheese and turkey sandwich with two slices of different breads, cuts it into cubes and creates sandwich kebabs. She builds "panzanellas" by skewering a piece of whole-wheat bread, a cherry tomato and a mozzarella ball; or she makes fruit sticks, threading pieces onto bamboo skewers. She cuts wraps into small spirals and spears them.

- Think small portions. Whole-wheat crackers with slices of no-MSG ham, low-fat cheese and a slice of olive on top are kid-friendly hors d'oeuvres. Gand's girls like to "picnic" in the house with bento-box compositions that include a quarter of a sandwich, a quarter-cup of yogurt, four blueberries and three baby-cut carrots.

- Go with PBJ , all the way. No one in the Gand household has a nut allergy, so peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the go-with food that accompanies the family on airplane trips. Gand makes her own jam, and she's usually looking for a way to use it up. "We warm up PBJ in the microwave. We eat it on crepes." And don't cut off those crusts, she says.

- Cut back on ketchup. Buy the sugar-free kind, or make a design on the plate with a few drizzles or dots, so less ketchup is used.

- Keep sugar in a shaker. A quick sprinkle goes a long way.

- Don't give up on a thumbs-down. It can take up to 15 tries of serving a new food before a toddler or picky eater becomes interested. Offer one taste at a time.


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