Any task that needs to be done every day can become a grind. But packing the school lunch box can be especially tiresome, often occurring in the early morning hours on an empty stomach and in concert with other pressing tasks, like finding homework and a missing boot. At those times, nutrition may take a back seat to facility and a child may go racing off to the bus stop with a lunch of empty calories.
When you consider that a third of the nutrients a child gets each day should come at the midday meal, planning for the lunch box becomes as important as planning for the other family meals.Nutritional studies have linked foods high in chemical additives, preservatives and processed sugars with hyperactivity in children. Even among nonhyperactive kids, overly sugared foods at lunch can result in what one dietician calls "the post-lunch crazies followed by the 2 o'clock crash," a state of mind not conducive to mastering long division.
On the list of foods nutritionists do not recommend are packaged lunch meats, cheese foods, soda, fruit drinks (juice is fine) and packaged sweets -- all the things that are easy to buy and handy to pack. But do not despair. As the state of knowledge about what's not good to pack for lunch has advanced, so has the availability of healthful foods and the containers and wrappings to keep them fresh.
First, the lunch box. The traditional metal box now comes lined in a plastic coating so that it neither warps nor rusts when soaked by the inevitable spills. The metal latch, good for pinching tiny fingers and spilling an entire lunch onto the playground, has been replaced by a plastic zipper catch, which works for at least a semester. The newest kind of lunch container has a soft strap that can go over the shoulder instead of a plastic handle, which requires a free hand. Thermoses and juice cans don't roll around inside, and it is insulated. But these new lunch boxes bear an unfortunate similarity to purses, making them unacceptable to all but the most liberated schoolboy.
The canvas tote, lined with plastic and found in specialty stores, is a popular alternative to the lunch box. It can be wiped out and even washed (gentle cycle). The major drawback of totes is that they do not zip or latch so that what's inside is exposed to the elements for the first three hours of the day. Last but not least, there is always the ever-serviceable, ever-fashionable brown bag. It suffers from the same exposure to the elements as the canvas tote, but it has one advantage over all the others: It can be tossed out after use.
Thermoses now come in a square shape ( easier for small hands to grip and which doesn't roll around inside the lunch box) and wide mouth ( makes heavy soups easier to pour). The latest thermoses have two different openings. One is particularly wide and is used for soups, stews and chili. The other, smaller opening is for juice or milk.
Thermoses need to be cleaned thoroughly after each use and bathed weekly with baking soda. A thermos left unwashed overnight can render an entire set of olfactory nerves senseless. This may be why many lunch packers opt in favor of the popular but expensive six-packs of juice. Juice in the small cans with the pull-tops costs about 4 cents per ounce as compared with 1 cent per ounce for frozen juice prepared at home and poured into a thermos.
Wrapping becomes quite important when foods without preservatives are being packed. A USDA home economist described plastic bags that press closed like a zipper as the best commercially available. To use these bags most effectively, she suggests flattening the bag to get out the excess air before pressing the top closed. But take note. These zipper-locked bags cost about 5 cents per wrapped sandwich and, although they can be reused, you can hardly expect an 8-year-old to add to his daily checklist of mittens, boots, book bag, permission slips and homework, the plastic bag his lunch came wrapped in. The next-best choice is heavy plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Much cheaper, they can be sealed tight enough to keep moisture and air from foods for the three hours before lunch. Baggies keep food from spilling out because of the slipover top but make no pretense about keeping what's inside sealed off from air and moisture. Waxed paper, an affectation of French chefs, exists to drive mothers crazy and has no place in a lunch box.
What can be wrapped inside the lunch box has filled volumes but is actually quite simple. Fresh, crunchy vegetables and fruits, fruit juices or milk to drink, homemade soups and stews and unprocessed meats and cheeses on whole-grain breads are often on school dieticians' lists. While the last generation of fluffy-bread eaters saw little difference between eating whole-wheat bread and biting into the bark of a tree, this generation of children seems to take wheat germ, bean sprouts and soybean flour in stride. For those children who are picky, the lunch box can provide an excellent forum for expanding tiny taste buds. At a certain stage of hunger, children have a delightful way of eating what's placed before them. The absence of other family members as audience for a mid-meal sulk, and no hope that mother will whip up something else, make lunch the perfect time to substitute yogurt for mayonnaise, homemade granola bars for packaged cupcakes or bean sprouts for iceberg lettuce (using mayonnaise or yogurt as the camouflage).
Thinking beyond the confines of two pieces of bread can open up a whole other world of healthful lunch box possibilities. Disposable dixie cup containers, available at the supermarket, used plastic containers from the deli or the new wide-mouthed thermoses make leftovers a good and easy choice. Most children find cold spaghetti a delicacy. Ditto for any leftover meat cubed and mixed with mayonnaise, and reheated soups and stews from last night's dinner. Sliced fresh fruit and nuts in plain yogurt is another possibility. These suggestions all have the additional advantage that they can be prepared ahead of time, relieving some of the early morning tedium.
No lunch box would be complete without the occasional presence of that old standby, peanut butter and jelly. Some nutritionists, however, frown on the traditional version, with its preservatives and refined sugars, and prefer the modified version which follows. It should be noted, however, that dentists race for their flouride at the thought of honey coating tiny teeth. Substituting pure'ed bananas or other fruit may work for some children's tastes and make for one less Hobson's choice in life.
LUNCH PACKING TIPS
* A 7 a.m. command performance is the enemy of a nutritious lunch. All the recipes here can be made ahead of time and just assembled in the morning.
* A packet of artificial ice, which can be refrozen indefinitely, ensures that food won't spoil. As an alternative, consider freezing sandwiches. By the time lunch arrives, the sandwiches will be thawed but cold enough not to have spoiled.
* Use throw-away plastic containers or baby-food jars for dips, cottage cheese, yogurts, salads -- anything you decide not to put between two pieces of bread.
* Plastic pill containers are excellent for mayonnaise, mustard or other dressings.
MADE-FROM-SCRATCH CHEDDAR CHEESE FILLING (Makes 8 sandwiches) 2 cups grated medium-sharp cheddar cheese 2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish 2 tablespoons oil and vinegar dressing
Combine all ingredients and mix well in a food processor until mixture is easy to spread. Refrigerate in covered container.
TUNA, EGG, CHICKEN OR HAM SALAD SANDWICH WITH HOMEMADE MAYONNAISE (Makes 4 sandwiches) 1 egg
1/2 teaspoon mustard 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1 1/2 cups olive or other oil 12-ounce can tuna, 5 hard-cooked eggs or 1 cup diced cooked chicken or ham
Put the egg, mustard, salt and lemon juice into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Combine while slowly adding olive oil. Add tuna, hard-cooked eggs or a cup of diced chicken or ham. Process for 1 second. Refrigerate in covered container. Use as a spread on whole-grain bread.
NO SUGAR, NO PRESERVATIVE PEANUT BUTTER AND HONEY SANDWICH (Makes 1 sandwich) 3 tablespoons nonhydrogenated, non-sugared peanut butter (found in refrigerated section of supermarket) 1 tablespoon natural honey (or enough to moisten) 2 slices whole-grain bread (the sturdier the better)
Spread ingredients on bread.
DRYING FRUIT LEATHERS
Purex 1 1/2 to 2 cups of prepared fresh fruit in a blender or food processor. Any fruit that you can pure'e, such as apricots, bananas, cherries, peaches, pears or strawberries can be used. If you use apples, simmer in a small amount of water until the pulp softens. You can even use canned fruit if you drain it well and add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to each 16-ounce can. Wet a cookie sheet and cover it with enough plastic food wrap to come up around the edges of the shallow pan. Pour the pure'e 1/4-inch deep on the sheet, tilting -- do not spread with blade -- to make pure'e flow to fill the pan. Use an oven or indoor dryer with horizontal forced air, set at 140 degrees. The leathers will be dry in four to five hours, or when they are no longer tacky to the touch, but still pliable when cooled. Roll the leathers in the plastic on which they were dried; overwrap with more plastic, and store in a tightly covered jar in a cool, dry, dark place. From Blair & Ketchum's "Country Journal"
CARROT SALAD (6 servings) 6 medium carrots 1/2 cup raisins 1 tablespoon honey 2 tablespoons lemon juice
Scrub (do not peel) and grate carrots. Toss with raisins. Combine honey and lemon juice and pour over mixture. Kids usually like the sweet and sour taste. This mixture keeps well refrigerated in a covered container. From "Getting Your Kids to Eat Right," by Barbara Richert
CREAM CHEESE SANDWICH (Makes 4 sandwiches) 8 ounces cream cheese 1/4 cup sour cream or buttermilk 1/2 teaspoon salt
Soften cream cheese in a bowl. Add sour cream or buttermilk and salt and mix until all ingredients are well-blended and smooth.
Note: This recipe is the base for a variety of nutritious sandwich spreads. Some suggested additions are: 2 medium carrots and 1 stalk of celery, diced; 1/2 cup each raisins and nuts; 4 hard-cooked eggs, chopped and moistened with mayonnaise. From "Getting Your Kids to Eat Right," by Barbara Richart
GRANOLA BARS (Makes 30 bars) 4 cups rolled oats 1 cup sesame seeds 1/2 cup wheat germ 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped 1 cup unsweetened coconut 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 cups oil 6 eggs 1 cup honey 1 teaspoon vanilla
Combine oats, sesame seeds, wheat germ, walnuts, coconut and salt. Spread mixture on ungreased 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Combine oil, eggs, honey and vanilla and dribble over mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes and cut into squares while warm. From "Getting Your Kids to Eat Right," by Barbara Richert
* "Getting Your Kids to Eat Right," Barbara Richert
* "The Feingold Cookbook for Hyperactive Children," Ben E. and Helen S. Feingold
* "The No Baloney Sandwich Book," Alden Robertson