Another year of school means, for many of us, another year of . . . lunch-box packing. It also means another year of rejected health food creations, leaky thermoses, the "wrong" lunch box (Superman on the front when everyone else has G.I. Joe), and those horrifying 8 a.m. discoveries that you're out of absolutely everything that's on the "will eat" list for this week.
The thought of it all is so overwhelming that even the most desperate of us may begin to feel that perhaps we already need another vacation.
But take heart. The following ideas and suggestions may make lunch-box packing a little more hassle-free and a lot more likely to produce lunches that actually get eaten. Sandwiches
For smoother morning departures, put together sandwiches the night before, package them, and leave them in the front of the refrigerator.
When sandwich ingredients freeze well, make a number of sandwiches at one time, label them and put them in a corner of your freezer. (Avoid freezing sandwiches that contain lettuce, mayonnaise or cream cheese.) Tossed into a lunch box in the morning, these sandwiches will be thawed and ready to eat at noon.
Cut sandwiches into nifty shapes -- it doesn't take much time if you use a cookie cutter or if you stick to simple designs (triangles, circles, diamonds). Kids, particularly young ones, may devour a shaped sandwich that they rejected in its traditional form.
If most of your child's sandwiches have returned to you (smashed, of course) in the past, try sending just half a sandwich -- a whole one may simply be too much for preschoolers or early primary youngsters.
Air-tight, reusable sandwich-sized plastic containers protect soft sandwiches from rolling thermoses and the impact of dropped lunch boxes.
On mornings when you have extra time, set out sandwich makings smorgasbord style; line up all the little bits of this and that your refrigerator can provide and let your older lunchers enjoy a do-it-yourself "sandwich bar."
When you're grocery shopping, remember that sandwiches don't have to be made on white or whole-wheat slices; use rye, raisin, french, oatmeal, and other types of bread, and also bagels, english muffins, croissants, pocket bread, flatbreads, crackers, cocktail breads, and even hot dog and hamburger rolls. Breads freeze beautifully, so you can keep a variety of them in the freezer and defrost just what you need.
Spread butter or mayonnaise on bread slices to keep a moist sandwich from becoming soggy.
Try out new sandwich combinations over the weekend -- school-day lunch rejections only produce trading, grumbling and empty stomachs.
Tempt a diehard one-food fan with a variation on the theme -- peanut butter with mandarin oranges and coconut instead of jelly, ham with thin-sliced melon instead of cheese.
If you're fixing lunches for more than one child, do a little mixing and matching: cut whole sandwiches of different kinds into sections and give each person part of each -- a variety special.
Remember that sandwiches don't have to be made with two slices of bread. Try one slice for an open-face treat, sending pile-on ingredients wrapped separately, or use three for a hearty club sandwich to suit giant-sized appetites.
If you're making sandwiches for a large family or a crowd (perhaps a preschooler's birthday celebration or another special event), consider using a long french bread loaf for the base, then slicing it horizontally before mounding on the fillings. Where possible, let children create their own sections, then you do the cutting. Fruits and Vegetables
Take your lunchers along with you when you shop for fruit and vegetable totables -- the variety, bright colors and funny and exotic names (kiwi, snow peas, star fruit, mango, papaya) may tempt picky eaters to try something new.
To help the youngest kids eat hard-to-deal-with fruits: start removing the peel from the orange or tangerine; cut through to the pit of a peach, plum, or nectarine for easy removal; core an apple; remove the seeds from watermelon; and send along a grapefruit spoon with grapefruit halves.
Pack grapes still in bunches -- kids love to pluck them off and pop them in.
Remind youngsters that exposure to air lightly browns some fruit slices, but that they're still fine to eat in that condition. Slices are often more appropriate to small appetites than a whole piece of fruit.
Buy and pack out-of-season fruits now and then. They won't be too expensive if you buy just a few.
Be sure you pack only the crispest, freshest produce possible -- too many children think fruits and vegetables mean mealy apples and limp green beans.
Expand your youngster's horizons beyond carrots and celery. Test out cauliflower chunks, cherry tomatoes, jicama slices, red bell pepper rings, zucchini sticks, and other great-tasting vegetables at dinner time or during weekend picnics.
Pack small containers of yogurt-, sour cream-, chutney- or mayonnaise-based dips to perk up and add appeal to plain fruits and vegetables.
Think of color and variety when packing fruits and vegetables: a container of a few cherry tomatoes, some slices of yellow squash, and a few crisp string beans might be much more appealing than a bag of six celery sticks.
Try a few easy-to-make whimsical fruit and vegetables combinations: stick prunes on the ends of carrot sticks; use a dab of peanut butter to "glue" raisin eyes, nose and mouth to an apple ring.
Use fruit slices like bread -- spread peanut butter between apple rings, cream cheese between pear slices, for some out-of-the-ordinary fruit sandwiches. Try inventing your own.
Pack vegetable sticks with an ice cube or two in a tightly closed container or self-sealing bag for a cool bit of crunch.
Make a portable edible garden by placing olives, peas, cauliflower or broccoli flowerets, tiny mushrooms, or other miniature vegetables on a fluffy bed of alfalfa sprouts. Enclose in a tightly sealed container. Snacks
If your kids have a mid-morning pick-me-up, remember that snacks can come from any of the food categories -- apples, carrots, cheese, a bag of dry cereal, muffins or crackers, yogurt, even leftover chicken legs are all snacks.
Read labels on prepacked snacks -- some fruit rolls have so much sugar in them they're closer to candy than fruit; granola bars may contain apples and nuts but some also include chocolate chips or high doses of sweetener. Soups and Beverages
Find out if your children's school has hot water available to students. If it does, you can send single-serving packets of soup mix, cider mix, hot cereal, hot chocolate mix or bouillon. If no hot water is available, why not see if you can arrange for it to be?
If a thermos isn't your child's favorite beverage holder, send a pop-top can of juice (fruit or vegetable), lemonade or mineral water instead.
Other alternatives are the new boxed drinks -- juices and milk -- but read labels carefully. Some are pure, others adulterated with plenty of sugar.
On a hot day, send a cold soup favorite in a tightly sealed container with an ice cube to keep the chill. Traditional cold soups like gazpacho sometimes appeal to kids, particularly if the spices are toned down.
Broth-like soups -- without chunks -- will keep warm until lunchtime in a thermos. Even chunky soups can be packed if the thermos has a wide mouth. Salads
Keep in mind that salads aren't just greens with dressing, and can be main course or side dish. Salads can be any way you come up with to combine fresh fruits and fresh vegetables with all manner of sprinkles and extras, usually topped off with a dressing or sauce.
The key to tempting salads is freshness: Send salad ingredients in separate containers from sauces or dressings for last-minute combining at lunchtime.
When time permits, set up a salad bar on the kitchen counter at breakfast time, and let lunchers assemble their own combinations.
Try some international combinations. An oriental salad might contain fresh bean sprouts, canned water chestnuts, pineapple chunks, snow peas, chow mein noodles and a dressing concocted from mayonnaise with a dash of soy sauce. A Mexican salad might include cold seasoned chicken, avocado slices, tomato chunks, kidney beans, black olives, bell pepper strips, tortilla chips and a tangy vinegar and oil dressing. Think of other exotic combinations.
Fruit salad is always a winner; sprinkle cut seasonal fruit with lemon juice to prevent browning. Good send-along dressings are plain yogurt or sour cream with just a bit of brown sugar stirred in, or orange-flavored yogurt with a dash of cinnamon.
Melon salads appeal to kids, especially if you use a melon baller to make nifty little rounds.
Some kids will eat chicken (or turkey) salad if it isn't all "glopped up" with dressing. Try plain chunks of the cooked meat with a few crunchy add-ons like toasted almonds or celery slices.
Think of tempting sprinkles to add to salads for kids: toasted sunflower seeds, crumbled bacon, shredded coconut, croutons, chow mein noodles, grated cheese, tortilla chips, sesame seeds. These sprinkles may need to be packed separately so they won't get soggy.
Pasta salads are fun, too, especially with unusual-shaped noodles: shells, twists, seeds, wagon wheels, tubes, and other forms are widely available. Combine the cooked pasta with bright-colored vegetables, bits of meat and a zippy Italian dressing. Packing and Containers
Store thermos lid and cup separately from main container to prevent musty odors. If odors already exist, rinse the thermos with a solution of baking soda and warm water.
When you're loading the lunch of the day, remember that the lunch box will be carried upright. Try to pack foods so that heavier items will end up on the bottom.
Think of sewing an easy-to-make cloth napkin with pockets for silverware or one that rolls up around fork and spoon.
If you buy lunch-box containers, buy the sturdiest ones you can afford -- they'll hold up better in the long run. Before sending them on their way, though, be sure the littlest lunchers can open them -- some seal so tightly it takes a Hercules to pry them open again.
Lunch boxes don't have to be made of metal, which rusts after two weeks of use. There's a great variety of brightly colored plastic lunch boxes and insulated bags that do the trick even better.
If your school-goers carry lots of books as well as their lunch box, why not rig up a sturdy velcro-attached shoulder strap for easier lunch box carrying?
Camping-style utensils are sturdier and longer lasting than their plastic counterparts -- kids may think they're fun, too.
If lunch toters aren't insulated, you can include a gel pack, a margarine tub filled with water and then frozen, or ice cubes sealed in a plastic bag to ensure freshness and safe eating.
Labeling all reusable containers as well as lunch boxes with your children's names increases chances that you will end the year with most of what you started out with. Miscellaneous
Warm weather may sabotage all your creative and nutritional efforts -- dairy products, cooked meats, mayonnaise and some other foods can become spoiled and potentially dangerous by lunchtime if not kept in a cool place. Avoid sending these foods on warm days and remind your children to keep their lunch boxes away from heaters or the direct sun.
Travel-size packets of paper washcloths may be appreciated if tucked in with finger-licking main courses or desserts.
For special occasions, why not consider a lunch-box "theme" -- all Mexican food on Cinco de Mayo, all Chinese food on Chinese New Year, or all child's favorite foods on the first day of school or his or her birthday. Plan for theme days a few days ahead of time.
An empty lunch box at the end of each day may mean lunch was eaten -- or it may mean it was tossed in the trash. For at least a week or two, encourage your kids (in a nonthreatening way) to bring home uneaten lunch-box fare so you can see what is passed over. If you monitor the situation for a while, you may avoid wasting food by learning to pack half an apple, fewer chips or less juice.
Surprise perk-ups will always be enjoyed. When you're in the mood and have the time, why not include with your lunch efforts a piece of sugarless gum (if the school allows it), a funny cartoon or clipping from the paper, a fresh flower, a sweet treat to share with a friend, a sticker or a special message.