Filling the lunchbox: Ideas for packing you child's lunch go beyond PB&J

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When packing kids' lunches for school, some parents still rely on a good old peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown paper sack. But, many parents are getting more creative when packing their kids' lunches and keeping an eye on nutrition in the process.

"Quite often I'll send veggie pizza," says Laurie Bittle, mother of two and a part-time school nurse. "My son Jeffrey likes it cold, so I'll make one the night before. Then, in the morning, I'll individually wrap some slices and put them in his lunch box with a cold pack. Jeffrey will even eat a salad if I make it up ahead and put in an individual salad dressing with it. He especially likes salads with those little grape tomatoes and sunflower seeds. Also, chips and salsa are a big hit with a sandwich."

Nutritional spreads are also popular among moms and kids alike. "I like to put some Nutella [a spread made from skim milk, hazelnuts and a touch of cocoa] in a small container and slice an apple for dipping," says Audra Wiant, mother of teenage twins. Nutella also comes in a small to-go container complete with pretzel sticks for dipping.

Lunch can also consist of a food normally thought of for breakfast. "Sometimes I make a packet of instant oatmeal and put it in my daughter Bailey's thermos," says Julie Humphreys, mother of two daughters. "I'm also a fan of Fruitables juice boxes. They contain actual fruit and veggie juice from beets, sweet potatoes, apples, strawberries and all kinds of good stuff."

Even if you pack mostly sandwiches in your kids' lunch boxes, variety can make them more appealing. "I pack lots of turkey sandwiches, but I try to change it up by using different types of breads, cheeses and greens," says Bittle.

Teachers much prefer their students to eat healthy lunches to get them through the school day successfully. "As a teacher, I would really advise parents to pack nutritional lunches instead of Lunchables, sugary juice boxes, chips and cookies," says Susan Bartlett, retired kindergarten teacher and grandmother of four.

"Instead, pack a protein, a veggie, a fruit, a carb and a dairy item," Bartlett says. "Cheese sticks, meat sandwiches on whole bread, all-natural peanut butter sandwiches, raw veggies with ranch dressing, cut-up fruits, whole-wheat crackes, yogurt, Pirate's Booty [a baked rice and corn puff snack] and pretzels are all good choices with milk or water to drink."

Lunch containers are also evolving to hold a variety of healthy foods. Bento boxes (Bento means lunch box in Japanese) are the newest craze. Bento boxes are usually made of plastic but also come in wood or metal, and are divided into several compartments. The large compartment can hold a sandwich or other main dish item, and the smaller compartments can accommodate fruit, veggies, pudding, yogurt or pretzels, etc. Some bento boxes come with gel cool lids that you refrigerate the night before and the ice pack in the lid will keep food cold for hours. (Igloo also has a similar product with an ice pack built into the lid.) Bento boxes can be two-tiered and come in many fun colors, shapes and even character faces.

Sometimes, it's those familiar comfort foods that kids request for their lunches brought from home. "My boys always want peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I pack them a lunch, so that's what I send," says Sherry Thomas, mother of two boys. "That way, I know that they will eat what I sent. I put a different note in their lunch boxes every time. I hear that they look forward to what kind of goofy message I come up with!"

Bartlett agrees. "Sometimes children just like the repetition of eating foods that they enjoy. And, that's great if they are nutritional, like peanut butter sandwiches," she says.

So whether you send lunch in a brown paper sack that the kids can color on, a re-usable lunch bag or box featuring their favorite cartoon character, or a brightly colored bento box with different compartments, remember that healthy lunches choices for your kids are as easy as A-B-C, 1-2-3!

Pack a little love

Napkins with handwritten personal messages can also make lunch something for your child to look forward to.

"Every day, I would write a note on my kids' napkin like 'Love you!' or 'Have a great day!' and I'd draw a silly face to go with it," says Lorrie Edwards, mother of two grown children. "Years later, we had a bunch of my daughter Kate's friends in the car, and one of them said, 'I can't remember whose mom drew smiley faces on their napkins with little messages but I was always jealous that my mom didn't do that!'" Edwards says it made her feel good to know that her kids enjoyed the messages that she sent, and that they showed them to the kids around them.