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Every night when it comes time to pack her children's school lunches, Elizabeth Ward thinks, ''Not again.''
''It's a challenge to come up with different foods for kids to eat, especially if you want them to be healthy,'' says Ward, who is from Reading, Mass., and has three girls, 8, 7 and 4. Even though she is a registered dietitian and an expert on making creative lunches for her children, she still struggles with the task.
Many families are stuck in a rut when it comes to packing school lunches. A survey of 2,000 households done by the NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y., found:
* 74% of all bagged lunches for school include a sandwich. Peanut butter and jelly is the most popular.
* 70% include a salty snack such as chips or pretzels.
* 59% include fruit. An apple is most common.
* 59% include a fruit drink.
It's no wonder school lunches fall into a rut; parents are busy and kids are finicky, so they just keep bagging the same old stuff. And yet it's more important than ever that kids eat smart at school, considering an explosion of obesity and the fact that kids can be under a lot of stress. About 20% to 30% of children are either overweight or at risk of becoming so.
Ward, author of Healthy Foods, Healthy Kids (Adams Media, $14.95), tries to think outside the lunch box. One way she does that is by using something other than bread, such as whole-wheat crackers, whole-grain rolls, bagels or whole-wheat pita bread.
Some children have little time to eat lunch at school, she says, so the meal needs to contain nutrient-rich foods including dairy, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
But getting kids to eat their veggies isn't easy.
Rallie McAllister, mother of three boys and author of Healthy Lunchbox (LifeLine, $19.95), has learned that her children will eat vegetables if she gives them cut-up broccoli, grape tomatoes or baby carrots along with some packaged dip.
Most children like fruit because it's sweet, and they are more likely to eat it if it's bite-sized, such as cherries, grapes, berries or melon balls, says McAllister, a family doctor. She buys seasonal fruit, and she also makes homemade trail mix with dried fruits, raisins and nuts.
When it comes to liquids, Ward packs her children milk, water or calcium-fortified orange juice or lemonade and steers clear of fruit drinks and soft drinks.
How much food should be put in the lunch depends on the age, height and weight of the child. Parents can build and add to some of Ward's basic school-lunch ideas:
* Turkey-and-cheese roll-ups. Wrap deli turkey around string cheese. Serve with whole-grain pretzels, cherry tomatoes, fruit and milk.
* Leftover cheese or veggie pizza; fruit; water. ''I buy high-quality frozen pizza and add to it, cook it the night before and use it for a couple of days' lunches because I have two in elementary school right now,'' Ward says.
* Bagel, spread with peanut butter (if OK with the school because of concerns about peanut allergies), popcorn, carton of yogurt, fruit.
* Whole-wheat crackers or whole-grain roll with butter or margarine, string cheese, applesauce, an ounce (about a handful) of trail mix, milk or 100% juice.
* Whole-wheat pita bread and six celery sticks with hummus for dipping, fruit, milk.
Ward often slips in a couple of cookies because she believes ''kids need a few treats. If parents try to be too healthy with kids, it can backfire. As soon as kids get one ounce of freedom, they are going to be out buying candy bars and junk food to make up for lost time.''
There are several foods both Ward and McAllister don't put in their kids' lunches.
* Potato chips or other high-fat, salty snacks. ''They have few redeeming qualities aside from calories,'' Ward says. ''Some kids may need the calories, but most don't as we fight this childhood obesity epidemic.''
Says McAllister: ''Chips are the worst. Every parent should take them off their list. If they need something salty or crunchy, try pretzels, nuts, sunflower seeds.''
* Soda and candy. ''I would never put soda into my child's lunch, because it's another food with zero redeeming qualities,'' Ward says. She also shies away from candy, with the exception of Halloween candy.
* Oscar Mayer Lunchables. ''I can't believe they can cram that much fat and sodium into that little food,'' Ward says. ''When you look at the label, it's astounding, but my kids love them, and we indulge from time to time. They've come out with a lighter line called Lunchables Fun Fuel that are really OK.''
McAllister says parents can create their own Lunchable-like meals using healthier foods. ''It's the right idea made with the wrong foods.''
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