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Nutritious School Lunches Should Be a Parent-child Package Deal

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Kids may hate back-to-school time, and parents might not love it, either - for many, it's that dreaded back-to-packing-lunch time.

No mom or dad wants to brave the morning rush, accommodate picky eaters, and listen to whines about the perfect parent down the block who produces delectable lunchbox meals five days a week.

You could fling some money at your kids for pizza. You could invest in a lifetime supply of Oscar Mayer Lunchables, or give up and throw in whatever's handy from the pantry. But lunch is too important - nutritionally speaking - to give up on.

"What most kids eat for lunch is just horrible," said Deborah Gallucio, a Ridgewood nutritionist. "I've seen kids just bring cookies or chips, without even a sandwich. It's snack food, not a meal."

Teenagers often skip lunch or go the fries-and-soda route. Others, said Gallucio, "just have bagels for lunch. That's a pure carbohydrate meal. These kids need to eat protein."

Recent research shows that proper nutrition improves a child's peak academic performance, classroom attitude and behavior, and overall cognitive development.

"There are many ways to get even the most finicky eaters on the right track for starting off a brand-new school year with healthy eating habits," said Dr. Scott Navarro, dental director of Delta Dental Plan of New Jersey.

The best way is through communication: Ask your child what he or she really wants to eat.

"You have to go along with what they enjoy eating at home," Gallucio said. "Then find a way to package that for school."

Take your children to the supermarket with you, or ask them to help you make the grocery list. Together you can create kid- friendly and nutritious lunches.

* Protein. Meat, poultry, peanut butter, and egg and tuna salads fill the bill, especially when paired with whole-wheat bread for fiber.

* Calcium. We've all heard that we don't get enough of it. Grab- and-go containers of yogurt or cottage cheese, and handy packets of cubed cheese make it easier than ever to get calcium into kids. If possible, pack low-fat milk (see story at left), in plain or flavored varieties such as cookies-and-cream or banana.

* Fruits and veggies. Most kids love strawberries, raisins, apples, cherries, and peaches, fresh or dried. Dried fruits aren't as messy, but Navarro pointed out that they spend more time in the mouth because they're sticky and hard to chew, leaving more time for sugars to damage teeth. So use them sparingly.

Baby carrots and other produce in snack-pack sizes make perfect lunchtime side dishes.

* Beverages. "The best drink to pack with lunch is milk," said Ann Faicco, a registered dietitian at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood. If milk is not an option, include 100 percent fruit juice. "Another good alternative is bottled water," Faicco said.

* Dessert. Replace boring store-bought cookies with homemade brownies, lemon bars, or rugalach.

Children, like the rest of us, enjoy occasional changes in taste and texture. Try one of these:

* Spice up any lunch with hummus, used as a dip or as a sandwich spread.

* For the older or more discerning epicure, skip the sandwich altogether. Stuff tomatoes with tuna or egg salad.

* Offer quiche, which travels well and is best served at room temperature. Buy a packet of frozen mini quiches. Bake them at night, refrigerate, then wrap them in the morning.

* Buy ready-made sushi rolls. Stick with simple vegetable or California rolls, neither of which contains fish. Or bring the exotic much closer to home and make "sushi" with tuna salad instead of crab and tortillas instead of seaweed.

* Revive an ordinary sandwich by shaping it with cookie cutters. Kids find star- and heart-shaped sandwiches more appealing than plain old squares, even if the ingredients are identical.

Once you've gotten the contents tackled, preparation is the next challenge. Here are some tips:

* Pack whatever you can the night before.

* Cut and bag extra vegetables while you make dinner, and use leftover meats as sandwich filling for the next day.

* If you're too busy to prepare lunch yourself, consider a healthier alternative to the fat-laden Lunchables and their ilk. "They're awful," said Gallucio. "They're not nutritious at all."

One such alternative is Applegate Farms' Organic Lunch Box. Its turkey breast variety, for example, contains 6 grams of total fat (3 saturated, 3 unsaturated) as opposed to Lunchables Lean Turkey Breast's 17 grams (8 saturated).

* Remember that by lunchtime - after being thrown around, sat upon, and stashed in a locker - the meal you so lovingly prepared will not remain in anything like its original state unless you've packed it carefully. Drinks, salads, and mayonnaise-based sandwiches should be stored with an ice pack (or use a frozen juice box). Soups or hot food (pastas, stir-fries) belong in a vacuum bottle or other insulated container. Use hard-sided containers for anything squishy.

Even a beautifully executed lunch will do no good if a kid throws or trades it away at school. Ask your children to bring home whatever they don't eat in school, then ask them why they didn't eat it. If you adapt the menu accordingly, wasting and swapping can be kept to a minimum.

"You have to educate your child as to what an equal trade is," Gallucio said. "They can trade Oreos for chocolate-chip cookies. Not sandwiches for cookies."

Finally, the best meals aren't all about food. Include a joke, sticker, or personal note in your kid's lunch - anything to let them know that you care.

Who knows? That perfect parent down the block could be you.

Egg salad stuffed tomatoes

4 large tomatoes

6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled

1/4 cup mayonnaise (or light mayonnaise)

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the top off a large tomato, about 1/3 of the way down. Scoop out the seeds, leaving a hollow shell. For a more decorative tomato, you can cut the top in a zig-zag design using a paring knife.

Finely chop eggs and stir in remaining ingredients. Stuff into the hollowed tomatoes.

Servings: 4.


(C) 2003 The Record, Bergen County, NJ. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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