Outside the lunch box: Rethink school lunch

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The beginning of the school year isn't just the beginning of the academic year. It's the beginning of the school lunch year, too. But it you have a strategy before the year begins to keep some variety in your child's school lunch, you may be able to head off those brown bag blahs. It's no guarantee that you child will love every lunch, but it certainly won't be boring.

1. Alternate sandwiches

Peanut butter and jelly and cold cuts are common sandwich fillings, but there are other options, too. Alternative nut butters and hummus make delicious sandwiches, and if there are veggies your child particularly loves, why can't those be made into a sandwich, too? What about cream cheese and avocado (or other vegetable) or cream cheese and jelly? Mix up your condiments when you build a sandwich. Pesto is colorful and tasty when spread on a sandwich, and olive tapenade can be an unique addition. Alternately, think about the bread you are using. Sandwich bread is fine, of course, but what about bagels and English muffins and tortillas and wraps?

2. Beyond sandwiches

Bagged lunches don't have to be sandwiches. They can be salads, too. Or soups in a thermal container. Lunch ideas can consist of cut up veggies with a dressing dip and cheese cubes. You can also try cold sesame noodles or a turnover or all sorts of things. Don't limit yourself to just sandwiches! With the terrific options available lately for transporting lunches, lunches can be just about anything. And if your child has a place to heat up a meal, the options expand even further.

3. Keep it fresh

Try to include as much fresh and low or non processed foods as possible. Fresh fruit and vegetable sticks are a healthy and filling option - and extra tasty when dipped in some salad dressing. For maximum freshness and minimal morning fuss, prepare such items the night before so they are ready to grab from the fridge in the morning. If your child doesn't eat his or her whole lunch one day, you can't automatically save it for the next day. Even if you think an item stayed cool enough, don't pack it in a lunch again unless you are absolutely sure. Better to be safe than sorry.

4. Careful with the liquid

No matter what you choose to send in a bagged lunch, take special care to watch liquids. There's almost nothing worse than losing your lunch to a soaked through paper bag, especially when you just had gym and you're really hungry! If you do send a lunch item that was a certain amount of liquid, take extra care to be sure it can be transported in a sealed container of some kind. Luckily there are many terrific options for this! From thermal containers to resusable plastic containers, the options are stylish and fun.

5. Watch the perishables

If any item in the lunch is particularly perishable, make sure you can send the lunch with a cold pack. But if you don't have a cold pack, a frozen juice box works nicely, too - and your child can drink it with lunch. If you are unsure about an item and the ability to keep it cool, be safe and don't pack it! Don't put the mayonnaise on the sandwich for example, and maybe save the yogurt for an after school snack.

6. Consider a general weekly schedule

At the same time you create the family's weekly meal plan, consider the weekly bagged lunch menu. Plan lunches and dinners in collaboration: if you know that a certain dinner will produce leftovers, how can you use those leftovers in lunch? Leftover meat from a roast chicken, for example, can be a terrific addition to a wrap. With some brainstorming and planning, your child's school lunches this year will be anything but boring. You'll be providing fun, tasty and nutrious meals that won't get traded.

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