Packing school lunches is an annual ritual that could benefit from an infusion of creativity.
Anyone whose kids are tired of peanut butter and jelly and a bag of snack chips knows what I mean. This time of year, it's all about figuring out what to pack in that sack to keep it nutritious - and interesting.
Over the years, I've gathered tips from parents and kids, and I've accumulated experience of my own. We've all become experts, but it helps to get fresh ideas.
In that spirit, here are ideas as you begin the school year. If you have others to share, send them my way.
I'll revisit the topic in another column timed to serve as a midyear boost.
Package food in an appealing way. A clean, roomy lunch bag is basic.
Find several styles from L.L. Bean and order online. Another novel approach to packing: Use an American-style bento box, an adaptation of the classic Japanese-style lunchbox with compartments for meal components.
Check out the options - and pictures of sample lunches - at www.laptoplunches.com.
Include containers for easy packing. If the lunch box or bag doesn't come with containers for components, find a variety to keep on hand.
I like reusable plastic boxes in various sizes for storing dry or cold foods such as sandwiches and salads. Some are available with partitions that make it simple to pack pita points and hummus, for example, keeping them separate while in the same container.
Favor small glass containers for foods that need reheating such as leftovers from last night's dinner. A small, squat insulated food container keeps soup or chili hot.
Don't forget small cold packs from the freezer to keep cold foods cold until lunchtime.
No need for sandwich centerpieces. Bits and pieces of other foods can be an interesting alternative.
For example, pack peanut butter in a small plastic bag with a spoon. Pair it with apple slices or celery sticks for dipping. Small blocks of nonfat or very low-fat cheese or string cheese with whole grain crackers are another option.
Pack nonfat yogurt, small aseptic boxes of soymilk, mandarin orange sections, and applesauce or mixed fruit cups. Cut up cucumbers and bell peppers - green, orange, red and yellow - into big chunks for snacking anytime.
Empower kids to pack their own lunches. Set out suggested ingredients, but establish a routine in which time is set aside each morning or the night before for lunch packing.
Keep several kinds of fresh fruit on hand - whatever is in season - and encourage kids to pack one or two pieces every day.
Make new friends. Introduce kids to new foods now and then to stretch their culinary experiences.
Pack a cup of Indian dal, a few slices of fresh jicama or kiwi halves if they've never tried them.
Seek out new lunch ideas and make school meals one of the highlights of your child's day.
Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.