Every kid seems to have his staple lunch that he wants every single day. That is, until one day, when he declares that he will never eat it again.
That morning, you find yourself staring blankly into the fridge wondering what you can make that's fast, nutritious, different, but still something he'll eat. I'm hoping that this doesn't sound too familiar yet, since we're just at the beginning of the school year … so, instead, let's hope we're averting the lunchbox crisis by brainstorming early!
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Staples are absolutely great fallbacks, but starting the year off with some fun variety will hopefully keep you out of this lunchbox black hole -- and, sometimes it's putting just a small twist on an old favorite that will pique his taste bud curiosity. Check out some of these tasty main dish creations:
PB&J Sushi Rolls
Take two slices of whole grain bread and, using a roller, roll the bread out to an ultrathin consistency. Spread peanut butter and 100 percent whole fruit jam on to the bread. Then, roll and cut sushi style.
Great idea for a slightly older kid: Rotate whole wheat tortellini, favorite sliced veggies and mozzarella balls on a plastic skewer.
Cookie cutter sandwiches
This is as simple as taking your kid's favorite sandwich and adding some flare by using different shaped cookie cutters. You can even use this as an easy "Surprise Friday -- Guess my shape!"
A "lunchable" was a great concept born a couple decades ago, however, this updated healthy version is homemade. Dish out some whole grain Triscuits, low-sodium deli meat and sliced cheese for kids to build their own creations at school. Finish the "lunchable" with a side of fruit and a small sweet.
Pasta with "you pick too"
Supply the cold cooked pasta and create a "you pick too" station where your child can pick her toppings. Topping ideas: assorted veggies, cubed chicken, mozzarella balls, shredded cheese, sliced hard-boiled egg and diced avocado. Possibilities can be as extensive as the stock in your fridge that day.
Leftovers-turned-barbecue chicken pita
This is one of my favorite fast lunches -- whenever you have a rotisserie chicken (or any simple chicken) the night before, you can shred some chicken and toss with barbecue sauce. Pile it into a whole grain pita (less spillage for the younger kids), and voila, a simple barbecue sandwich in less than five minutes!
Whole wheat waffle sandwich
Fill the waffle with cream cheese, cinnamon and raisins.
Strawberry cream cheese sandwich
Spread cream cheese and thinly sliced strawberries across whole grain bread for a delicious twist on the standard PB&J.
Place tortilla on a plate and spread pizza sauce over it. Top with an even layer of spinach (or other favorite veggies) and sprinkle cheese on top. Microwave on high until the cheese is just melted, about 45 seconds. Carefully roll the tortilla up. Let cool for 10 minutes before slicing into pieces, if desired.
Slice apples into rings. Use two rings for a "cookie." Spread peanut butter and raisins on one ring and sandwich together with the other ring.
Even with all these ideas, you can rest a little bit easier this year if you need to lean on the school lunch program for a break in lunchbox packing.
For the first time in 15 years, the standards of the National School Lunch Program have been updated and upgraded. Kids will be consuming options with lower salt, fewer calories, zero trans-fat and age-appropriate portion sizes. It gets even better: In 2012, at least half of the grains served must be whole grain. By 2013, all grains will be required to be whole grain. WHOO HOO! It's about time.
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•Christina Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, is the owner of Nourished, Nutrition and Wellness, nourishedliving.com. She lives with her husband and two young sons in the Northwest suburbs.