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posted: 8/14/2013 6:00 AM

Versatile takes on school lunches

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  • Speedy Gazpacho makes for a refreshing lunch option for the school cafeteria or office breakroom. For more lunch ideas, turn to Page 2.

      Speedy Gazpacho makes for a refreshing lunch option for the school cafeteria or office breakroom. For more lunch ideas, turn to Page 2.
    Associated Press

 
By J.M. Hirsch
Associated Press

Keeping packed lunches fast and easy doesn't have to condemn you to a day-after-day-after-day PB&J. If you're willing to be a little creative, it's easy to find fast, simple and delicious lunches that will keep both the lunch packer and eater healthy and happy.

The biggest roadblock to that usually is mental. We think of packed lunches in terms of what we grew up with or what lunches are "supposed" to be. And that usually translates into the same dull sandwich or salad over and over again.

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The solution? Stop thinking in terms of packed lunches. Think of this as just another meal and pack what you -- or your little one -- loves.

The point isn't to work hard, just to get creative using the foods you already have on hand. Leftovers should be your No. 1 starting point for any lunch. Look at what you have, then find a fresh way to use it. Did you make too much bacon and eggs at breakfast? Pop some cheese on them and roll them in a whole-wheat tortilla for a breakfast-inspired burrito.

Got leftover steak? Pack it. Slice cold, leftover steak as thinly as possible. Then you can pack it as is, perhaps with lemon wedges and a slice of sourdough bread. Or toss the sliced steak with chopped romaine lettuce and a bit of Caesar dressing (pack the dressing on the side and drizzle just before eating to keep the greens fresh). Or layer the steak into a grilled cheese.

Leftover cooked chicken (variety is irrelevant) also is great in salads. Or pop it into a wrap with some greens. Also try it chopped or shredded and tossed with leftover cooked pasta or couscous or rice and a bit of vinaigrette and some sliced cherry tomatoes. Got more veggies (maybe some leftover roasted or grilled ones)? Add those, too.

Still prefer to stick with peanut butter and jelly? That's fine, but who said it has to be on sandwich bread? Mix it up by substituting whole-wheat tortillas, frozen waffles (they'll thaw by lunch), graham crackers, even leftover pancakes. Or swap the peanut butter with cream cheese. Or pair cheddar cheese with your strawberry jam and toast it for a fresh take on the grilled cheese.

To help get you thinking creatively, here are two simple lunches that come together in minutes using whatever you have handy -- an instant gazpacho (chilled tomato and vegetable soup) and a funky any-way-you-want-it version of "sushi" (don't worry, neither seafood nor seaweed are involved).

• J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs atLunchBoxBlues.com. Follow him on Twitter @JM--Hirsch.

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