Tasty lunches

Healthy and fun: By using containers, you can pack treats like sushi, pasta salad, even dips. (TMS)

For most parents, having school-aged children means you're on lunch duty for 10 months.

So how do you keep kids interested in eating lunches that are relatively healthy instead of ditching them for the alluring fast- or junk food they see the other scarfing down?

The answer is in a little creativity and variety on a daily basis, with an emphasis on serving real food.

Most school lunches revolve around the traditional sandwich because it's easy to make and kids can eat it with their hands. And sandwiches are, indeed, fine to include in lunches, but it's wise to move beyond this obvious choice at least some of the time.

Invest In Containers

To maximize your serving options, it's important to have the right containers on hand. Containers -- especially those made from healthy materials such as stainless steel, which are also light -- allow you to pack foods with textures beyond the square and dry.

These tightly closing containers are great for rice dishes, mixed vegetables, or even dips. Proper containers also allow you to separate foods so they don't get mushy -- a big turn off for picky kids.

Legumes

Be creative with beans, as they're a great source of protein and complex carbohydrates, and help keep kids full. Start off by with more easily accepted recipes, such as hummus with cut-up veggies or crackers, as part of a lunch or snack. Then try progressing to other bean varieties, such as black bean dips. These, too, can be eaten with veggie sticks but also make a great filling for a burrito.

Beans can also be added to brown rice to make a cold rice salad. Quinoa can be used as an alternative to rice with cut-up veggies and chickpeas. The salad be dressed lightly with lemon juice and olive- or flax seed oil.

Crackers with Sandwich Filling

Rather than relying on bread to make up the main meal, try a version of it by introducing whole grain crackers with a chicken salad or egg salad filling. Provide a spoon for your kids to dish the filling out, and make sure you include healthy crackers that they like. There are many cracker varieties available today, including those made with healthy grains like spelt, kamut and quinoa.

Pasta Salads

Children love pasta, though cold pasta isn't usually tasty unless it's made into a pasta salad. Add cut-up veggies, such as olives, cucumbers and carrots, and include proteins such as small chicken or turkey pieces if it suits your child's taste.

For Picky Eaters

While you're discovering what your picky eater may like, a good tip is to pack many smaller snacks, such as cheese pieces, whole grain crackers, cut up fruit, dips, nuts (if permissible), whole grain muffins, plain yogurt (in a cooler), whole grain bagels and cream cheese, and applesauce. With many items to choose from, such kids are bound to find something they like and want to eat.

Once you've figured out your children's eating patterns, you can begin tailoring lunches specifically to their tastes.

Soup

Soup is not often included in most lunchboxes because most kids don't like it cold. However, if you use one of the new thermoses that are BPA free, you now have one extra lunch option for your child. Soups can either be the main course, if thick and rich, or a side dish if they have more broth. Thermoses are great for chili , too.

Eggs

Even though eggs are often associated with breakfast, they make great lunch foods, too. Consider either packing up hardboiled eggs as part of a lunch, with a side of baby tomatoes and sliced cucumbers and pita bread. Another option is to make a frittata and include many healthy vegetables inside, such as spinach, tomatoes, peppers and zucchini.

These days, with the right containers and smart packing, parents have more options than ever when it comes to offering healthy and interesting options to their kids. It takes a little extra effort on a parent's part, but having healthy children is more than enough reward.

Andrea Donsky and Randy Boyer are the co-founders of NaturallySavvy.com, a website that educates people on the benefits of living a natural, organic and green lifestyle. For more information and to sign up for their newsletter at www.NaturallySavvy.com

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