Back to school doesn't have to mean back to boring lunches. Sure, there are limitations (not many microwaves in elementary school lunch rooms), but with some planning and a little creativity, your child's lunch can be the one that's most popular on the trading block.
First of all, forget the notion that all children are picky eaters. Instead, think of a child's palette as a blank canvas waiting to be painted. While not all kids will happily pile on the broccoli, there are kids who eat cherry tomatoes out of the carton (mine) and can't wait until they're home to bite into cucumbers from the farmers market (also mine).
But you know your child best. Here are some ideas that can help frustrated packers of lunches or fuel inspiration in those just entering the school lunch scene.
Kids who aren't fond of sandwiches may have had too many PBJs in their day, or they could be too familiar with soggy, mayo-laden sandwiches. But don't give up! Here are some ways to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary -- or at least into something they will eat.
• Make lunch fun. Cut sandwiches into different shapes with cookie cutters (see our egg-salad duck), or use bread crimpers to seal the sandwiches (think Uncrustables but fresh, and cheaper).
• Keep the sandwiches fresh and dry by packing the bread and the filling separately. Sandwiches can be assembled at lunch, and if they aren't, who cares? They still have the basics for a good meal.
• Mix up the grains. Sliced white bread can get pretty dull. There's a whole new world out there with pita bread, English muffins, tortillas and whole-grain breads.
• Use hot-dog buns -- they look like submarines -- for an under-the-sea adventure. You also can give the illusion of a "hot dog" by taking a couple of slices of deli ham and wrap it around a cheese stick. It looks like a hot dog, and you can even garnish it with mustard and chopped up pickles (relish, if you will).
Not into sandwiches?
Not everyone is a sandwich eater, and let's face it: No one can eat sandwiches day in and day out. Here are some breadless ideas:
• Spice up things with a gourmet taco kit. Put shredded cheese, lettuce, chicken and salsa in separate bags along with a couple of taco shells for a taco treat.
• Dump the bread altogether and make "sushi." Roll sliced turkey, roast beef or ham into pinwheels stuffed with sandwich fillings.
• Try a new twist on deviled eggs by stuffing halved boiled eggs with tuna or chicken salad.
• Pack your own Lunchables by sending sliced meat, cheese and crackers in separate containers (don't forget dessert). And there's no rule that says tuna salad has to be on bread -- send large Goldfish crackers instead.
• Have fruit fondue. Chop up several kinds of fruit and send some yogurt for dipping. Ditto for veggies. Hummus, peanut butter or cottage cheese make great dipping "sauces" in place of high-fat dressings.
Play it safe
Whether or not you're a sandwich person, you still need to remember to practice basic food-safety rules. After all, you wouldn't want to eat a sandwich that's been stuffed in a locker all morning, either. Here are some ways to keep lunches cool: