Keep lunch interesting by packing a variety of different foods. Make a sandwich one day, a salad another, and include hot or cold soup. Vary sandwich breads and fillings. Consider a variety of textures, colors and flavors.
To put some pizzazz in your lunch boxes, try these magical ideas designed for the whole family. Just add fruit and low-fat milk for a balanced meal.
Wave your magic wand around the refrigerator and see what great sandwich stuffings you can find in the salad crisper. How about sprouts, tomatoes, mushrooms and lettuce? Add some low-fat cheese and layer it between white, rye or whole wheat bread for a veggie delight.
Convert ham leftovers into ham salad using low-fat mayonnaise and spread on sliced bread or an English muffin. Add lettuce and sprouts, if desired.
Try tuna salad with low-fat cottage cheese or yogurt, instead of mayonnaise, on a hot dog or hamburger bun with or without sesame seeds. Perk up your tuna salad with celery, green pepper, pickle relish, olives, sunflower seeds or chopped nuts.
It's hard to beat cream cheese and a bagel. Add variety by mixing chipped chives, celery, nuts or raisins into the cream cheese. Use nonfat plain or fruit-flavored cream cheese or different flavors of bagels. Try spreading the cream cheese mixture on raisin bread for something different.
Try your choice of the following toppings: bananas, fruit puree, honey, cinnamon, jam or raisins on white bread. Younger children might enjoy a cut-out sandwich created by using a cookie cutter with an easily recognizable shape.
Try an "inside-out" sandwich. Roll a slice of reduced-fat luncheon meat and low-fat cheese around a bread stick. Skewer with toothpicks to hold meat and cheese in place. Serve mustard or mayonnaise on the side.
Some other suggestions for making lunch boxes more magical and fun include:
Cutting sandwiches in triangles or strips;
Using both dark and white bread in one sandwich;
Using pretzel sticks as skewers for meat and cheese cubes;
Putting sandwich fillings on crackers rather than bread or rolls;
Making an apple sandwich - spread apple slices with cheese spread, cream cheese or peanut butter and top with another apple slice.
To prevent lunch from becoming a gastronomic disaster, pack safely. Be sure utensils, hands and work area are clean. Use fresh foods or thoroughly cooked foods. Avoid using leftovers pulled from the back of the refrigerator. If lunches are prepared the night before, refrigerate perishable items.
Foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, salads, milk and milk products are highly perishable. Keep your lunch box under refrigeration until lunchtime. If that can't be arranged, take steps to keep these foods as cold as possible.
Put something cold in the lunch box - a plastic container filled with water and frozen or one of the commercial freezing gels. Use a vacuum bottle to keep milk, juice or salads chilled until lunch time. These bottles come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Freeze individual servings of juice and pack frozen. At lunch time, they will be the right temperature for drinking.
You can consider freezing some types of sandwiches. Frozen sandwiches thaw in time for lunch and also help to keep the rest of lunch cool until then.
Lunch boxes, especially insulated ones, hold the cold much better than paper bags. Plus, a box is easy to clean and keep sanitary.
Finally, everyone loves a surprise! Surprises don't have to be food items. If you're packing lunch for that special person, from time to time put in notes, cards, puzzles, comics and holiday napkins. An occasional surprise makes lunch an event to remember.
Lynn F. Little is an extension educator, family and consumer sciences, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Maryland.