Get kids involved, excited about school lunch choices

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By Greg Summers

Your nerves are shot.After spending endless hours pushing a shopping cart through every store in three counties for weeks, you found the perfect Hannah Montana or Kasey Kahne lunch box.Now, all that’s left to do is find something to put in it that will give your little Disney Channel wannabe or NASCAR novice enough brain power to make it through the day.And you thought finding that lunch box was hard.Try finding the suggested good-for-you protein, vegetable, fruit and a fun treat combination you can pack each day that they will eat.But it doesn’t have to be that hard.One of the easiest solutions is to let your children get involved by selecting nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables, along with foods from each food group for their own lunches.This is a great time of year to do that, too, with many of their local favorites – like fresh peaches – still in season.You may be pleasantly surprised by the choices they make when given the option of adding their own input.Kids like variety, too. The standard peanut butter and jelly sandwich can get sort of stale.Instead of using soggy bread, jazz up that PBJ by using high fiber, 100 percent whole wheat breads (including whole grain raisin bread), pita bread, whole wheat tortillas to make wraps, whole grain rolls and mini-bagels.And, if leftover chicken from last night’s dinner was particularly appealing to them, cut it into strips and combine it with diced red and green peppers in a delicious wrap to enjoy with a honey mustard dip. Think smallLetting children help with their own lunches – including the packing – can make your stretched-to-the-hilt budget go even farther.According to the USDA, that’s one of the easiest ways to make sure you only send what they will eat. Most parents tend to overpack lunch boxes.Most children prefer a lot of choices, but like them in smaller portions. It’s just as easy to make bite-size and mini versions of regular lunch box foods like sandwiches.Plus, fun versions of sandwiches trimmed into shapes with cookie cutters are less likely to wind up in the cafeteria trash can.Think bigAnother way to save money is to buy in bulk.There’s nothing wrong with buying the larger sizes of yogurt, applesauce and juice and splitting them into individual servings.Instead of buying prepackaged, loaded with sugar granola bars, let your kids make their own trail mix from cereals, nuts, mini pretzels, dried fruit or raisins, fruit gummies and a few dark chocolate morsels. And packing them into plastic containers that fit into a lunch box eliminates the added expense of sandwich bags.Plus, it’s a great way to pack an almost waste-free lunch.According to the environmental magazine, Earth Talk, the typical American school kid generates 67 pounds of discarded lunch box packaging waste per school year. That’s more than 18,000 pounds annually for the average-sized elementary school. Lunch box tips– Pack their lunch the night before and store it in the refrigerator overnight. It will help the food stay colder longer.– Choose fruits that are easy to eat and not messy. Be sure to peel fruits that need it, and cut them into finger-size pieces for younger children. Pack toothpicks so they can make fruit kabobs.– Mini-muffins are the perfect size for kids’ lunches. Follow your favorite recipe, but use a smaller muffin tin and trim the baking time to 12-15 minutes.– Bean dip with baked tortilla chips are a protein-filled, fun addition to most lunch boxes.– Juice boxes can help keep your child’s lunch cold throughout the day. Just freeze it the night before school and use it as an ice pack.By lunchtime, it will be defrosted and ready to drink.

Baked Chicken FingersIngredients1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced into thin strips1/2 cup lowfat buttermilk1/2 cup crushed corn flakes1/4 cup breadcrumbs1 teaspoon Italian seasoning1 teaspoon garlic powder1/2 teaspoon oregano1/4 teaspoon black pepper1 teaspoon olive oilDirections– Preheat oven to 400 degrees.– In a medium or glass bowl, combine chicken breast and buttermilk. Cover and refrigerate for 15 minutes.– Combine corn flakes, breadcrumbs, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, oregano and black pepper in a 1-gallon plastic storage bag.– After chicken is chilled, drain off liquid and add to plastic bag, shaking to coat.– Coat shallow baking pan with olive oil.– Place chicken in pan and bake for about 4 minutes on each side, or until chicken is thoroughly cooked.– Can be served hot or cold with barbecue sauce, honey mustard dip or ranch dressing.

– By Gregory A. Summers