Lunchbox rut? Try these vegetarian alternatives

Making the kids lunch has got to be one of the most mundane tasks of all time. As much as we want them to eat healthfully and give them variety, we fall into a rut. So many parents of vegetarian kids ask me how to pack lunches that prevent boredom, for both them and their youngsters.

So here is my lunchbox battle plan. This is the formula that I keep in the back of my mind each day when I assemble my kids' lunches.

Drinks

There are a variety of juice boxes available, containing everything from real juice to colored sugar water. A number of enriched functional drinks for kids include electrolytes and vitamins. As an alternative, consider a small Thermos or individual refillable juice container, which is better for our environment. Even though it's a chore to wash them, reusable containers are usually less expensive than disposables.

Between the bread

It plays the starring role in your child's lunch. It may be a sandwich, quesadilla, wrap, mini pizza, leftover savory strudel or calzone. It can even be a colorful salad or warm entree packed in an insulated container.

Keep in mind, a sandwich can be as simple and delicious as fresh-ground peanut butter and a great fruit spread. I know what it's like to have a child who will only consider eating grape jelly, but don't be afraid to introduce them to more interesting and exotic flavors.

Seasonal fruit or vegetables

Always select fruits and vegetables in season. They are at their peak of nutrition and best price. Try using them in creative ways. For example, cut the top off a sweet bell pepper and fill with rice salad, couscous or my Mac N' Cheese Salad recipe (below).

Just supply the kids with a spoon, and lunch becomes an interactive sport. Try a kid's Cobb salad or a petite Greek salad. Other salads based on cooked pasta or grain also make wonderful lunchbox fillers and can double as a family meal any night of the week.

Something crunchy

Kids crave crunchy snacks. But that snack doesn't have to be potato chips or artificially colored cheese snacks. There are many healthier chips and snack crackers made from other vegetables and ingredients. Add a mild salsa for dipping.

Two-ounce plastic cups with tight-fitting lids are available at all paper good and party supply stores. These are perfect for packing salsas, dressings and sauces. Packed this way they keep salads from getting soggy and give your kids control over their lunch.

Something sweet

There are many packaged alternatives to cloyingly sweet cookies and candies. The sweet element in a lunchbox can be anything from dried fruit to flavored applesauce. Trail mix varieties can be purchased at natural food stores in bulk.

Here are two healthy recipes. See what the kids like.

Mac n' Cheese Salad

  • 2 cups cooked elbow macaroni pasta
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheese such as cheddar, jack or any combination
  • 1 tablespoon low-fat mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon yellow or Dijon-style mustard
  • 1 rib celery, sliced
  • 1 carrot peeled and grated
  • 1/4 cup frozen green peas
  • Salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste
    Combine all ingredients well in a large non-reactive mixing bowl. Make this salad a day before packing so flavors can get friendly with one another. Makes 4 servings.

    Per serving: 181 calories, 28 percent calories from fat, 8 grams protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams total fiber, 6 grams total fat, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 184 milligrams sodium.

    You can add whatever you like, including bell peppers, olives or cubed tofu.

    Ants on a Log

  • 4 (3-inch-long) pieces celery, well washed
  • 1/4 cup creamy or crunchy peanut, almond or cashew butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts or almonds
    Fill each celery rib with peanut butter and smooth surface of filled cavity with back of a spoon or spatula. Roll celery in chopped raisins and nuts, pressing gently to make them stick to filling. Makes 2 servings.

    Per serving: 405 calories, 56 percent calories from fat, 13 grams protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams total fiber, 25 grams total fat, no cholesterol, 80 milligrams sodium.

    Steve Petusevsky is a contributing editor to Cooking Light magazine and national director of creative food development for Whole Foods.

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