Making Lunch Boxes Pass the Taste Test

Despite the best intentions, many nutritious foods slipped into lunch boxes by conscientious parents simply don't get eaten by school-age children if they don't taste good, a what's "in" and what's "out" survey of Los Angeles-area children has indicated.

According to children polled at the Glendale Galleria last month by the Quaker Oats Co., eight out of 10 indicated that taste was the major factor determining the fate of lunch box food items. At least half of those surveyed said vegetables don't get eaten at all.

Conversely, parents who were questioned said that the nutritive value of a food was a top priority when making lunch plans for their children. At least seven out of the 10 parents said that they read ingredient labels and ranked calories, cholesterol, sodium, sugar, fiber and fat as important when selecting lunch foods for their children.

What appears, at first glance, to be a contradiction of goals--parents want good nutrition, children want good taste--is actually a dispute with a simple solution. Parents must improve their sandwich-savvy by looking toward nutritious snack items that can replace traditional lunch box fare, but provide the taste and excitement children crave.

Here are some suggestions from the U. S. Department of Agriculture:

--Try different kinds of whole-grain bread in a variety of shapes, such as snack-sized pumpernickel and small pita pockets, to liven up sandwiches.

--Slip sliced apples, cucumbers, onions, radishes, zucchini, tomatoes, crushed pineapple, sprouts, low-fat plain yogurt and shredded carrots into sandwiches for additional flavor and texture.

--Marinate vegetables in low-calorie Italian or herb salad dressing and serve in a chilled container along with low-fat cheese cubes.

--Tuck tiny pieces of raw or cooked vegetables into cold pasta or rice salad.

--Substitute store-bought cookies, snack cakes and quick breads with homemade varieties so that fat, sugar and sodium can be controlled.

--Cooked dry beans and peas, peanut butter and hard-cooked eggs are excellent sources of protein and may occasionally stand-in (along with water-packed tuna, lean roast beef, poultry and cooked fish) for cured meats. When deli meats are selected, use the fat-free or reduced-fat varieties.

--Use insulated wide-mouth vacuum bottles to carry a child's favorite hot dishes such as macaroni and cheese, chili, baked beans, tuna casserole, spaghetti or barbecued meat for warm sandwiches. --Develop unusual flavor combinations for sandwich fillings. Mix flaked cooked fish or tuna with mandarin oranges, shredded cabbage and a small amount of mayonnaise; or add shredded cabbage, minced onion, plain low-fat yogurt, cayenne pepper and mustard to chopped cooked lean meat or poultry; flavor mashed cooked dry beans with a thickened Creole-type sauce of tomatoes, onions, celery and green peppers.

Two other ways to make the first day of school extra special are to include the children in making lunchtime plans--giving them a list of healthful, but tasty options from which to choose a favorite or by allowing them to select at least one special treat for their lunches. Another option is to invest a weekend afternoon making special treats, such as the Lunch Box Super Cookies that follow.

ANIMAL CHEESE CRISPS

1 (1-pound) loaf frozen bread dough, white or wheat

1 egg

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese or 1 cup shredded Cheddar

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 teaspoon dried parsley, crumbled

Allow frozen dough to thaw until pliable. Roll out on floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out shapes with desired cookie cutters, then place on greased baking sheets 1-inch apart. Brush with beaten egg.

Combine cheese, garlic and parsley. Sprinkle generously over dough shapes. Let stand 15 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees 15 minutes or until golden and crisp. Makes 2 1/2 dozen.

CHEESY BREAD STICKS

1 (1-pound) loaf frozen bread dough

2 ounces American cheese, finely shredded

2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

Allow frozen dough to thaw until pliable. Roll out on lightly floured surface to 16x14-inch rectangle. Sprinkle cheese over dough. Beginning with 14-inch side, fold dough over into thirds. Roll dough out to 12 x 14-inch rectangle. Cut into 24 (1/2-inch x 14-inch) long pieces.

Pick up each piece and twist dough into rope. Shape ropes into desired numerals, letters or words and place on lightly greased baking sheet. Brush with melted butter and bake at 400 degrees 15 to 18 minutes or until golden. Makes 24.

LUNCH BOX SUPER COOKIES

3/4 cup butter or margarine, softened

1/3 cup brown sugar, packed

1/4 cup honey

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 cups oats

3/4 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 cup nonfat dry milk powder

1 1/2 cups raisins

1 cup chopped walnuts

2 cups bran flakes

Cream butter, sugar and honey together in large bowl. Beat in eggs, then vanilla, salt and soda. Mix in oats, flour and milk powder and blend thoroughly. Fold in raisins and nuts. Gently mix in bran flakes.

Drop tablespoons onto greased baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees 15 to 20 minutes or until set and edges are lightly browned. Cool 10 minutes. Remove to racks and cool completely. Makes 5 dozen cookies.

GINGER POP COOKIES

1 (14 1/2-ounce) package gingerbread cake and cookie mix

1/3 cup lukewarm water

1 cup prepared vanilla frosting

Assorted candies

Combine gingerbread mix and water. Cover and refrigerate 15 minutes or until slightly firm.

Shape dough into 1 1/4-inch balls. Insert ice cream stick about halfway into the center of each ball. Place about 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheet. Flatten with greased bottom of glass dipped into sugar. Bake at 375 degrees 8 to 10 minutes or until edges are firm. Cool 1 minute, then remove from baking sheet. Cool completely.

Tint frosting pink using few drops red food color. Frost each cookie with about 1 tablespoon frosting. Make faces or designs with candies as desired. Makes 18 cookies.

DELI TRAIN

1 tablespoon reduced-calorie mayonnaise

1 teaspoon prepared mustard

2 whole-wheat frankfurter buns

6 (3/4-inch) cubes turkey breast

2 cherry tomatoes, cut into halves

4 (3/4-inch) cubes part-skim mozzarella cheese

4 (3/4-inch) pieces green pepper

1/4 cup shredded romaine lettuce, lightly packed

Combine mayonnaise and mustard in small bowl. Spread inside buns with mixture. Beginning at 1 end, place 1 cube turkey, 1/2 cherry tomato, 1 cube cheese, 1 cube turkey, 1 piece green pepper, 1 cube cheese, 1/2 cherry tomato, 1 cube turkey and 1 green pepper. Top with half of romaine. Repeat with remaining ingredients. Makes 2 sandwiches.

TURKEY BURRITO TO GO

1 ounce light cream cheese, softened

1 1/2 tablespoons mild or medium salsa

1 teaspoon diced mild green chiles

1/8 teaspoon ground cumin

2 flour tortillas

1/4 pound thinly sliced turkey breast

1/2 cup shredded spinach or romaine lettuce, lightly packed

Combine cream cheese, salsa, chiles and cumin in small bowl. Spread cream cheese mixture on 1 side of each tortilla to within 1/4-inch of edge. Arrange turkey evenly over cream cheese, top with spinach. Roll up tortilla, then wrap individually in plastic. Makes 2 sandwiches.

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