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Back to School Lunches....Thinking INSIDE The Box!

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Back to school time is the perfect time to turn over a new leaf and start packing healthier lunches for our kids. Trust me - I know only too well how easy it is to fall for the quick, already prepared options or simply to just opt for a lunch order from the school cafeteria. Unfortunately, while there's little doubt that our kids will gobble up, or down as the case may be, those deli snack trays with all their processed meat and cheeses, or a slice of cheesy pizza from the school cafeteria, do we really want our children to consume these foods every day? Not only are they nutritionally bankrupt, they're also high in fat, sodium, sugar and a multitude of chemicals and preservatives. I for one, want more for my child.

The other issue to contend with is the ever-increasing list of food items restricted due to food allergies. As it stands at my daughter's school, you can cross things like peanut butter, tuna, eggs and kiwi off of the list of possible lunch items. I understand restricting peanuts and peanut butter and even shellfish because the children who are allergic sometimes only need smell them and have an allergic reaction. To the best of my knowledge, though, when someone has an allergy to finned fish such as tuna, or eggs, they have to be ingested or touched to invoke an allergic reaction and as such, perhaps some leniency could be shown in this regard. Having said that, if I were sending my child with a severe food allergy to school, I'd be constantly in fear that they could come in contact with something that very well could be life threatening, so I do see the other side of the food allergy coin.

Where does that leave us when it comes to school lunch? The school cafeteria revolution has yet to reach my daughter's school and the menu is a disgrace, in my opinion, when it comes to healthy eating. Garlic fingers, 3 cheese pizza, chicken nuggets and fries and creamy mac and cheese are among the lunch options. Once a week berries and yogurt are offered, as are apple sauce brownies, but for the most part, the food offered through the school cafeteria is high in fat, sodium, carbohdrates, sugar and processed beyond what is acceptable by me. I would think feeding kids high fat/high carb foods would make them lethargic for the afternoon session, but apparently cheap and easy is more important than the health of our children.

I was fortunate growing up not to have to stay in for lunch until I went to Grade 9. But for the next few years, until I graduated, every day I brought a brown paper bag lunch of a ham sandwich, small can of apple juice, an apple and a puff pastry, and I do mean EVERY day. But I was perfectly ok with that because my lunch was much better than most of my friends' and I was grateful!

If only my kids were so easy to please. My oldest daughter was just plain picky and my youngest daughter only likes 'different' regular ham sandwiches for her! She'll eat a wrap, no problem, but if I'm going to include a sandwich I have to be creative and lean toward the gourmet side of things, such as a sandwich made from leftover cajun spiced turkey with some grilled sweet potato and baby cucumber, topped with a fancy aioli. (I know..I've created a monster!).

But then, quite by accident, I came across this lunch storage container that had several compartments and I thought it would be perfect for putting together a lunch of this, that and the other thing. Little did I know at the time that this container was actually called a bento container for a Bento lunch. (And just to make it a tad more embarrassing, when I asked my 11 year old if she knew what a bento lunch was, she said, 'Yes, of course I do. You do know we have a Bento container right?'. The joys of having a smarty pants for a daughter!)

What is a Bento lunch you ask? Bento is a single portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. Traditional bento holds rice, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box shaped container. Price for these nifty little containers can run anywhere from $5 for plastic, to $85 for lacquered boxes.

The first Bento can be traced back to the late Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when cooked and dried rice called hoshi-ii was developed. It wasn`t until the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600), that wooden lacquered boxes, very similar to Bento boxes of today, were produced for the bento lunch. However, despite it`s Asian origin, a bento lunch doesn`t have to be Asian food. The main thing about a bento luch is that the contents are meant to be eaten cold or at room temperature and don`t necessarily require reheating.

I haven`t met a child yet who doesn`t enjoy a lunch that offers a variety of different things for them to pick and chose to eat in whatever combination they want. As such, a bento lunch is the perfect solution. The possibilities really are endless and what`s even better is that both you and your child can enjoy the same lunch quite easily!

You can either pick a protein and go from there, or perhaps a `theme`such as Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, cold cuts, fruit and veggies or simply an assortment of your child`s favorites. In researching the bento lunch I was amused to discover people actually take great pride in the presentation of their bento and it`s not uncommon for fruit, sandwiches, cheese and meats to be cut in shapes or in the form of characters.

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This bento lunch has an Angry Birds Theme...with the colorful arrangement of the fruit and vegetables, there`s no doubt this lunch would be fun and nutritious!

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For all those Phineas and Ferb fans, what's better than little sandwiches on whole wheat bread that look like the pet platypus, Perry?

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Whether it's for your child or yourself, a bento lunch offers variety, whimsy and nutrition, all in one little container. Lunch no longer has to be just a boring sandwich!

It's time to start thinking INSIDE the box! Not only are bento lunches eco-friendly, but they tend to be more nutrious, and less expensive than those factory made cracker, cheese and deli meat trays, and certainly cost less than the cafeteria lunch! YOU control the quality of the food your child eats, while your child maintains some control over the manner in which they eat their lunch. I guarantee your child will eagerly open their lunch every day to see what you have packed for them, and a smile will come to his or her face when they see heart shaped cheese, flower bread, watermelon stars and one of their favorite characters from Minecraft! For me, being playful with my daughter's lunch, knowing that it will make her smile in the middle of the day when I can't be with her, brings a smile to my face too!

My youngest daughter use to always ask what I had packed for her lunch. I'd feel an instant pang of fear and intrepidation, often praying that she'd forget to ask. But since I started mixing things up with a bento lunch, creating little nutritious and fun nibbles, not only doesn't she ask, but she doesn't want me to tell her! This morning, as she was picking up her lunch bag before heading out the door, she wondered out loud what she was having for lunch today. I said, 'I made....', and she stopped me saying, 'No! Don't tell me! I want to be surprised!'. Gone are the days of squabbling over lunch when there was no time to prepare another...a much welcomed change that only cost me $5.97 at Target and a little more thought into what I packed for her lunch.

The bento school lunch ....easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious! Check out my recipes for Sushi Style Sandwiches, Pizza Roll-Ups and Quesadilla Triangles, (which can be found under 'Appetizers' because even though great for your child's luch, they're also great as nibbles!). Each one is a good jumping off point for your child's next bento lunch and they've all been kid-tested by my 11 year old and her friends.


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