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Lunchtime Makeovers

Preschoolers can be finicky when it comes to mealtime, and lunch is no exception. Some kids end up eating the same sandwich over and over again no matter how hard you try to break them of the habit. Others refuse to eat anything unless it comes in a prepackaged lunch kit from the supermarket. To help you get your child out of a lunchtime rut, we took four of the most common preschool eating styles and gave them a healthy makeover.

The Spaghetti-O's Lover

If "I want Spaghetti-O's!" are the only words your child utters when lunchtime rolls around, then it's time for a makeover. The good news is that, with just a little extra effort, you can make a homemade hot pasta lunch that still appeals to the kids and brings a nutritional boost to the brew. Your child will love how the pasta letters grow bigger the longer they sit in the bowl.

The soup makes 4 servings.

A-Plus Alphabet Soup

  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 4 ounces alphabet pasta
  • 1 1/2 cups frozen mixed vegetables, thawed
  • 7-3/4-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Add broth, water, and tomato sauce to a medium saucepan and stir to combine. Cover and bring to a boil. Add pasta, vegetables, and chickpeas, and boil gently, uncovered, until pasta is done, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir occasionally. Pour in bowls and top with cheese. Serve with sliced apples and a glass of milk.

Ham on white bread has been the No. 1 American sandwich for years. We improved on the classic with our colorful roll-up of lean deli ham, cheese for calcium, a carrot (hey, we weave in a vegetable whenever we can!), and a whole wheat flour tortilla to kick up the fiber. Add a dipping sauce, and kids will really have a good time dunking and eating.

Ham & Cheese Roll-Ups

  • 8-inch whole wheat flour tortilla
  • 1 to 2 tbsp. light cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 small carrot, shredded
  • 2 tbsp. preshredded, reduced-fat cheddar cheese
  • 1 oz. thinly sliced lean deli ham

Spread the cream cheese evenly over tortilla. Layer with carrots, cheese, and ham. Roll up tightly and slice in half. Serve with a dipping sauce (such as honey mustard or barbecue), sliced strawberries or melon, and a glass of milk.

The word vegetarian often evokes images of big bowls of beans, fresh vegetables, and interesting whole grains. But a picky toddler or preschooler who doesn't like meat may end up eating nothing more than cream cheese on a white bagel every day. To add some nutritional oomph (read: vegetables) to a meat-free lunch, try one or both of our fun and delicious bagel creations. (If regular bagels seem too big for the littlest mouths, use mini bagels.)

Rockin' Broccoli Bagel

  • 1/2 medium whole wheat bagel
  • 1 tbsp. pasta sauce
  • 1 tbsp. cooked broccoli florets (you can use leftovers), coarsely chopped
  • 2 tbsp. preshredded, part-skim mozzarella cheese

Spread pasta sauce evenly over the bagel half. Sprinkle with broccoli and cheese. Place on aluminum foil and heat in toaster oven at 300 degrees F. until the cheese melts and pasta sauce is heated through, about 3 minutes.

South-of-the-Border Bagel

  • 1/2 medium whole wheat bagel
  • 1 tbsp. fat-free refried beans
  • 1 tbsp. frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 2 tbsp. shredded, reduced-fat cheddar cheese

Spread refried beans evenly over the bagel half. Sprinkle with corn and cheese. Place on aluminum foil and heat in toaster oven at 300 degrees F. until the cheese melts and beans are heated through, about 3 minutes.

Serve with a fruit smoothie: Blend 1 cup 100-percent fruit juice, 1/2 ripe banana, a handful of frozen berries, and vanilla yogurt. Makes 2 to 3 smoothies.

When your children see other kids eating those highly processed, prepackaged lunch kits, they may beg you to buy one. But since most are high in saturated fat and sodium and low in fiber and other nutrients, our advice is to avoid the temptation. You can make your own "lunch kit" by packing lots of finger foods in colorful containers.

Homemade Lunch Kit

Try lemon hummus (try our easy recipe below) with one or more of these dippers: whole wheat mini pita bread, sliced baby carrots, or bell pepper strips.

Lemon Hummus

  • 16-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 3 tbsp. lemon juice
  • 3 tbsp. water
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp. dried cumin
  • 1/4 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • Combine ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth.

Peanut butter with one or more of the following dippers: whole wheat pretzel sticks or crackers, sliced apples, celery sticks

Serve with any of the following:

  • Squeeze yogurt
  • Fruit cup, packed in its own juice
  • Applesauce
  • Skim-milk pudding cup
  • Low-fat string cheese

If your kids love peanut butter and jelly, make this time-honored sandwich even healthier by using whole wheat bread (look for a bread with at least 2 grams of fiber per slice), natural PB, and a 100-percent fruit jam. If your child's school or daycare center bans peanut products, look in stores for one of our favorite alternatives: sunflower butter.

Ah, the brown bag lunch. It's a reminder of a simpler time. It's also a reminder of when lunch got warm and soggy as it sat all morning in your cubby. Yuck. Today, there are plenty of fun container options that keep food cold and safe from bacteria -- and make healthy lunches impossible to resist.

  • Gerber Bunch-a-Bowls & Lids
    800-4-GERBER
  • Tupperware Snack Cup Set, Apple Fruit Locker, and Divided Feeding Dish
    tupperware. com
  • Rubbermaid Servin' Saver Juice Box
    drugstores

Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2004.

Liz Weiss, RD, and Janice Newell Bissex, RD are authors of The Moms' Guide to Meal Makeovers (Broadway Books, 2004).

For additional nutrition information, visit