Between birth and age 18, the average kid will consume nearly 20,000 meals -- and that doesn't even count the after-school treats, late-night snacks and random refrigerator-pillaging sessions. Frankly, the prospect of those 2,340 lunchboxes alone is enough to make any parent falter. Or worse, eyeball the Lunchables.
Fortunately, Katie Morford, Catherine McCord and other culinary experts have stepped into the breach with a crop of new cookbooks designed to help parents balance the tension between what their kids will eat, what Mom and Dad have time to prepare, and what they feel good about sending to school.
"With school lunches, you have all these added challenges," says Morford, a San Francisco dietitian, cooking teacher and author of "Best Lunch Box Ever: Ideas and Recipes for School Lunches Kids Will Love." "You have to make everything super-portable and figure out how to keep the food fresh, the cold food cold and the hot food hot."
With all the other parental challenges, it's easy to fall into what McCord, founder of Weelicious, calls the "lunchtime rut."
"It's putting the same thing in the box day in and day out," says McCord, whose latest cookbook, "Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box With More than 160 Happier Meals," hit bookstores Tuesday.
Parents also box themselves in with preconceived ideas of what a lunch should be, says J.M. Hirsch, food editor for The Associated Press and author of the new "Beating the Lunch Box Blues."
"Once you break down that box," he says, "anything goes, and it's very easy to come up with fresh ideas that your kid will like."
Rethink the lunch box
McCord strives to pack lunches with a fruit, vegetable, carbohydrate and protein. Morford aims for main courses with a protein and calcium source, vegetable and fruit. And Hirsch advocates whole grains and nonprocessed foods but warns against getting too caught up in healthful choices. Save the "green bean battle" for dinner, he says.
Take baby steps, says Morford, a Lafayette native. Don't overhaul the entire lunch experience in one swoop. Be patient. Experiment with different ingredients to encourage kids to try new foods.
Start with what they like, says Matt Greco, executive chef at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore: "Take something kids love, and turn it into something that's better for them."
Rather than the standard peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example, he swaps unsweetened nut butter for standard peanut butter and homemade jam for commercial jelly, trimming the sugar content. And his son loves the banana-craisin Monkey Cookies Greco tucks in his lunchbox every now and then, as a treat.
Tricks of the trade
Where should parents start? With dinner, Hirsch says.
Make more than you need at dinner so you have something to work with in the morning. Make a big batch of Bacon-Cauliflower Mac and Cheese -- Hirsch uses whole-wheat pasta -- so you can have leftovers for lunch. Add a spare steak to the grill or boil extra pasta or rice. Roasting a chicken? Choose a larger one.
Hirsch tosses leftover chicken with bottled barbecue sauce, heats it in the microwave and packs it into a thermos with a bun on the side for a quick barbecue chicken sandwich. The same trick works with leftover meatballs or grilled meats.
Morford transforms leftover noodles and beans into quick soups the next morning, and McCord turns last night's fajitas into fast wraps.
The biggest impact on your lunchbox success may come from simply engaging your child in the lunch planning process. Take them to the store, flip through cookbooks, discuss options and have them give you a hand in the kitchen.
"I hope at the end of this," McCord says, "your 4-year-old becomes a 6-year-old who can practically make his or her own lunch."
Need more lunchbox inspiration? Here's where to find it: