What's for lunch?

If you're lucky enough to live in a district where a school lunch looks and tastes good and your child is willing to buy it, good for you. That's one less thing you have to worry about each morning. But what if your kid's cafeteria doesn't offer as many fresh ingredients as you'd like, or your little one is oh-so-picky? Looks like you're going to have to pack.

I know, I know. Getting kids especially older ones to schlep a homemade lunch to school is a challenge like no other. But there are some tricks that will help make this daily chore more palatable for all involved. (And no, dear husband, it does not include simply denying them lunch money.) They'll also boost your chances that the meal will actually end up in their tummies instead of being traded for junk or tossed in the trash.

Every parent knows that it's easier to get a child dressed for school if she gets to help pick out her outfit. It's the same with a brown-bag lunch. If you include your child in the planning, shop together for mutually appealing foods and involve her in preparing it, she'll feel ownership.

More tips:

• Avoid rushed mornings by having your child pack the night before. At the very least, portion pastas, make sandwiches and chop veggies.

• Prepare foods you know you're going to pack every day in bulk. Cut enough fruit for several days and store in plastic containers. Slice meat and cheeses and place portions between pieces of wax paper.

• Remember to wash fruits and vegetables. Also, pack a wet wipe in a baggie so he can clean his hands before and after eating.

• Don't rule out leftovers. There's nothing like a cold slice of pizza or piece of grilled chicken for lunch.

• If your child eats a lot of salad, consider splurging on individual packets of dressing. Or put your own in a small resealable bag.

• Give them a surprise each day to look forward to. Include a note, sticker, joke, funny cartoon or special edible treat.

"Children who help select items are likely to remain interested in their selections," notes school principal and author Yvonne Sanders-Butler in her book Healthy Kids, Smart Kids, "and will probably look forward to trying them."

Just as important is to let them pick out their own lunch box because no kid wants to look like a nerd.

To make sandwiches more appealing for smaller appetites, make them bite-size or cut them into fun shapes with cookie cutters. For older kids, consider stuffing or spreading the ingredients between something other than bread: bagels, wraps, tortillas or even leaves of lettuce. Don't forget to pack foods that make sandwiches soggy, such as tomatoes or lettuce, separately.

If your child will eat a vegetable or fruit salad, put the essentials in small sealable plastic food containers to keep them crisp and don't forget a few croutons, dried fruit or nuts on top. Because kids love to dunk things, you might also consider trading a sandwich for veggies and dip, or apple slices and peanut butter.

Whatever you pack, be sure to keep perishables at the proper temperature with either an insulated lunch box, a gel cold pack or a thermos. If your kid is the type who never remembers to bring anything home, freeze a juice box or tube of yogurt. It'll thaw by lunchtime and the container can be tossed.