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The Secrets to a Great Lunch Box Are Finally Let Out of the Brown Bag : Basic Food Groups Are Key to Nutrition

September 11, 1986

In many households, the start of the school year signals a return to the daily ritual of packing lunches, as well as the challenge of coming up with a variety of portable, nutritious foods. Needless to say, lunch-box food must be appealing to those who will be eating it--even the most nutritious items brought home again or deposited in the trash do little to ensure good health.

Not everyone may agree, but one approach is to involve those who carry the lunches in their planning and packing. Being a part of the decision-making can ensure the packed food gets eaten and also provides a good opportunity to put nutrition education into practice and helps develop an interest in food and food combinations.

The Four Basic Food Groups

Even young lunch toters can grasp the concept of planning lunches around the four food groups--Group 1: fruit and vegetables; Group 2: bread, cereals and grain; Group 3: dairy products; and Group 4: meat, poultry and fish. They can quickly learn that tuna from Group 4, made into a sandwich with bread from Group 2 and served with carrot and celery sticks or a piece of fruit from Group 1 and milk from Group 3 add up to a well-balanced lunch.

Make it into a game, guessing which group different foods belong to and combining them to create healthful meals. The names or pictures of foods cut from magazines can be pasted on pieces of heavy paper with the food group listed on the reverse side and used as flash cards.

A wide range of containers are available for toting lunches--metal, soft and firm plastic boxes, backpacks, paper bags ranging from plain brown to bright colors. Insulated bottles and bags, offered in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot during morning hours.

Bacteria that cause illness thrive at temperatures between 60 and 125 degrees, so it's important that foods not be held in this temperature range for longer than three hours. Frozen containers of fruit juice packed into a lunch can also help keep foods within the safe temperature range.

Another way to keep foods safe is to focus on sandwiches that can be prepared ahead and frozen, or at least combined the night before and refrigerated. A frozen sandwich will thaw and be ready to eat by lunchtime. Fillings and ingredients that freeze well include:

-- Cooked or canned meats--beef, pork or ham

-- Chicken

-- Fish--tuna or salmon

-- Cheeses and cheese spreads

-- Peanut butter

-- Luncheon meats

Small amounts of mayonnaise will freeze satisfactorily, as will condiments such as catsup, mustard, chili sauce, pickle relish and applesauce. To keep sandwich fillings from soaking into the bread, spread the slices all the way to the edges with softened margarine.

Vary the kinds of bread and rolls used for sandwiches --pita, raisin, wheat, rye, hamburger and frankfurter buns, kaiser, French or onion rolls all keep sandwiches from becoming monotonous. Who says egg salad can't be tucked into a frankfurter bun for a change?

Some Added Attractions

Depending on family eating preferences, a small box of raisins, a cookie or granola bar, a cup of pudding or other sweet may be added to the lunch. Every so often a surprise note or cartoon drawing makes another thoughtful addition.

A few more sanitation precautions to keep in mind while packing lunches--keep utensils and countertops used in preparing lunches clean. The same goes for hands. Be certain to also wash insulated bottles and rinse in boiling water after each use.

To hold morning rush to a minimum, pack items that don't need refrigeration into totes the night before. Refrigerated foods can be added at the last minute, just as the lunch carriers are heading for school or work.


3 hard-cooked eggs, finely chopped

2 (3-ounce) packages chive-flavored cream cheese

2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon mustard

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

12 slices bread

Combine eggs, cream cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire, salt and pepper. Blend well. Chill. Spread 1/4 cup filling on 6 slices bread. Top with remaining bread slices. Makes about 1 1/2 cups filling, or 6 sandwiches.


1/2 pound thinly sliced cooked roast beef

4 slices Swiss or Jack cheese

1 cup alfalfa sprouts

8 slices bread

Prepared honey mustard

Place 1/4 of roast beef, 1 slice cheese and 1/4 cup alfalfa sprouts on each of 4 bread slices. Spread remaining bread slices with honey mustard and use to top sandwiches. Makes 4 sandwiches.


1 (15 1/2-ounce) can salmon

1/3 cup chopped green onions

1/3 cup chopped celery

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/4 cup mayonnaise

Salt, pepper

12 slices bread


Drain salmon. Flake with fork. Combine salmon, green onions, celery, lemon juice and mayonnaise. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spread bread slices with butter. Divide mixture between 6 bread slices. Top with remaining bread. Makes 6 sandwiches.


8 slices white bread

Butter or margarine, softened

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