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PARENTING : Kids Eat Up Lunch Box Imagery : Trend-conscious offerings are a far cry in material and style from old metal food hampers.

August 26, 1994|CINDY LaFAVRE YORKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Cindy LaFavre Yorks writes regularly for The Times.

A lunch box can say as much about a child's taste and sensibilities as the goodies housed inside.

"Whatever model a child selects to carry his or her lunch, it really becomes a part of that child. They don't want anyone else's; they like their own," says Marlyn Di Tommaso, a Reseda resident who teaches preschoolers at Encino Presbyterian Children's Center.

Accordingly, manufacturers of lunch kits are busy rolling out new models for the coming academic year. Many of these reflect the popularity of summer movies, hit TV shows and timeless, classic action figures. All are marketed to a young audience with such a vengeance that many kids have known since mid-summer which kit they're taking to school.

North Hollywood resident Rosie Spinks, 4 1/2, is one of these. According to her mother, Johanna Spinks, "She's been talking all summer about wanting a Flintstones lunch box, but she'll probably want a Lion King one as well."

It goes without saying that such trend-conscious offerings are a far cry in both material and style from the metal food hampers so popular in the first half of the 20th Century. Today's boxes are mostly made of hard or soft insulated plastic. Most come with a beverage container, and many are stuffed not only with tissue paper but with samples of juice boxes, Nestle's Quick and assorted money-saving coupons.

With most kits priced from $6.99 to $9.99, some parents complain that their shelf life is shorter than the cost warrants. Di Tommaso has seen some kits last a mere week and others as long as a year.

But even more critical to a child than durability is the power of a lunch kit's popular imagery. Di Tommaso predicts that Disney's Lion King model will top the list of those purchased for the new school year, an impression reinforced by the inventory at stores.

Equally popular this season, say educators and marketers, will be kits that feature Power Rangers, the super-hero stars of the Fox television series. But these models may not be welcome at some Valley-area schools. Controversy over the characters and their use of martial-arts-inspired skills have caused some Power Ranger toys to be banned in classrooms at Bay Laurel School in Calabasas.

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"We were getting complaints from parents about increased aggression," says Principal Martha Mutz, who adds that, while she has not banned Rangers lunch boxes themselves, she gives teachers permission to authorize individual classroom bans.

Because such concerns about battling super-heroes are common, parents may want to check with the administration of their child's school before buying such a kit.

The kind of lunch box a youngster chooses has a lot to do with his or her age and peer group, says Di Tommaso. Generally, she adds, by the time kids are 7 or 8, they go in for what she calls a "cooler kind of thing"--a nylon carrier that either zips or seals with Velcro. Her daughter, Joanna, now 8, never wanted a character lunch box after the second grade. Likewise, Johanna Spinks' 7 1/2-year-old daughter, Jessica, prefers grocery bags, paper bags and cooler-style bags to formal lunch carriers.

Eight-year-old B.G. Ballard of Encino, who attends The Buckley School, is equally adamant on the subject. His lunch kit "wardrobe" consists of nylon backpacks outfitted with matching lunch bags, all purchased at Staples The Office Superstore last year.

"I like things that are really plain, and I am into recycling, so I like these better than paper bags," young Ballard explains.

Even kids who choose character lunch boxes may go the recycling route eventually. Di Tommaso predicts that some of last year's big hits--Barney, Batman, Aladdin and Barbie--will probably end up as hand-me-downs presented to younger brothers and sisters.

In her view, "We're getting smarter in this society, and that includes the kids."

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