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Sunny Sandwich Spread makes a delicious lunch when it's slathered between slices of cranberry walnut or whole wheat cinnamon raisin bread. Photo by Sue Doeden

It's time to start thinking about school lunches

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While I was waiting in line at the checkout in the grocery store the other day, I couldn't help overhearing a conversation between two young mothers.

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"Are you guys ready for school?"

The slender young woman was wearing short-shorts and a sleeveless top. She was sporting the kind of tan mothers get when they spend the summer at ball parks watching little league games.

"We went shopping for school supplies last night," she said. "On the way home the boys remembered they want new lunch boxes, too. So I guess we're not completely ready for school to start."

"Oh, don't even mention lunch boxes," said the other young mother with a roll of her eyes. With French-manicured fingernails, the fit-looking woman opened a box of organic crackers from her shopping cart and handed one to her fussing toddler. "I don't even want to think about packing lunches again. I get crazy just trying to come up with ideas for nutritious food to send with the kids to school. And then I just hope they eat it."

Packing a child-friendly lunch that will get toted to school can be a challenge. Adding to the dilemma is the fact that the lunch will be at room temperature for at least a few hours before eating time.

What's a lunch-packing parent to do?

First of all, an insulated lunch box is a smart way to ensure food will stay cool a little longer. I don't remember insulated lunch boxes being an option when I was packing food to go for my school-aged sons in the 1980s. I did pack sliced carrots in plastic bags with ice cubes, though. That was to be sure the carrots would be crisp and crunchy by lunch time. I know the ice cubes didn't do much to keep the rest of the food in the bag cool. Reusable freezer packs work well. Or you can freeze water in water bottles to pack into the lunch. The drinkable ice pack will provide the child with a cold beverage to sip. A couple of years ago, one of the yogurt companies suggested freezing yogurt right in its container to use as an edible ice pack.

Even when a child insists on the same lunch every day, it's nice to change it up a little. Include the one food they can't be without in each lunch and serve a few different foods that your child likes, working toward a variety of colors and textures. Involve children in choosing, preparing and packing the lunch. They'll be more apt to eat it than to trade it for something in a friend's lunch bag.

Provide children with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. Use whole wheat bread and tortillas to make sandwiches and wraps. Use real food as much as possible, avoiding processed foods and anything that has a long list of ingredients you can't pronounce or don't know the meaning of.

It's fun to be creative, too. Younger children get a kick out of sandwiches cut into different shapes with cookie cutters. You can reduce the amount of sugar in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich by using fresh grapes rather than jelly. Cut a shape out of the top slice of bread and fill it with chopped grapes.

A short note, an inspirational message, a joke or a sticker tucked into a lunch bag will bring a smile to children's faces, no matter their age.

I've been eating Sunny Sandwich Spread for lunch in all sorts of ways. The sweet and tangy cream cheese base is studded with crunchy sunflower seeds and chopped red and green grapes. Spread on whole wheat cinnamon raisin or cranberry walnut bread, it makes a tasty sandwich.

One day I used slices of grilled chicken left over from an evening meal and some sprouts to sandwich between two slices of whole grain bread that were slathered with Sunny Sandwich Spread. The chunky spread can also be smeared on a tortilla before it gets rolled up with layers of grated carrots, spinach leaves and thin slices of turkey or ham from the deli.

Sunny Sandwich Spread is versatile, allowing for creativity in the way it is used. It's not just for kids. It's adult-friendly, too.

Sunny Sandwich Spread

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup roasted and salted sunflower nuts

1/2 cup seedless green and/or red grapes, chopped

Use a spoon to stir the softened cream cheese. When it is smooth and creamy, add the sunflower nuts and stir to blend them evenly into the cream cheese. Gently stir in the chopped grapes. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

Tips from the cook

--Reduced-fat cream cheese works well in this sandwich spread.

--This is the kind of recipe children would love to help prepare.

--Smear Sunny Sandwich Spread on thin slices of turkey or ham from the deli and roll up. Arrange on a plate and serve as appetizers or after-school snacks.

--Sunny Sandwich Spread is great for breakfast, too. Sandwich it between 2 slices of banana bread or cut a bran muffin in half and put it back together with the spread as the filling.

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