- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Peanut butter and jelly, chocolate milk, tuna salad, pizza: The foods children like packed in their lunchboxes haven’t changed in years,

and for good reason.

The old kiddie classics have a lot going for them. Low cost for decent nutrition. Flavor combinations that are a perfect balance of savory and sweet. Easy-to-use packages that work perfectly in children’s hands. And the No. 1 most important quality of all: proven child appeal.

The last thing in the world you want is to send your children to school with something totally unfamiliar that they’re never going to eat. But does that mean you’ll be stuck making PB and J’s for the next decade? Not necessarily.

Like innovative professional chefs around the country, you, too, can take traditional ingredient combinations and turn them into unexpected masterpieces.

These new, child-friendly recipes can be higher in nutrients and lower in sugars, starches and empty calories, giving your child a solid nutritional boost in the middle of the day. And because you’ll still be including all the foods your children already love, chances are good that your new creations are going to become lunchbox favorites, too.

Here’s a great example. The next time you’re thinking of putting peanut butter and jelly into its traditional two-slice carb-heavy package, try mixing a little of each into a cup of plain yogurt instead, for the most fabulous-tasting treat ever. The yogurt will give your children a hefty dose of calcium, and getting rid of the bread (especially if it’s white) will cut down on their intake of processed wheat and sugar.

If you buy yogurt labeled as having live active cultures, you’ll also be giving your child a dose of probiotics, which, according to the Dairy Council of California, improve the body’s ability to fight disease. They aid in digestion, help prevent infections and even lessen the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

In general, minimizing or eliminating the bread in your children’s favorite lunchtime treats is a great place to start when you’re looking for a little innovation. Instead of making tuna sandwiches, stuff tuna salad into celery sticks for fun-to-eat tuna boats that’ll keep them interested until the last bite disappears.

Make pizza quesadillas with regular or whole-wheat tortillas for pizza flavor with none of its doughy bulk.

Instead of sloppy joes, put a thermos of iron-rich vegetarian chili in your child’s lunchbox, along with a side of cheddar cheese for an extra calcium punch.

Even sweets can take an interesting new turn. Homemade jigglies incorporate all the fun of a bowl of Jell-O into a vitamin-rich dessert with no artificial flavoring or coloring and little or no processed sugar.

You can make them out of almost anything, from fresh fruits and juices to virgin pina coladas and chocolate milk, and they take less than 20 minutes to prepare, not counting refrigerator time, of course.

Basically, you just heat up the liquid part of what you’re using, combine it with unflavored gelatin and any solid pieces and put it all in the fridge to chill. It doesn’t get any easier than that. In fact, it’s so easy your children can help you prepare it, which just about guarantees they’ll be happy to see it when lunchtime rolls around.

Chocolate milk jiggly

To make other jigglies, use the same proportions, liquid to gelatin, and add flavorings to taste. But you might want to avoid raw pineapple, papaya, fresh figs, kiwi and honeydew melon, which can prevent gelatin from setting.

3 cups milk (whole, low-fat or nonfat), divided

1 1/4-ounce package unflavored gelatin 4½ tablespoons chocolate syrup

Put 2 cups milk in a pot and place over high heat. Place remaining cup of milk in a large bowl and sprinkle gelatin over it. Watch pot carefully, stirring occasionally. When milk begins to come to a boil, remove from heat immediately and stir in chocolate syrup.

Pour this mixture into the bowl and stir well, about 2 minutes, until gelatin is completely dissolved. Let it come to room temperature, then pour into portable containers, ½ cup per container. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Makes 6 ½-cup servings.

Peanut butter and jelly yogurt

3/4 cup plain yogurt (whole, low-fat or nonfat)

2 tablespoons peanut butter

1½ tablespoons grape jelly or other jam

Place yogurt, peanut butter and jelly or jam in a small keep-cool container and mix well with a spoon. Makes 1 serving.

Child-friendly chili

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small yellow onion, chopped

1 green bell pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 28-ounce can crushed

tomatoes in puree

1 15-ounce can pinto beans, drained

1 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons ground oregano

3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Place vegetable oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat.

When oil is hot (about 2 minutes), add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until some pieces of onion just start to brown, about 5 minutes.

Add green pepper and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes, pinto and kidney beans, chili powder, cumin and oregano. Stir well to combine.

When mixture begins to bubble and spatter, lower heat to medium low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Place portion in thermos, with 2 tablespoons cheese in a baggie on the side. Makes 6 3/4-cup servings.

Pizza quesadilla

1 8-inch regular or whole-wheat tortilla

2 teaspoons tomato paste

½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1 plum tomato, sliced

Pinch dried oregano, optional

Place large pan or griddle over medium heat. When it’s hot, spread tomato paste on one side of tortilla in a thin, even layer.

Place tortilla, dry side down, in pan. Cover evenly with cheese, then place tomato slices on ½ of tortilla. Sprinkle on oregano, if desired.

Cook for 3 minutes, then fold cheese-only half over the other half and remove to plate. Press down to seal.

Slice, if desired, and wrap in aluminum foil.

Makes 1 serving.

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