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Lunchbox makeover: How to avoid the brown bag blues

Today marks the first day of school for children on post. Those who live in Muscogee, Russell and Lee counties start back Aug. 9, while Harris County returns Aug. 10.

That means it’s time to start packing school lunches again.

If your kid blanches at the thought of another year of bologna sandwiches, here are some ideas to jazz up your youngster’s brown bag experience.

Want it healthy?

You can’t beat fruits and vegetables. Include finger foods like carrots, celery sticks, apples, peaches, broccoli and grapes. Add a low-calorie dip to help the veggies go down easier.

If your child’s a picky eater, try to sneak vegetables into main dishes. KidsHealth suggests filling pitas or wraps with grilled chicken and veggies. Dress up a plain lettuce salad with low-fat cheese, tomatoes, hardboiled eggs and sunflower seeds. As it gets cooler, make veggie-rich soups with peas, green beans, corn and low-sodium chicken broth.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends at least three ounces of whole grain each day, so try lean roast beef sandwiches with whole wheat bread and stir-fry dishes with wild rice.

These complex carbohydrates provide your student with plenty of energy and help them avoid the “carb crash” they get from refined grains and sugar.

Want it inexpensive?

Just because you want your kids to eat healthy, doesn’t mean you have to pay premium prices.Buy different types of dried beans and, after you boil them, use them in a variety of dishes, from burritos to chili to hummus. An easy kid-pleaser is mashed pinto beans with mozzarella cheese. Add sea salt, pepper, tomato, onions, vinegar and lime juice to taste.

Brown rice — hearty, healthy and cheap — works well paired with sautéed veggies or baked chicken casseroles. Couscous does the same.

Oats are yet another grain that are also an excellent source of fiber, and honey-sweetened oatmeal or even homemade oatmeal muffins are a better dessert choice than cookies or cake.

Yogurt, which contains helpful bacteria cultures, becomes much cheaper when you buy a value size instead of individual containers. If you buy plain, you can sweeten and flavor it with fruit, granola and other healthier alternatives to the high fructose corn syrup usually added.

Another easy treat is baked sweet potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces. If you lightly brush them with olive oil and a seasoning mix, you might be able to convince your child to choose these healthy bites over French fries — maybe.

Want it convenient?

If you’re a parent on the go, you don’t have to settle for Lunchables. Instead, try cooking an extra serving or two for dinner the night before; leftovers stand in well for lunch.

When peanut butter and jelly gets old, go with peanut butter and banana, smoked turkey and jelly, cheese and tomato, sour cream and cucumber, roast beef and lettuce — or any other two-ingredient combo your kid enjoys.

It doesn’t get easier than pasta. If you buy pre-made sauces, check the sodium and fat content to make sure it’s reasonable. Or add a can of soup, some frozen peas to make a customized noodle entrée.

Trail mix is simple to throw together and you can store it in bulk. Mix unbuttered popcorn, nuts, raisins and pretzels. To make it sweet, add dark chocolate morsels, which are healthier than their milk chocolate counterparts.

The commissary and most grocery stores offer plenty of prepackaged veggies with dips or frozen vegetable sides. Consider these when you don’t have time to cook.

And as always, fresh fruit and veggies that come in their own wrapping — bananas, plums, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower and apricots, to name a few — can’t be beat for ease, flavor and health.

So gather up your coupons, recipes and nutrition facts labels and get ready to make this school year even healthier and tastier than the one before.