The fresh start that sparks in many of us in the new year can sputter out when the first day of school rolls around and those of us who send packed lunches with our children are faced with the gaping maws of empty insulated bags, waiting to be filled.

In our house, four children need some form of “morning snack” daily and lunches variably. Every day, some children eat school lunch, some don’t. Let’s stipulate that my children are absolutely old enough to pack their own food. For many reasons, I almost always do it, largely because I see a lunch box as an opportunity to reach a captive audience. Your children may differ, but when mine are hungry, they’re happy to eat fruits and salads and whole foods if that’s what’s in there.

Packing lunches, though, can be tedious work. I wanted new inspiration, and I found it in two books I’d tucked away on a kitchen shelf: “Beating the Lunch Box Blues,” by J.M. Hirsch, a dad and food editor and blogger at lunchboxblues.com, and “Weelicious Lunches,” from Catherine McCord of the Weelicious blog. Both arrived in September, but hey, in September, a new school year is excitement enough. You can eat a sandwich. But January requires some fresh lunch box enthusiasm. Because for a school kid, January is like the hump day of the year.

“Beating the Lunch Box Blues” was the anti-cookbook cookbook with very little in the way of recipes (like I’m going to “cook” lunch anyway). But it did contain a lot of fantastic meal suggestions. I added 10 Post-its in the first half of the book alone, for things like putting in honeycomb with cheese and crackers or on a peanut butter sandwich; making mini quiches – perfectly good at room temperature – in phyllo cups; heating packaged potstickers to go in a thermos and adding salami to hummus. Those would take no more time than the sandwiches I’m currently making.

The name “Weelicious” made me wince, but the ideas didn’t. Some involved no cooking: “mixtures” of various veggies and cheese (sort of junior chef salads); flattened sandwich bread rolled with cream cheese and other fillings like cinnamon or smoked salmon. Some, like taco muffins, granola bars and pizza rolls, did call for cooking but would be worth making on a Sunday with the children, which would be easier than on weeknights when it’s less fun to get them involved.

I was surprised by how many ideas I took from these cookbooks, which I wouldn’t have thought to buy – they were sent to me as review copies. I like to cook and prepare food (another reason I do the lunches), so I’m something of a ringer in that respect. But I think either book or website could make the lunch chore less of a drag no matter where it stands on your personal fun-o-meter.

Maybe you’re not a cook. Maybe, for example, my “home-cooked challenge” of last June left you shaking your head. But if you’d like to prepare more food at home – keeping in mind that the best tool to fight childhood obesity is your kitchen – then Maya Adam at Stanford University has a perfect opportunity for you. Her free online Child Nutrition and Cooking class, which attracted 30,000 students when she offered it last summer, began again on Jan. 13, just in time for a resolution to cook more – and more healthy – this year. The course is largely taught through online videos, but enrolled students are also given quizzes, optional food-preparation assignments and opportunities to collaborate with classmates.

Finally, I’ll share with you the simplest, most amusing thing I came across in my quest to spice up the lunch box without adding any more to my to-do list: the Aussie apple, from the “Another Lunch” blog. I won’t be creating any adorable bento boxes. But I am using her technique to slice an apple into what amounts to five puzzle pieces and put a rubber band around the middle to hold it together, prevent browning, and make a kid laugh when she opens her lunch.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

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