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Originally published Wednesday, September 19, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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School lunches made easy: timesaving tips on what to pack

Packing a school lunch is tricky business. It has to be delicious (or it comes home untouched), nutritious, inexpensive and quick to assemble. The only way I've found I can do it all is by planning ahead.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Packing a school lunch is tricky business. It has to be delicious (or it comes home untouched), nutritious and filling (or there's bound to be a meltdown on the way home), inexpensive (I just can't justify lunch for a 5-year-old that costs more than mine), and quick to assemble (in the morning it feels like there's hardly time to make sure that everyone is wearing shoes, never mind make lunch).

The only way I've found I can do it all is by planning ahead. Here are some tips to help you do just that, but be sure to keep hot food hot and cold food cold in the lunch box — classrooms can be very warm.

• Mix up a batch of your favorite muffins. Enjoy them fresh, and then wrap the leftovers individually and freeze them. Storing the leftovers right away keeps them fresh and saves them from getting stale and thrown away on Day 3. It also keeps me from overindulging. Take them out the night before you need them and pop them in the lunchboxes to defrost.

• Every time your family eats soup, chili, meatballs or stew, and there are leftovers, divide them into portions and freeze them. Invest in a small food thermos for each child so that the night before school you can take out a portion to defrost in the fridge.

In the morning just heat it and pour it into the thermos that has been heated by letting hot water sit in it a few minutes. Throw the hot water out and add the hot soup or chili. No more old leftovers in the fridge, and your kids get a hot lunch.

• When you make pasta, beans or a simple vegetable for dinner, cook a little extra and immediately portion some directly into the kids' lunch containers and refrigerate. Then put in a lunch box with an ice pack.

• Always keep a pack of tortillas on hand. I don't think I've ever met a kid who didn't like a quesadilla. A cold one is a cold one whether it was made in the morning or the night before, so go ahead and make them before you go to bed and refrigerate.

They can be simple — just your child's favorite cheese inside — or you can dress them up with meats and vegetables. You can also make wraps with the same tortillas or cut little pinwheel tea sandwiches and refrigerate. Don't forget to send them to school in a lunch box with an ice pack.

• Hummus is a great lunch option because it has protein but feels like a fun food. Pack a dollop with baby carrots, cucumber sticks or pita chips for dipping. Or use it instead of cream cheese in a tortilla pinwheel or wrap. Pack it with a mini pita and a couple of slices of cucumber so that your child can assemble his own creation. Keep cold with an ice pack.

• Grapes and blueberries are probably the easiest fresh fruits to pack, and small plums and apricots fit nicely into little containers to protect them. But my kids consider a fruit salad the ultimate lunchtime treat. I cut the pieces quite small, add some orange juice to keep it from browning and pack them a spoon. Again be sure the lunch box has an ice pack.

• Keep portions of yogurt and granola ready to go. In the morning, pack them in ice-pack-cooled lunch box along with fresh or dried fruit so your kids can assemble their own parfaits.

Our school encourages a waste-free lunch that has the added bonus of saving me money. Rather than buy packs of single-servings, I decant what they'll eat into small, reusable, easy-to-open plastic containers. Not only do I pay less for their yogurt, cheese, applesauce and hummus, but I also save because there's less food waste — I can pack what I know they'll eat, or if there's leftover, I can just top it up the following day.

Leora Y. Bloom is the author of "Washington Food Artisans: Farm Stories and Chef Recipes."

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