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Back-to-school season is frantic enough without facing the gaping maw of that empty lunch box. But these brown bag ideas, which range from Bacon-Cauliflower Mac and Cheese to Monkey Cookies, are sure to please any kid. Or grown-up. Mark DuFrene / Bay Area News Group

Between birth and age 18, the average kid will consume nearly 20,000 meals -- and that doesn't even count the after-school treats, late-night snacks and random refrigerator-pillaging sessions. Frankly, the prospect of those 2,340 lunchboxes alone is enough to make any parent falter. Or worse, eyeball the Lunchables.

Fortunately, Katie Morford, Catherine McCord and other culinary experts have stepped into the breach with a crop of new cookbooks designed to help parents balance the tension between what their kids will eat, what Mom and Dad have time to prepare, and what they feel good about sending to school.

"With school lunches, you have all these added challenges," says Morford, a San Francisco dietitian, cooking teacher and author of "Best Lunch Box Ever: Ideas and Recipes for School Lunches Kids Will Love." "You have to make everything super-portable and figure out how to keep the food fresh, the cold food cold and the hot food hot."

With all the other parental challenges, it's easy to fall into what McCord, founder of Weelicious, calls the "lunchtime rut."

"It's putting the same thing in the box day in and day out," says McCord, whose latest cookbook, "Weelicious Lunches: Think Outside the Lunch Box With More than 160 Happier Meals," hit bookstores Tuesday.

Parents also box themselves in with preconceived ideas of what a lunch should be, says J.M. Hirsch, food editor for The Associated Press and author of the new "Beating the Lunch Box Blues."

"Once you break down that box," he says, "anything goes, and it's very easy to come up with fresh ideas that your kid will like.


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Rethink the lunch box

McCord strives to pack lunches with a fruit, vegetable, carbohydrate and protein. Morford aims for main courses with a protein and calcium source, vegetable and fruit. And Hirsch advocates whole grains and nonprocessed foods but warns against getting too caught up in healthful choices. Save the "green bean battle" for dinner, he says.

Take baby steps, says Morford, a Lafayette native. Don't overhaul the entire lunch experience in one swoop. Be patient. Experiment with different ingredients to encourage kids to try new foods.

Start with what they like, says Matt Greco, executive chef at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards in Livermore: "Take something kids love, and turn it into something that's better for them."

Rather than the standard peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example, he swaps unsweetened nut butter for standard peanut butter and homemade jam for commercial jelly, trimming the sugar content. And his son loves the banana-craisin Monkey Cookies Greco tucks in his lunchbox every now and then, as a treat.

Tricks of the trade

Where should parents start? With dinner, Hirsch says.

Make more than you need at dinner so you have something to work with in the morning. Make a big batch of Bacon-Cauliflower Mac and Cheese -- Hirsch uses whole-wheat pasta -- so you can have leftovers for lunch. Add a spare steak to the grill or boil extra pasta or rice. Roasting a chicken? Choose a larger one.

Hirsch tosses leftover chicken with bottled barbecue sauce, heats it in the microwave and packs it into a thermos with a bun on the side for a quick barbecue chicken sandwich. The same trick works with leftover meatballs or grilled meats.

Morford transforms leftover noodles and beans into quick soups the next morning, and McCord turns last night's fajitas into fast wraps.

The biggest impact on your lunchbox success may come from simply engaging your child in the lunch planning process. Take them to the store, flip through cookbooks, discuss options and have them give you a hand in the kitchen.

"I hope at the end of this," McCord says, "your 4-year-old becomes a 6-year-old who can practically make his or her own lunch."

PEANUT BUTTER
PINWHEELS

Recipe courtesy of Katie Sullivan Morford, "Best Lunch Box Ever" Chronicle, $24.95

Serves 2

Note: Pinwheels can be made a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator, but they are best on the same day.

1 whole wheat lavash, about 7 1/2 by 10 inches

1/4 cup natural unsweetened creamy peanut butter or other nut or seed butter

2 teaspoons honey

2/3 cup chopped unpeeled apple

2 tablespoons granola

1. Cut the lavash in half crosswise. Spread both halves of lavash with the peanut butter, all the way to the edge. Drizzle with honey and scatter the apple and granola over the peanut butter, pressing down gently.

2. With the shorter edge of the lavash closest to you, roll up the wrap. Repeat with remaining lavash. Using a serrated knife, cut each roll into four pinwheels.

3. Store the pinwheels in snug containers, or reassemble the log shapes and roll into parchment paper, twisting the ends so it looks like two big Tootsie Rolls.

BACON-CAULIFLOWER MAC AND CHEESE

Recipe courtesy of J.M. Hirsch, "Beating the Lunchbox Blues" Rachael Ray Books/Atria, $10.99

Serves 4 plus

Note: Make this for dinner, then heat up the leftovers in the microwave and pop them in a thermos for lunch in the days ahead. Hirsch's son likes the mac and cheese folded into a grilled cheese sandwich, an idea Hirsch says "totally works." The breadcrumbs and broiling are optional steps.

1 pound whole wheat elbow pasta

10 strips bacon, chopped

1/2 medium head cauliflower, cored and cut into small florets

2 cups milk

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1/2 tablespoon each onion powder, dry mustard

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

2 ounces cream cheese, cut into chunks

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated cheddar

1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) grated Gruyere

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Kosher salt

3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs

4 tablespoons butter, melted

1. Heat oven to broil.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain.

3. Meanwhile, in a large, deep, oven-safe saute pan over medium heat, cook bacon for 2 minutes. Add cauliflower; saute until lightly browned, about 12 minutes.

4. Add drained pasta to pan; mix well. Add the milk, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, black pepper and cayenne. Mix well and heat until milk is hot.

5. Add cream cheese, stirring until melted. Sprinkle in the cheddar, Gruyere and Parmesan, stirring until melted. Season with salt.

6. In a small bowl, toss breadcrumbs with melted butter, then scatter evenly over the pasta. Broil 2 minutes, until lightly browned.

MINESTRONE PASTA SOUP

Recipe courtesy of Catherine McCord, "Weelicious Lunches" William Morrow, $27.50

Serves 6

Note: Feel free to experiment with other vegetables or pasta types, or add leftover chicken or fresh herbs to this recipe. It freezes well, too.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, diced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

2 celery stalks, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 zucchini, diced

15-ounce can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

15-ounce can diced tomatoes or 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes

4 cups (32-ounce box) vegetable stock or chicken stock

3/4 cup small pasta such as mini farfalle, elbows or rotini

1 1/2 teaspoons Italian herbs or mixed dried basil, oregano, thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1. In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add onions, carrots, celery and garlic; saute for 5 minutes or until vegetables soften.

2. Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and stir to combine. Turn heat to medium-low and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the pasta is cooked through and the vegetables are tender.