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Heather Sitarzewski
Too cute to eat? Hardly. Moms and experts alike say getting creative with lunch actually can inspire even picky kid eaters to take a bite.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 7/23/2012 8:37:32 AM ET 2012-07-23T12:37:32

It's just lunch — a brown paper bag with a simple sandwich, chips and an apple. So why does packing it feel like such a chore?

"It dawned on me one evening that I loved to cook, but I absolutely dreaded making lunches," says 43-year-old Kelli Kirk, a self-proclaimed "foodie" and human resources manager from Seattle who sometimes enters baking contests for fun. "Why is it that I can bake 27 cakes for the Puyallup Fair, but I don't want to make a peanut butter sandwich?"

It's a common refrain in kitchens across America as parents gear up for another school year. Packing lunch is tedious, boring, uninspired. But the alternative — being at the mercy of the school cafeteria ( home of the dreaded chef's surprise )— is worse.

What's a parent to do?

Get creative by putting together a boxed lunch that's artfully packed and pleasing to the eye (as well as the palette). Trust us, it's not as hard as it looks.

TODAY.com was inspired by these "bento moms," who pack lunches — using cute bento boxes or garden-variety Tupperware — that are almost too pretty to eat.  

"I do it because it's fun for me," says Wendy Copley, 39, of El Cerrito, Calif., who photographs and posts her creations on her blog. "But I don't have any expectation that everyone should do this. A lot of parents look at [my blog] and think, 'Oh great, one more thing I'm expected to do to be a good mom.' If it's not fun for you, you shouldn't do it."

Wendy Copley  /  wendolonia.com
Even if you can't make cartoon characters, having a little fun with shapes and colors in the lunch box can go a long way.

After browsing through some of the photos, you might be converted. These lunches look fun — and if you listen to the moms who made them, they're easy, too. Check out some of the reasons these moms went bento and never looked back.

It's economical. When Heather Sitarzewski, 42, the Colorado mom and graphic designer behind LunchboxAwesome, started revamping her 8-year-old son's lunches, she used what she had: Tupperware and a paring knife. "I didn't want to buy a lot of equipment," she says. "I use cookie cutters here and there, but mostly I use my paring knife and kitchen shears."

Sitarzewski doesn't even buy toothpicks; instead, she uses raw spaghetti to hold her elaborate designs together. But for those who want to buy a bento box -- which conveniently come in cute shapes and colors appealing to kids -- it's a one-time investment. "I have a deal with my husband," says Kirk, the Seattle foodie. "I pack the lunches, he washes the bento boxes."

It's green. Reusing lunch boxes eliminates the need for plastic sandwich bags and wax paper. "With a bento box, you're not buying a lot of individual containers, like a single serving of crackers," Copley says. "You can use little bits of leftovers."

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A handful of leftover green beans from dinner might seem like trash scraps, but instead, Copley tucks them into a corner of the bento box as part of tomorrow's lunch.

It's efficient. Most kids have 20 minutes to eat lunch at school — if that. For kids who are easily distracted in the cafeteria, that's hardly enough time to unwrap a sandwich, much less eat it. But a lunch packed entirely in one box, in bite-sized pieces and fun shapes, goes down fast and easy.

"If I throw a whole apple into my son's lunch, he takes one bite of it," Copley says. "But if I throw in apple slices, he'll eat the whole thing."

It's nutritional. "You can't really put potato chips in there," Kirk points out. "They won't fit." Making the box visually appealing naturally lends itself to brightly colored fruits and vegetables. You know what they say: Eat the rainbow!

It's fun. No, really! We tell kids not to play with their food, but you know how grandparents like to break all the rules? "For lunch at school, slice an apple so it looks like a round face," suggest Claire and Bill Wurtzel, authors of Funny Food. "Pack raisins, nuts and clementine slices. Encourage your child to make it into a face before they eat it."

Sounds like a lunch even picky eaters — and their parents — could love.

Pamela Sitt is a Seattle writer who blogs about parenthood at www.clarasmom.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Adorable school lunches

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  1. Wallace & an all-cheese Gromit

    Goodbye, soggy PB&J! Some creative moms are turning lunch into an art, making quirky and imaginative bento box meals that are almost too cute to eat. Click through to see creations from Heather Sitarzewski's Lunchbox Awesome, Wendy Copley's Bento Box Gallery, and Seattle foodie Kelli Kirk. (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Angry sandwiches

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Have a Smurf-tastic lunch

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dale with no Chips

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Doc says eat your veggies

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A Beast of a lunch

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Garfield, the lasagna-free version

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Mater from 'Cars'

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lanny the Christmas Elf

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Phineas and Perry the Platypus

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Witch lunch should I eat?

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A Tim Burton lunch creation

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Frankenlunch

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Snoopy and Woodstock

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. SpongeBob Square sandwich

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. This lunch is pretty Goofy

    (Heather Sitarzewski / lunchboxawesome.tumblr.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. This lunch is the cat's meow

    (Kelli Kirk) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Free to be you and brie

    (Kelli Kirk) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Magical mushroom

    (Kelli Kirk) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Everything is better with sprinkles

    (Wendy Copley / wendolonia.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Melons, grapes and a star, oh my

    (Wendy Copley / wendolonia.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Looks scary, tastes yummy

    (Wendy Copley / wendolonia.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Wyatt is a lucky kid

    (Wendy Copley / wendolonia.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Topped off with a panda

    (Wendy Copley / wendolonia.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Ordinary ingredients made to look extraordinary

    (Wendy Copley / wendolonia.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Beary-adorable lunch

    (Wendy Copley / wendolonia.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Mommy loves you

    (Wendy Copley / wendolonia.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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