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Creative lunch ideas make food fun for kids

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 . "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

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 , 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."

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 . "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 .

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