You can only eat so many turkey sandwiches.

School lunch programs have improved dramatically over the past 10 years, with districts offering increasingly interesting, tasty and health-conscious meals from the cafeteria, but this is the time of year when kids and parents are looking for back-to-school lunch ideas so they don't hit sandwich burnout by October.

Molly Birnbaum, editor of America's Test Kitchen Kids, says the most important way to get kids interested in food is by incorporating them into the entire process, from thinking ahead about what they want to eat, to buying the food and then putting the meals together.

"Research shows that kids are much more invested in what they are eating when they are taking part in the preparation," she says. "When you give them a choice in what they are making, there's more motivation to help."

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Sitting down and talking about the food plans for the week ahead gets everyone on the same page, she says, and it's a productive way to spend some family time together on the weekend, without screens. Some families will start preparing some of the meals on Sunday, while others will focus on making sure they have the supplies that they need to do so during the week.

One mistake parents make is transferring the lunch-making responsibility all at once and without enough support. Start by asking them to make one or two lunches a week, and then increase from there, but make sure that even the youngest students in the house are unpacking their lunchboxes, helping put away groceries and offering input on what goes in the meal.

"One of the important things about teaching kids to cook is helping them know when to ask for help," she says. A parent can work on one kitchen task for the week while the student works on lunches. "It’s wonderful for parents to cook with the kids, but let the kids take the lead."

By age 8 or 9, kids can start to read recipes and cook with a parent, but as they enter middle school, parents can take more of a back seat. Birnbaum recommends sticking close to the kitchen to use that time as a way to talk with the young cooks about other things going on in their lives.

Birnbaum, who worked on several kid-focused books that came out this year, including "The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs" (America's Test Kitchen, $19.99), says it's vital to talk to kids of all ages about why it's important to have a well-rounded meal in the middle of the day and why chips and a cheese stick won't cut it.

Keep a shopping list on the fridge and ask everyone to write down anything that they've used up or any special requests. If you're adding to the list throughout the week, it's not so daunting to hit the store on the weekend.

Lianne Phillipson, a registered nutritionist, wrote in her recent book, "Sprout Right Family Food" (Penguin Canada, $24.99), that consistency is key in getting kids to fully take on the lunch-making task.

If, as a family, you've agreed that the kids should be making their own lunches, decide how many times you'll bring a forgotten lunch before letting them face the consequence of not having the lunch they made, she writes. If kids forget or slowly fall out of the habit, they can simply eat the school lunch.

It'll be good for them, literally. Spend 30 minutes in any school cafeteria and you'll see lunchboxes full of Doritos, candy bars, fruit gummies, soda or worse. (One mom friend recently told me about a student at her daughter's school who showed up with a White Claw in her lunch because her dad packed it and didn't realize it had alcohol in it.)

The hot food and salad bars that are available today are a far cry from the options many parents had when they were students, so if making a lunch every day becomes taxing on the students or the parents, skip the turkey sandwich and give it a try.

But the biggest question remains: What to cook?

• Make a list of all the possible meals that could work for lunch, and hang that list in a visible place. Think about foods that can be served at room temperature, such as quesadillas, frittatas or pasta salad, or warm foods, such as soups, spaghetti and marinara or even a baked potato, that you could pack into a thermos.

• Take a sandwich inventory. Find out how everybody feels about the standard lunchmeat or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and then add a couple of fresh options to the list, such as cheddar cheese and apples or cream cheese and carrots.

• Consider wraps, which are essentially hand-held salads that can pack even more greens and fresh veggies into the lunchtime meal. Birnbaum likes using the square, thin lavash bread for wraps because they are easier to fold than round tortillas.

• Let the kids choose what goes in the wrap (or sandwich) so they'll be more likely to finish it, and have plenty of containers on hand, including leak-proof containers that can hold dips and soups.

• Buy high-fiber sandwich bread, but also mix it up with baguettes or other kinds of bread that might inspire other kinds of sandwiches, such as a banh mi or a bean burger.

• Peanut butter balls or other so-called energy bites are an easy snack to make on the weekends that you can freeze and pull out during the week.

• Smoothies that are low in sugar are another way to sneak extra veggies into a child's lunchtime meal. Stick with high-fat yogurt, which usually has less added sugar than the low-fat kind and will keep the children satiated for longer.

• Dipping sauces go a long way in making everything from rice cakes to celery more appealing. Hummus is a good option, but tzatziki and other yogurt-based dips are also worth trying. You could serve tahini with crudités, cream cheese with pretzels, guacamole with pita chips.

• Get inspired by a charcuterie plate to come up with a meal of bite-size snacks that the student can eat with a toothpick: cubes of cheese or chicken, apple slices, grapes, cucumbers, leftover roasted salmon or thin slices of pork or ham.

Veggie Wrap With Hummus

Seek out the thin, square lavash flatbread to make wraps that stay together when you roll them. Let the kids pick out what goes inside them, but help them roll up the wrap securely until they can do it on their own.

— Addie Broyles

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice, squeezed from ½ lemon

Pinch salt

Pinch pepper

1 carrot

1 avocado

1 (11-inch-by-8-inch) piece lavash bread

1/3 cup plain hummus (store-bought or homemade)

8 cherry tomatoes, cut in half

1/2 cup baby spinach

In small bowl, whisk oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper together.

Use vegetable peeler to peel carrot. With knife, trim ends of carrot and discard. Holding thicker end, carefully run carrot over large holes of box grater to shred (stop when your fingers get close to grater and discard carrot end). Add shredded carrot to bowl with lemon dressing and stir to coat.

Use butter knife to cut avocado in half lengthwise around pit. With your hands, twist both halves in opposite directions to separate. Use spoon to remove pit and to scoop 1 avocado half from skin onto cutting board; discard pit and skin (save remaining half for another use). Place avocado half flat side down on cutting board and chop.

Place the wrap on clean counter. Use back of the spoon to spread hummus over the wrap, leaving 1/2 -inch border around edge. Top with carrot mixture, avocado, tomatoes and spinach.

Fold up bottom of lavash over filling. Fold in sides of lavash over filling, then roll tightly into log. Cut wrap in half. Serve. Makes 1 wrap.

— From "The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs" by America's Test Kitchen Kids (America's Test Kitchen, $19.99)


When the food processor was introduced in the 1970s, it suddenly made difficult or time-­consuming recipes so much easier. The fast blades combine ingredients in just seconds. Hummus is a perfect example —­ this creamy spread is made with pureed chickpeas, tahini (which is like peanut butter but is made from sesame seeds), lemon juice and spices. Before the food processor, you had to beat these ingredients by hand. It was tough work turning chickpeas (a member of the bean family) into a smooth puree. The food processor makes hummus, and many other recipes, much easier and faster to prepare. Talk about a tasty invention. Leftover hummus can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Before serving, stir in 1 tablespoon warm water to loosen hummus.

— America's Test Kitchen

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons lemon juice, squeezed from 1 lemon

2 tablespoons tahini (stirred well before measuring)

2 tablespoons extra-­virgin olive oil

1 (15-­ounce) can chickpeas

1 garlic clove, peeled

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

In liquid measuring cup, stir together water, lemon juice, tahini and oil.

Set colander in sink. Open can of chickpeas and pour into colander. Rinse chickpeas with cold water and shake colander to drain well.

Transfer chickpeas to food processor. Add garlic, salt, and cumin to food processor and lock lid into place. Process mixture for 10 seconds.

Stop food processor, remove lid, and scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula. Lock lid back into place and process until mixture is coarsely ground, about 5 seconds.

With processor running, slowly pour water mixture through feed tube until mixture is smooth, about 1 minute.

Stop food processor. Carefully remove food processor blade. Transfer hummus to small bowl. Serve. Makes about 6 servings.

— From "The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs" by America's Test Kitchen Kids (America's Test Kitchen, $19.99)

The Dipping Life

A flavorful dip, such as hummus, is a great snack. Use baby carrots, slices of cucumber, whole cherry tomatoes, crackers, pita chips or even homemade tortilla chips and you’re good to go. You can also drizzle your hummus with some extra olive oil before serving for a fancy touch. Don’t have a can of chickpeas in the pantry? You can turn plain yogurt, preferably thicker Greek-­style yogurt, into a super fast dip. Here are some ideas to get you started; add flavors as you like. You can use a blender to add vegetables to these dips, such as carrot, kale or roasted beets, to make a hummuslike alternative.

Greek Yogurt Dip: In small bowl, stir together 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, 1 teaspoon extra-­virgin olive oil and pinch salt.

French Onion Yogurt Dip: In small bowl, stir together 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives, 1 tablespoon onion powder, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Tahini-­Lemon Yogurt Dip: In small bowl, stir together 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 2 tablespoons tahini, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon honey and pinch salt.

— America's Test Kitchen

Rice and Bean Toddler Taco Bowl

You will need a nonstick 10-inch skillet with a tight-fitting lid for this recipe. Toppings are pretty much limitless, but we like diced avocado, shredded cheese, lime wedges, sour cream and/or tortilla chips. This recipe makes about 3 1/2 cups. 

— America's Test Kitchen

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 small yellow bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch pieces

1 garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Salt and pepper

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, rinsed

1 1/4 cups chicken broth

1/2 cup long-grain white rice, rinsed

1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro, optional

Heat oil in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add bell pepper, garlic, chili powder, cumin and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until fragrant and starting to brown, about 1 minute.

Stir beans, broth, and rice into skillet, scraping up any browned bits, and bring to simmer. Cover skillet, reduce heat to low, and cook until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, 22 to 26 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking. Stir in cilantro, if using, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with your favorite toppings or pack in lunchbox or thermos.

— From "The Complete Baby and Toddler Cookbook: The Very Best Purees, Finger Foods and Toddler Meals for Happy Families" by America's Test Kitchen Kids (Sourcebooks Explore, $24.99)

Homemade Loaded Nut Bars

A copycat version of the popular Kind Bars, these filling no-bake bars are loaded with nuts and seeds and are sweetened with maple syrup. Feel free to switch up the nuts and seeds used in this recipe. These bars can keep in a sealed container for up to 3 days. They can also be kept refrigerated and are freezer-friendly. To keep them from sticking together, wrap each bar in parchment paper individually.

1 cup roasted almonds

1/2 cup mixed nuts of choice (such as cashews and pecans)

3 tablespoons almond flour

3 tablespoons seeds of choice

1 tablespoon flaxseed meal

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup or brown rice syrup

Pinch sea salt

Line an 8-inch square pan with parchment paper and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the nuts, almond flour, seeds and flaxseed meal and mix until combined.

In a small microwave-safe bowl or in a small pan on the stove, heat the syrup until melted. Pour over the dry mixture and mix until fully incorporated and the batter is sticky.

Transfer the batter to the lined pan and press firmly in place. Sprinkle with sea salt. Refrigerate until firm. Slice into 12 bars.

 — From "Clean Snacks: Paleo Vegan Recipes with Keto Options" by Arman Liew (Countryman Press, $21.95)

Mini Blueberry Muffins

These are satisfying muffins that I love making in mini muffin tins. My kids think they’re a treat! Replace the butter with coconut oil for a different flavor and quick energy. These muffins are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and omega-3 fatty acids.

— Lianne Phillipson

Virgin coconut oil, for greasing the muffin cups

2/3 cup dried blueberries or raisins

4 ripe bananas

2 eggs

1/2 cup pure maple syrup

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2/3 cup chia seeds

1 3/4 cups brown rice flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Lightly grease 24 mini muffin cups with the coconut oil or line with paper liners. Soak the blueberries in a small bowl of boiling water for 10 minutes until plump. Drain.

In a medium bowl, mash the bananas. Add the eggs and stir until combined. Add the maple syrup, butter, and chia seeds and let stand for 5 minutes.

In another medium bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add the drained blueberries and mashed banana mixture to the flour mixture. Stir until well combined.

Fill the muffin cups about three-quarters full and bake for 30 minutes until golden brown or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely in the muffin tin on a wire rack before removing muffins from the tin. Store the muffins in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days or in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.

— From "Sprout Right Family Food: Good Nutrition and Over 130 Simple Recipes for Baby, Toddler, and the Whole Family" by Lianne Phillipson (Penguin Canada, $24.99)