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BACK TO SCHOOL: A lunch packing primer and some cool new gear to consider for lunch duty

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Ready for another 180?

Sure, you've braced your kids for the early mornings. You've bought them their shoes and shirts and binders and book covers. You've even scheduled their haircuts and made sure their backpacks can handle another year of abuse. But have you prepared yourself for another 180 school days of packed lunches?

And what about your own lunches? We always say we'll pack our own because it's so much cheaper and healthier, yet somehow...

Fact is, there's not a lot you can do to change the fact that lunch duty is a chore. But a little information — as well as the right gear — can keep it from turning into a dreaded chore. So let's start with some basics:

— THINK AHEAD

I don't mean plan out a week's worth of lunches. That's just crazy talk. Rather, at dinner the night before, cook a little too much. How much too much? It depends on how many lunches you need to pack the next day. Either way, those leftovers are your easy building blocks for lunch the next day.

Grilling steak or roasting a chicken? Make a little extra and turn it into sandwiches or wraps or a robust salad in the morning. Pasta night? Boil up a little extra. The next day, cold leftovers plus some bottled vinaigrette and whatever veggies or meat you have handy become an easy pasta salad.

— COMPARTMENTALIZE

Ditch the idea of structuring lunch around a main-with-sides model. That's fine when it works, but often it just puts extra pressure on us. Most people — and particularly kids — are just as happy with a bunch of small items to munch on. Assemble some fruit, fresh veggies, cheese, crackers or bread, a little cold meat, maybe a yogurt and you have a pretty satisfying meal.

And to make packing all those bits and pieces easier, get bento-style lunch containers. These containers generally have multiple small compartments, making it easy to pack chips and salsa and veggies and meat and cheese and a treat and whatever else inspires you.

— KNOW YOUR NUMBERS

Safe lunch packing all comes down to numbers. Cold food needs to stay below 40 F. Hot food needs to stay above 140 F. Once food falls outside those ranges, it's safe to eat for another two hours.

How do you use this information? Start by figuring out what time a packed lunch will be eaten. Now count backward to the time of day it will be packed. That's how long you need to maintain the food at a safe temperature. So when you shop for lunch gear — insulated lunch bags, thermoses, water bottles, etc. — only buy products with thermal ratings. These ratings tell you how long they can keep items hot or cold.

— GEAR UP

Start by deciding the types of lunches you'll pack most often. Lots of little nibbles? Bento boxes are for you. Plenty of soups, chili and hot items? Multiple thermos-style wide-mouth food jars need to be on your shopping list. Go through a lot of dips and hummus and condiments? Be sure your containers are water tight.

As a general rule, I like to get two of every container. This way there is less pressure to make sure the lunch gear from the day before is washed before morning. I also prefer stainless steel because it holds up to the dishwasher (and my destructive 10-year-old) better. But it's also costlier, and if you're buying multiples that can add up fast.

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Every year I watch for new lunch gear to add to my arsenal. This summer, I found three items that were worth my money.

— Dressing-2-Go

These tiny silicone squeeze bottles are just shy of genius. Each one holds 2 ounces, perfect for salad dressings, ketchup, sour cream or anything else you might need to squeeze or squirt over a lunch. The soft silicone bottle is easy for kids to hold and squeeze, and the flip cap won't leak and is easy to open. A set of two costs $9 on Amazon.

— ECOlunchbox Blue Water Bento Splash Box

I love stainless steel lunch containers. I hate that most of them aren't water tight. The Blue Water Bento Splash Box solves this by pairing a stainless rectangular food container with a tight-fitting silicone lid that is easy to open but won't leak. At $22.50, it isn't cheap. But its versatility and rugged build make it a worthy investment.

— Hydro Flask 21-ounce Insulated Water Bottle

Built like a stainless steel tank and sporting double wall vacuum insulation, this beauty keeps liquids cold for 24 hours and hot for up to 12 hours. They are available in numerous colours and sell for $27.99. Younger children might prefer the 18-ounce version fitted with the optional straw lid.

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J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch . Email him at jhirsch@ap.org

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