FEW PROBLEMS IN LIFE loom as large as a kid's empty lunchbox at 7 a.m. But you can't just throw in any old dusty sandwich and call the thing done.
What if your son falls asleep in the middle of long division and then fails, somewhere down the road, to get into the right college? What if your daughter grows faint during kiddie gymnastics and misses out, thanks to you, on the 2004 Olympics?
It's no exaggeration that a lot is riding on this lunch.
According to a 1989 study, "The Relationship Between Nutrition and Learning," done by the Food Research and Action Center for the National Education Association: "Hunger probably has no permanent effects on the brain, but it does disrupt learning -- one developmental step is lost, and it is difficult to move on to the next one."
Hunger, the study continues, leads to nervousness, irritability, disinterest in the learning process, and an inability to concentrate. "The hungry child is passive, apathetic and timid, and demands little from his or her environment."
If we remind ourselves how little our children's stomachs are, say Meredith Brokaw and Annie Gilbar, authors of "The Penny Whistle Lunch Box Book" (Fireside, paperback, $11), one of two recently published books devoted to the lunchbox, "it is easy to understand the importance of the foods we give them."
The keys to packing something tasty and nutritious are to plan ahead, to choose foods your child is familiar with, and to involve your children in the lunchbox decisions.
"Kids want to have control over what they eat," says Ellen Klavan, author of "The Creative Lunchbox"(Crown, paperback, $7).
By consulting with your children about their preferences and by giving them choices, you'll increase the chances that they'll actually eat what you've packed rather than trading for something less nutritious.
Plan the lunchbox meals so foods you want to use are on hand. This can mean stocking your pantry and freezer, but it can also mean cooking things like roasted chicken or muffins on a Sunday night.
Some tips for creative lunches:
*Think of lunches when cooking the family meals. Leftovers make some of the best lunchbox ingredients. Prepare extra turkey or chicken for sandwiches. Cook extra pasta for pasta salads. Bake large batches of cookies or apple crisp.
*Include something in the lunchbox for trading. "Be sure to include a food treat that is 'valuable' in his or her mind -- an extra fruit leather or bag of peanuts or freshly made popcorn are special favorites among the trading set," explain Ms. Brokaw and Ms. Gilbar.
*Look for unusual kinds and shapes of bread -- pita pockets, whole wheat hot dog buns or dinner rolls, flour tortillas or taco shells.
*Several sandwiches made on small rolls or muffins can be more fun to eat than one large sandwich.
*If your child only wants peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, says Ms. Klavan, you can make them more nutritious by using whole grain bread, a salt- and sugar-free peanut butter and fruit-only jellies.
*Pack cut-up fruits. Use sections of apple and pear, chunks of melon and pineapple. Dip apple and pear in orange or lemon juice before packing to prevent discoloring.
*Besides some favorite raw vegetables, try steaming sugar snap peas, broccoli florets or zucchini
spears and pack them with a small container of dip.
*Substitute air-dried popcorn for potato chips -- 3 cups of popcorn have just 70 calories.
*Don't underestimate the importance of the way the lunch looks. Children will be far more likely to eat the food if it's packed in a way that captures their imagination. Use cartoon stickers or seals to close sandwich bags. Pack colorful napkins. Use pretty plastic containers.
*To keep lunches cool, pack them with commercial "blue ice." Or freeze an aseptic box of juice to pack. It will be thawed in time for lunch.
*Pack frozen foods, recommends Ms. Klavan. "Breads and muffins, for example, freeze well, as do chicken drumsticks. Put a frozen muffin in your child's lunch and it should have thawed by lunchtime. Using frozen bread will help keep your child's sandwich fresh. But frozen bread or a frozen muffin isn't enough to keep an entire lunch cold."
*Reinforce your children's concerns about the environment by using sturdy nylon lunch bags and reusable containers instead of paper bags and plastic wrap.