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Packed lunch can be an extra show of love

So the children are back in school, and we're back to packing lunches.

If you simply can't come up with anything beyond the usual menu to jazz up a lunch box, you could think about adding something else to that same old sandwich and chips.

Some parents stick notes in their kids' lunches to add a smile to their day. (By "their" I mean both the parents' and the children's day.) But after asking parents around town the past couple of months, I've found there are some pretty creative and thoughtful things going into those lunch boxes.

Kid are greeted with notes written on banana peels, faces drawn on oranges, comic strips, activity sheets or jokes downloaded from the Internet, stickers, vocabulary words, pipe cleaner characters, leftover party napkins and more.

Trish Hastings started making little figures out of pipe cleaners when her daughter Jamie started kindergarten. Five years later she's still sticking her creations into Jamie's lunch box.

"At first they were like stick figures," Hastings told me. But then she found a book on pipe cleaner art.

"So they got progressively more advanced. One year over the course of the season I made an entire T-ball team. I've made horses and riders, the whole nativity scene. When it's really cold, I'm into snowmen."

She started sticking the cute creatures in her daughter's lunch when Jamie was "less than enthusiastic" about staying at kindergarten all day.

"It was just sort of letting her know I'm thinking about her during the day, and it was a way to brighten up the middle of the day," Hastings said. "It's probably not necessary anymore, but she's used to it." Now that Jamie is older, her mom also sticks a new vocabulary word in her lunch.

"I go the Yahoo word of the day. I don't give her the definition. I use it in a sentence, then she looks it up in the dictionary on her own," Hastings said.

Michelle Payne and her husband used to draw pictures for their daughter Alex on an Etch A Sketch attached to her lunch box. She also had a dry erase board on another lunch box.

"We used to draw silly pictures. She really loved it when her daddy drew them because he's gone so much for work," Payne said.

I draw pictures on napkins. A scene from a book we're reading or a scribbled picture of the family at the beach or riding bikes. Since my older daughter started reading, it's gotten easier because I can write better then I draw.

Now when I write a napkin note for my younger daughter who's just learning to read, she can ask her sister to help her figure it out. Of course, I think teachers are also helping read all those lunch notes.

I used to write or draw something every day, but when I started making two lunches each morning, my artwork and prose were slowing down the process. So I've cut back, telling myself that maybe the notes are more special when they're a surprise instead of a standard feature.

Kathy O' Keefe wraps her son Joshua's sandwich in aluminum foil, then seals it with a sticker. Once she stuck one with a very realistic bug on the foil around his sandwich. When he glanced down at it, he screamed and threw the sandwich up in the air. But aside from an occasional scare, Joshua tells his mom he looks forward to what sticker it will be each day. Once he unwraps the sandwich, the foil becomes his place mat.

Amy Giskin also puts stickers in her 6-year-old son Michael's lunch. She buys little gift cards with envelopes, then decorates them with stickers. They range from Scooby Doo to Jimmy Neutron. She also writes his name different ways each day _ tall and skinny, short bubble letters, striped or rainbow letters.

"Part of me does say: "Oh I've gotten myself into this.' But so what, it's a little fun thing," Giskin said. "I don't think if I stopped, it would make him sad. I'm sure part of it's for me, too. It just makes him for that one second know I'm thinking about him."

She's right. I can remember the feeling I got when my mom stuck notes in my lunch. It wasn't a huge thrill or something I was desperate to find. But when I did, it was just like having an extra pat on the back in the middle of the crowded lunchroom. My friend Gretchen Walsh said she remembers vividly the times her mom periodically decorated her lunch bags when she was about 7 years old.

"I would go downstairs, and I would be very excited to see our brown bags decorated. Mine would have my name in fancy letters with flowers and doodles in all different colors. I can't imagine how much time she spent on it," she told me.

Making a connection with a parent isn't the only benefit from pictures, jokes, vocabulary words or a third basemen made from pipe cleaners. They can also work as conversation starters with other kids at the lunch table.

I asked Laura Golightly, director of First Presbyterian Day School, if notes and treats from home can actually be a negative because they make kids homesick. She told me they really do act more as a bright spot during lunch than a trigger for homesickness.

"Sometimes the notes come from a pet's perspective. They say something like: "I hope you're having a good day. Love, Foo-Foo.' The children like to share those with their friends," Golightly said. But there comes a point when the sharing stops, and so do the notes. Golightly used to send notes in her own girls' lunches, but when they hit third grade, they told her it was getting a little "embarrrassssingggg."

The Tyrll Group in Lansing, Mich., makes "Lunch packers" out of paper in different shapes with messages inside. Some are shaped like little pickles, and when you lift the outside flap, there's a joke underneath. They also sell a "one smart cookie" series with trivia inside. Other notes feature art, tongue twisters, weird laws and riddles. A pack of 30 costs $6.95. They are available at some educational stores or at www.lunchpackers.com.

My friend Karen Sleszynski told me about Lunch Packers and said they make packing lunches a little faster in the morning if you're not scribbling a note for all your kids.

"I think anything you can do to let your child know they're in your mind is a good thing," she said. "It's those little touches that they'll remember 20 years from now."

Up next:WEDNESDAY

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