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PACKED with NUTRITION

Orange Milano lunchbox from the Container Store.

The Superman lunchbox from Target comes complete with a cape.

Green metal lunch box from the Container Store.

This mesh metal lunch box from the Container Store offers a new look.

California Innovations lunch box.

MCT PHOTOS

The Container Store offers the Blue Milano lunchbox.

Built NY lunchbox from the Container Store.

Red Built NY lunchbox from the Container Store.

Soccer snack carrier.

Dinosaur lunchbox from Target.

Nutritionists agree: The best way parents can ensure a healthful lunch for kids is still to pack it themselves.

Yes, cafeterias and vending machines are getting healthier this school year, as federal mandates require schools to begin phasing out the nutritional bad guys. But packing your kid’s lunch means you know what’s in it.

And to spare your children the mortification of opening a brown paper bag at lunchtime, back-to-school aisles are jammed with colorful, clever and practical gear for schlepping a sandwich or a salad.

The lunchbox has come a long way since Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger and Superman put one at the top of every kid’s back-to-school-supplies list in the ’50s.

Technology has transformed grub-to-go gear. The soft-sided insulated bags and packs made from durable material such as nylon have been de rigueur in lockers for some years now, and the Built NY company has pioneered the use of machine-washable neoprene, the sturdy material used in wet suits, for food and beverage carriers.

Many of the insulated bags now have wipe-clean PVC linings, notes Container Store spokeswoman Courtney Shaver, and “straps and zippers have evolved, so they are easy to adjust and use.”

For little kids, cartoon and movie characters are as popular as they were in the ‘50s. In stores, most of these are under $10; at the specialty online site www.Lunchboxes.com, prices hover a bit higher, generally around $13 to $15.

It’s hard to resist Thermos’ Superman and Batman lunch bags, complete with cape. Disney makes a tire-shaped “Cars”-themed lunch tote—bagel sandwiches would be a natural choice to tuck into this one—with thermos attached.

To give you some inspiration for what to stow in these clever containers, we’ve assembled some healthful, easy-to-put-together recipe ideas, with suggestions for streamlining or customizing, depending on your kids’—or your own—food prejudices.

For the Cup-A-Cake, we’ve pulled a low-fat orange poppy seed muffin recipe from “Family Circle Eat What You Love & Lose” cookbook (Regan Books, $14.95).

ORANGE POPPY SEED MUFFINS

1/2 cup honey, divided

2 tablespoons orange juice

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and well chilled

1 1/4 tablespoons poppy seeds

1 tablespoon grated orange rind

2/3 cup mashed banana (1 large)

2 large egg whites

3/4 cup nonfat milk

1 1/2 teaspoons orange extract

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat 12 standard-size muffin-pan cups with cooking spray, coating muffin-pan top surface around cups as well.

In a small saucepan, bring 2 tablespoons of the honey, the orange juice and the lemon juice to a boil. Reduce heat to low; cook until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat; let glaze cool.

Stir together flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl. With pastry blender or 2 knives used scissors fashion, cut in butter until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Stir in poppy seeds and rind.

Lightly beat together banana, remaining 6 tablespoons honey, egg whites, milk and orange extract in small bowl. Stir egg mixture into flour mixture just until evenly moistened. Spoon batter into muffin cups, dividing equally.

Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden and toothpick inserted in centers comes out clean. Remove muffins from pan to wire rack. Brush tops with the orange glaze. Serve warm. Yields 12 muffins.

TRAIL MIX SANDWICH

1 small crisp apple, unpeeled

2 tablespoons lemon juice mixed with 2 cups water

1/4 cup chunky peanut butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons honey or sorghum syrup

2 tablespoons raisins

2 tablespoons dried fruit of choice (dried pineapple, cherries, apricot, mango), finely chopped

4 slices whole-wheat bread

Chop apple finely; toss with acidulated water; drain; discard water.

Mix apple bits into peanut butter along with honey, raisins and other dried fruit. Spread onto two bread slices; top with other two. Serves 2.

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