Lunch boxes are a colorful symbol of the early-fall, back-to-school scene, whether they're the big black types construction workers carry or brightly colored ones with initials, messages, animals, and cartoon stickers.
But although the outside may be creative and original, it's often difficult to find anyone who says anything good about the lunches inside.
Children don't always eat them. Teachers think they're inadequate. Parents think the time and care they put into the food are not appreciated.
The challenge is trying to think of something different that's packable, within the budget, easy to make, and flavorful.
Then it's anybody's guess as to whether your sandwiches get swapped for someone else's dessert or the whole lunch comes home untouched.
But homemade bag or box lunches are a definite help to the budget. And making them for your child is one way of letting him know there's someone at home who cares. There's no need to make it a burdensome task. Start with the main requirements.
First consider which things the child likes that can be carried to school. Some children are happiest with one or two choices every day. Others like more variety. Try to include fruit, vegetables, and a beverage along with the sandwiches.
To avoid a morning rush, pack all cold foods as dinner is cleared the night before and refrigerate them until morning. Add hot or frozen items at the last minute.
Freeze small cans of juice to pack with lunch. They make good sipping and keep other foods cold.
Make and freeze a batch of sandwiches when you have spare time. To keep bread from getting damp, spread evenly with butter or margarine to the edge.
Sandwiches on rolls or biscuits keep better than those on sliced bread. Wrapped carefully and refrigerated, sandwiches made on rolls with sliced meat, chicken, or peanut butter will stay fresh for days. When using tuna or salmon, go light on salad dressing.
When freezing, add crisp vegetables like broccoli, green beans, or zucchini. Don't add lettuce and tomato before freezing.
Remember - lunch is only one meal. Don't try to put too much in it.
Anne Gilbar, a mother of two, has a lively collection of easy recipes and bright ideas from teachers, chefs, and nutritionists. She's put them into a book called ''The Lunch Box Book'' (Simon & Schuster, $3.95), which includes some appealing lunches that won't be traded or tossed away.
Here are some of her tips:
1. Do the planning at a time other than breakfast, which should not be a battleground for lunch.
2. If your children are interested, choose lunch box menus together. (The book is designed to make choosing fun. Each recipe is coded according to food group - meat, fruits, vegetables, breads and muffins, and so forth. You and your child can pick a recipe from each group to make a balanced lunch meal.)
3. Cook things all at once. Broil one chicken Sunday night, for instance, to make different chicken dishes during the week.
4. Add something personal to make your child smile or think of you when he's away from home.
5. Get a stack of stickers to decorate plain paper lunch bags or wrapping inside the lunch box.
6. If you planned the menu with your child, throw in a treat that will be a pleasant surprise.
The book also includes tips on packing foods safely and on keeping them hot or cold. Here are some recipes from ''The Lunch Box Book.'' Elliott's Chicken and Peanut Flowers 1 1/2 cups cooked chicken meat, chopped 1/4 cup unsalted peanuts, chopped 2 tablespoons mayonnaise 1 tablespoon chopped parsley Wheat and white bread cut in flower shapes
Combine chicken, peanuts, and mayonnaise and mix into a manageable spread.
Spread on bread that has been cut with a flower-shaped cookie cutter and cover with another slice.
For extra fun mix the wheat and white bread. If you have a small, round cutter, cut out the center of the flower and make the center a different color.
Or make a tiny, separate sandwich with the center as a food item the children can trade.
This recipe was adapted from a Chinese dish called Squab in Lettuce. It's a favorite of China and Maximillian Chow, who enjoy it in the Mr. Chow restaurants their parents own. They use chicken or salmon for the lunch box version. Lettuce Rolls Chicken or salmon salad Iceberg or romaine lettuce
Take a whole lettuce leaf and wash and dry well. Place a tablespoon of salad in the center. Now roll it up and fasten with a toothpick. Wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to put it in the lunch box.
These rolls will keep in the refrigerator 3 days.
A good sandwich continues to be the brown-bagger's favorite lunch item, according to Margaret E. Happel in her book ''Brown Bag Lunches'' (Brethren Press, Elgin, Ill., $6.95).
She has written chapters on soups, salads, muffins, fruit desserts, and lunches with child-appeal. She also tells how to make a non-soggy sandwich, as follows: Non-Soggy Sandwich
Sandwiches should be neither dry nor soggy. This is why the bread should be spread with butter, margarine, mayonnaise, or sour cream.
Use margarine if you like or use low-fat spreadable cheese as an alternate. Here are other alternates:
Combine 1/2 cup soft, sweet, no-salt margarine with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind, then add any of the following: * 1 to 2 tablespoons prepared spicy or mild mustard, to taste. * 2 tablespoons chopped herbs, such as parsley, dill, or chives. * 2 tablespoons chopped pickles, well drained.