Opening my children’s lunch boxes at the end of the day is kind of like opening a White Elephant gift at a holiday office party: You never know what you’ll find inside. Some days they’ll eat only the sandwich, others the fruit is a hit, and some days everything I packed comes back untouched. And do they really mean it when they say they want peanut butter and honey—again? And does that combo really pack the nutritional value and fuel they need to keep them healthy and energized throughout the day? Would they eat more if I didn’t give them the same thing over and over again, despite their requests?

“Children’s nutrition needs differ depending on their age and how active they are,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and nutrition consultant to Cartoon Network. “Often kids don’t need as much as we think they do.” What about repeat requests? “Feeding kids the same thing over and over again is not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. “Food jags are common among preschool and school-aged children and sometimes can be comforting to them. Nutritional deficiencies develop over long periods of time; food jags generally last a few weeks.”

How can parents make healthy food choices for their kids? Taub-Dix recommends using the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food Guide Pyramid to obtain practical advice about how to create a healthy, balanced diet. These recommendations are based on age, gender, and physical activity, and therefore may vary for individual needs. The following offers general strategies for feeding boys and girls between the ages of 4 and 8 years of age, who get about 30 minutes of exercise per day.