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.

Guidelines for Children ages 4 to 8

Grains

These carbohydrates—including breads, cereals, pasta, and rice—are a great source of fuel. At least half of all grain and grain products should be whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, and brown rice, all rich sources of nutrients and fiber.

Daily amount: 4–5 ounces (1 ounce = 1 slice of bread or ½ cup cooked pasta, rice, or oatmeal)

Vegetables

Most kids don’t get enough of this group, which provide necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Daily amount: 1–1/2 cups (one serving = ½ cup cooked vegetables or about 1 cup raw)

Fruits

Fruits are also great sources of vitamins and minerals and fiber.

Daily amount: 1–1/2 cups (one serving = ½ cup cut or 1 small fresh fruit)

Dairy

Loaded with calcium, vitamins A and D, and protein, dairy is particularly important for growing healthy bones and bodies.

Daily amount: 2 cups (one serving = 1 cup of low-fat or skim milk or yogurt or 1–1/2 ounces of low-fat cheese).

Proteins

This group includes high-protein foods such as meat, fish, beans, and nuts
that build and repair muscles and tissues. One ounce of meat is equal to 1 ounce of meat, fish, or poultry; 1 egg or 2 egg whites; ¼ cup dried beans; 1 tablespoon of peanut butter; or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds.

Daily amount: 3–4 ounces

Fats

Fats are essential to maintain a healthy body and they’re a great source of energy, but some kids get too much fat and this group should be used sparingly, since they are concentrated in calories. Trans fats (hydrogenated oils) should be avoided and saturated fats (in meat and dairy) should be limited. Healthier fats are plant-based, such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados.

Daily amount: 3–4 teaspoons (1 teaspoon = 1 teaspoon of oil, 1 tablespoon of light or low-fat mayonnaise, or 15 small olives)

Limit sugar from candy, soft drinks, sugared juices, and other highly sweetened foods. These products only provide short-lasting energy, extra calories, and little in the way of nutritional value.

Healthy Lunchbox, Week 1

Monday: Skim or 1% low-fat milk, ½ peanut butter-and-banana sandwich on whole-grain bread (the banana should be sweet enough on its own, but you can add a smattering of honey), apple sauce (individual size)

Tuesday: Cheese and crackers, small fresh pear, apple juice, baby carrots, small Thermos of water

Wednesday: Yogurt, ½ banana (leave skin on for kids to peel), 1/2 cup high-fiber/low-sugar cereal in a small container or bag, water, oatmeal-raisin cookie, water

Thursday: Mini whole-grain bagel and reduced-fat or part-skim cheese, apple slices, water

Friday: Raw veggies and hummus, skim or 1% low-fat milk, raw food fruit bar

Healthy Lunchbox, Week 2

Monday: Skim or 1% low-fat milk, pretzels, string cheese, ½ banana (with skin left on)

Tuesday: Trail mix (with dried berries, nuts, and granola), yogurt, skim or 1% low-fat milk instead, fruit salad

Wednesday: Skim or 1% low-fat milk, ½ natural turkey, mozzarella cheese, and tomato sandwich on whole-grain bread, fresh strawberries

Thursday: Soy milk, cucumber slices, toasted waffle sandwich with almond butter and bananas

Friday: Rice with tofu, steamed carrots and broccoli, fresh orange, yogurt tube, water

Healthy Lunchbox, Week 3

Monday: Macaroni, steamed broccoli, chunks of parmesan cheese, fresh grapes, water

Tuesday: Cored apple stuffed with peanut butter, rolled oats or granola, and honey (cut into rings), skim or 1% low-fat milk, graham crackers

Wednesday: Cheese and multigrain crackers, applesauce, skim or 1% low-fat milk, steamed edamame

Thursday: Chef’s salad made with 1 slice turkey, 1 slice ham, and 1 slice of cheese (all cubed), served over mixed greens with ½ cup chick peas, mandarin oranges, Thermos of water

Friday: Chicken slices, cheddar cheese wedges, orange slices, pretzels, water

Healthy Lunchbox, Week 4

Monday: Cheese pizza slice, fresh pineapple chunks, sugar snap peas, water
Tuesday: Fruit salad with yogurt, skim or 1% low-fat milk, dry cereal in a resealable container, water
Wednesday: Veggie quesadilla, baby carrots and salsa for dipping, mango slices, water
Thursday: Mixed nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, sesame seeds), cottage cheese sprinkled with cinnamon, apple slices, water
Friday: Black bean dip, baked tortilla chips, baby carrots, fresh peach, skim or 1% low-fat milk

DID YOU KNOW? 1 Tablespoon of cream cheese has only 1 gram of protein and 12 mgs of calcium, while 1 slice (1 oz.) of cheddar cheese has 7 grams of protein and 204 mgs of calcium.

Tip: Reduce your child’s lunchbox waste by investing in a small stainless-steel Thermos to carry each day’s water, milk, or juice.