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Cool Back-to-School Lunches

Although most bag lunches come in a plain, brown wrapper, there's no reason the contents need to be as boring as the container. By using your creative, lunch-packing skills, you can design tasty, well-balanced fare that your kids will eat, says Better Homes and Gardens magazine. In the process, they might discover that good nutrition and good food can go together.

The Pyramid is the place to start, the Food Guide Pyramid for Kids designed by the US Department of Agriculture, which tells you the food groups and portions necessary for reaching sound nutrition goals. Start from the bottom up, building a strong foundation with one or more foods from the first three levels of the Pyramid--grains; fruits and vegetables; and meats, beans, and dairy products.

Let your kids be junior lunch-packing chefs. Give them several options to choose from the food groups. Don't worry if they don't eat everything all the time. Every child has likes and dislikes. If they get stuck on a certain food or food combination, it's likely just a passing fixation--continue to encourage new or different foods.

Don't forget to pack food carefully to avoid spoilage--insulated lunch boxes work best. If refrigeration isn't available, avoid easily-spoiled foods such as poultry, soft fruit or products containing eggs.

Level 1 - Grains and grain products form the bottom level of the Pyramid for essential B-vitamins, iron, and zinc. We're talking from standard bread slices to bagels, crackers, muffins, pasta salads, or tortillas--one serving or more. Try to encourage whole grain breads. White bread still isn't bad since it's fortified with iron and other nutrients.

Level 2 - Next are vegetables and fruits, one or two servings of which will provide essential vitamins and minerals. Veggie selections might include cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, and baby carrot sticks, to name a few. You can sneak veggies into sandwich fillings by chopping and mixing them in. If whole fruit such as apples or oranges don't slice it, try fruit roll-ups or juices which also qualify.

Level 3 - Meats, beans and dairy provide protein, calcium and other important minerals. Kids need three servings of calcium- rich foods such as milk, yogurt or cheese to meet daily needs. There are plenty of choices here. To top off the foundation, add a 2-ounce serving of meat, poultry, fish, cheese, yogurt, peanut butter, nuts or beans.

Level 4 - This is where kids usually need no encouragement-- sweets and fats including jams, jellies, candy, soda pop, margarine, mayonnaise and the like. Don't worry about avoiding fats and sweets. Eaten in moderation, they add extra appeal and necessary calories. First try fruit-filled cookies, oatmeal cookies, or granola bars but don't deny their favorite sweets or snacks in reward for eating well. Chips are okay but multi-grain chips or pretzels are better.