(Family Features) - With kids heading back to school, many parents are looking for healthy but fun lunch options. Experienced lunch packing parents know that creativity within a lunchbox goes a long way towards ensuring a healthy and nutritious lunch that is actually eaten, not tossed.
Children develop eating habits early that they keep for life, so what seems like a daily decision can actually have a lasting effect. A lot of parents work hard to come up with healthy and delicious new twists on old lunchbox staples because so many school cafeterias still serve meals that are fat and sugar fiestas - the kind that are producing high blood pressure and diabetes in kids as young as 11, says Dr. Jennifer Trachtenberg, pediatrician, author and contributor to the RealAge blog on Yahoo! Food (http://food.yahoo.com).
One trick to getting children to eat a healthy lunch is to involve them in their own lunch preparation. Kids are more likely to enjoy eating their own creations.
Healthy lunches are not just important for your kid's well being, they help them make the grade too. Make sure that you are sending your child to school with the best brain food possible. A mid-day fuel up that includes whole grains, fiber and protein (a combo that digests gradually) supplies the brain with a steady stream of energy - the exact opposite of the sugar rush and follow-up energy crash that high-carb junk foods produce in kids. Trachtenberg offers these creative tips to help you design school lunches that are not only healthy but tasty and fun as well.
Add fun with shapes: For young ones, use large cookie cutters to make star-shaped sandwiches for birthdays, ghosts at Halloween or snowmen in December.
Pack an edible forest: Vegetables are much more fun when they're really broccoli "trees," carrot "logs," bell pepper strip "canoes," cherry tomato "boulders," and cucumber-slice "bridges" - all ready to dunk into salsa or an herbed yogurt dip.
Change up the bread: For a kid with a sweet tooth, how about low-fat cream cheese with apple slices on cinnamon raisin bread? For a more adventurous teen, try turkey and cheddar on rye with chutney.
Send a sandwich on a stick: Pack these separately: several slices of turkey, chicken breast or lean roast beef from the deli; some large whole-grain bread sticks; and a container of honey mustard or salsa. At lunchtime, kids can smear the meat slices with the mustard or salsa ("glue" as well as flavor-boosters) and wrap them around the bread sticks.
Make it a sub. Or a burrito: Fill a thermos with sliced meatballs and tomato sauce. Pack a sliced whole-wheat roll for a hot sub sandwich on the first cool day of the year. Or, fill the thermos with chicken-and-bean taco filling and pack whole-wheat tortillas and a bag of shredded lettuce and cheese.
Always throw in some fruit. The staples - apples, bananas, tangerines, grapes - are great, but mini fruit cups from the grocery store (packed in juice, not syrup) and raisin boxes are fine too. "Take every chance to get fruits and veggies into your kids," Trachtenberg says.
Don't forget a "real" dessert: Restricting treats entirely can make kids obsess over them and even lead to secret binging. So choose desserts with redeeming qualities: whole-grain fig or strawberry bars, cinnamon-banana-oatmeal muffins or a few pieces of dark chocolate (dark chocolate is rich in the same protective antioxidants found in apples and grapes).
See more lunchbox and meal ideas at Yahoo! Food (http://food.yahoo.com).