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If your children want to buy their lunch at school, encourage them to choose the salad bar, if that's an option, says McAllister. Lean ham, shredded cheese, fruits, and vegetables are good choices, she says.

Avoid Brown-Bag Boredom

If you run out of fresh ideas for brown-bag lunches, here are a few suggested by Jody Villecco, Whole Foods Market's top nutritionist, and Jyl Steinbeck, author of 10 cookbooks for healthy living, including the upcoming Busy Mom's Make It Quick Cookbook:

  • Mozzarella cheese sticks with baked tortilla chips, a container of salsa, and orange segments
  • Fruit, cheese, and meat kabobs: Alternately thread turkey (or other low-fat meat), cheese cubes, bell pepper, and pineapple chunks on Popsicle sticks.
  • Yogurt parfait: A 6-8 oz. container of low-fat yogurt, a snack pack of low-sugar, high-fiber cereal, berries, grapes, apple slices, and/or banana
  • A low-fat tortilla spread with low-fat cream cheese, sprinkled with shredded carrots and raisins.
  • A pita pocket stuffed with lunchtime favorites like tuna, turkey and/or cheese, and chopped vegetables (or with peanut butter and jelly).
  • Cinnamon-raisin pita bread stuffed with cream cheese and grated carrots.
  • Whole-wheat bread with peanut butter, banana, and chopped dates.
  • A hollowed-out red or green pepper stuffed with tuna salad.
  • A hollowed apple filled with a mixture of farmer cheese, granola, and raisins
  • Scooped-out dinner rolls filled with tuna or egg salad.

Reality Check

Even if you pack the most delicious lunch imaginable, it's not likely you'll be able to keep your children away from the vending machines 100% of the time.

Not to worry, says McAllister -- as long as your children don't eat the snacks instead of a healthy lunch, and as long as they don't overdo it.

"As long as most of your child's lunches are healthy, an occasional soda, bag of chips, or candy bar is not a problem," she says.

Not all vending-machine choices are bad, either. The Center for Science in the Public Interest notes that some of the best ones include unsweetened applesauce cups and fruit cups, cereal mix, low-fat milk, granola bars, dried fruit, bottled water, and 100% juice

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