Lunchtime can provide a powerful boost for your children while at school when it meets the nutritional needs of their growing bodies.

When its time to pack your child’s school lunch, think about this: What you decide to include on their lunch menu can make or break their learning potential. Offering up colorful, tasty and nourishing meals to your children especially at lunch will keep them fueled and attentive for the classroom and after-school activities. There are a number of common mistakes parents should avoid. One of the most obvious is preparing the same foods over and over. Remember that offering a large variety of foods will serve two purposes: meeting your children’s nutritional needs and expanding their food knowledge and experience. Another is portion control, which many parents are not familiar with when it comes to their kids. The chart you see here displays proper serving sizes for youngsters.

On the topic of desired food groups, think of whole grains (rye bread, corn tortillas), vegetables and/or fruits (spinach, broccoli, berries, apples), lean-protein foods (turkey, eggs, beans) as well as low-fat dairy products (1% milk or low-fat yogurt) when planning your little ones lunch.

Many parents are busy and rely on fast food on a weekly basis. The problem here is that these foods fall short on vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products and whole grains. In general, kids can enjoy some french fries or a hamburger, but make them an occasional treat (no more than three times a month), not a regular meal.

Processed foods such as french fries, candy, donuts and soft drinks are empty-calorie foods notoriously high in salt, sugar and unhealthy fats, but low in calcium, A, B, and C vitamins, and iron. All these nutrients are essential for both learning and higher energy levels.

Creative ideas for food to keep your child interested

Make your kids chefs. Children will be more willing to try new foods when they plan and prepare their meals.

Prepare a lunch that is adventurous. Try a new recipe from the Internet or a book, like a crunchy vegetable and turkey tortilla wrap or turkey and bean chili.

Mix it up by combining favorite foods with colorful, unfamiliar ones. For instance, mix peas into macaroni and cheese, or add carrots to spaghetti sauce and lasagna.

Make a healthy pizza. Use a bagel or English muffin and add tomato sauce, cheese and pieces of pineapple and spinach.

Prepare mini meals, which are always fun for your children. For instance, offer mini whole grain bagels as sandwiches.

Serve the same food in different forms. For example, pair up raw carrot sticks and cooked carrot coins.

Start a family garden if space and time allow it. A garden can teach your children about new foods.

Keep in mind that kids need to taste a new food about 10 times before they learn to like it. Also, the most important message you can give your children is that food is FUN, and learning about food is fun, too!

Useful tips to make packing a lunch easier

When it comes to preparing a healthy lunch, be resourceful and use dinner leftovers.

Plan for the week ahead. Take some time over the weekend to plan your lunch menus.

Ask your kids to help plan the menus. This will put them in the driver’s seat and you could get some good ideas.

Advanced meal prep can be helpful by saving precious time with your busy schedule during the week.

Stock the essentials. One healthy cooking essential is canned tomatoes, as they are perfect for making pastas. Peanut butter and canned tuna make for quick and healthy sandwiches. Frozen vegetables fit in with numerous recipes.

Develop a master list on your computer of all different food groups. Keep this list in a visible location like on the refrigerator door, where your family can add items as needed.

Ximena Jimenez, is a licensed and registered dietitian and currently acts as a National Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Passionate about helping children and adults implement healthy habits to improve their lives, Jimenez provides individual and group nutrition counseling. She has appeared as a guest expert on local, national and international shows, including on Telemundo, Univision, AmericaTeve, Caracol, Univision Radio, Radio Fiesta and WLRN.