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Back to school: Ideas for packing kids' lunch boxes during the school year

Ah, the all-important lunch box. When it comes to sending your kid to school with a packed lunch, think less about preparing a full, complete meal and more about preparing individual snack-like components that keep lunch nutritious and whimsical. On this page, we offer ideas for what to pack and personal tips from a mom who makes lunches daily. (Click here for after-school snack ideas from a nutritionist.)

Fresh fruit: Naturally sweet and kid-sized, grapes are ideal for lunch boxes. You can portion them out easily for the week, and they should stay fresh from Monday through Friday if refrigerated. Also, don't wash them or pick them off their stems until just before you use them, and they'll last longer.

Veggie sticks: You can pre-cut carrots, celery and cucumber a couple days in advance if you store them properly. Cut carrots and celery into thin, 3-inch sticks, and store both in the refrigerator in an airtight container filled with water. Cut cucumbers into half moons, and store tightly in an airtight bag and refrigerate. The veggies should stay fresh this way for 3-5 days.

Cheese cubes: Go for a cheddar or mozzarella, which are low-fuss sources of protein.

Homemade "pizza": Top mini whole grain pitas with a dollop of marinara sauce, a handful of mozzarella cheese and some Italian seasoning. Cook in a 350-degree oven until cheese melts, about 7 minutes. Let cool completely before packing in lunch box. These can also be cooked in the microwave in a pinch.

Pasta salad: Cook pasta on Sunday and use throughout the week. Use about ½ cup pasta and load it up with veggies like red bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, diced cucumber, then top with cheese like feta chunks of mozzarella balls. Dress it with a vinaigrette dressing. (For a recipe, see Easy Summer Pasta Salad below.)

Pinwheels: A sandwich alternative that looks perfectly kid-friendly when cut into bite-sized pieces. Start by smearing a flavored spread onto a flour tortilla or wrap, like cream cheese or ranch dressing or yogurt dip. Add a layer of lunch meat — turkey, roast beef and pepperoni are good options — then a layer of spinach. Roll the whole thing into a log, then cut into six pieces.

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