It's back-to-school season again, time to fantasize about the delicious, nutritious and interesting lunches you will pack for your children this year.

You will include thoughtful poems and nuggets of wisdom along with the appealing foodstuffs in a tasteful lunch box. And your children will come home each day with a clean lunch box and shower you with compliments about the delicious repast you prepared. (I said this was a fantasy.)

The reality is that you will often send along the same items, day after day, because they are the only things your picky eater will accept. Some of these foods may reside at the very top of the food pyramid, among those classified as "use sparingly."

Bear in mind that your child's lunch should provide about one-third to one-fourth of daily nutritional needs. But don't turn the lunch box into a battleground. If something goes uneaten, it doesn't provide any nutrition at all.

Each day, children should eat a balanced, varied diet. The Food Guide Pyramid developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that children have 9 servings from the bread, cereal, rice and pasta group; 4 servings from the vegetable group; 3 servings from the fruit group; 3 servings from the milk group; and 2 servings from the meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs and nuts group.

Keep the food simple. Kids don't want to have to cope with anything that is too difficult to eat. Don't pack too many items and containers of foods. Lunch breaks are usually short at school and if kids spend too much time opening up packages, they won't have time to eat.

Ask your child to help you plan the lunch menu, starting with shopping at the grocery store for lunch box items. Encourage children who are old enough to do so to pack their own lunches. But keep an eye on what goes into the lunch.

Here are some lunch box ideas to get you started:

* Sandwiches, of course. But try to put together some interesting combinations. For instance, use homemade banana bread to make a peanut butter sandwich. Use other breads, such as pita pockets, bagels and flour tortillas as wraps.

* To keep sandwiches from becoming soggy, use cream cheese as a spread instead of mayonnaise and pack lettuce and tomatoes separately from the sandwiches.

* Crackers, pretzels, popcorn.

* Vegetable sticks and cherry tomatoes with a small container of salad dressing for dipping.

* Kid-pleasing hot foods: soup, chili, macaroni and cheese, baked beans. A small ear of corn can be kept hot in a thermos.

* Yogurt, maybe with granola or another cereal.

* Fresh fruit or cubes of fresh fruit in a small container.

* Muffins and other homemade baked items. If you make them with your children, the process can help them learn fractions and other math subjects.

--By Barbara Albright/Associated Press