A healthy diet is essential to keep kids' minds and bodies active and fuel healthy growth and development. Every meal and snack time provides an opportunity for kids to load up on foods rich in the nutrients they need to grow healthy, smart and strong. Kids should have a say in what they eat, and can be active in the process of planning and creating meals. Presenting the basic ingredients in a creative way can lay the foundation for a lifetime of healthy habits.

The Basics

A daily menu for kids should consist of whole grains; fruits and vegetables; low-fat dairy; and lean meats, such as chicken, and fish. Kids should limit consumption of nutrient-poor items such as chips, cookies or sugary drinks, which contain excessive fat and sugar and can hinder healthy development. Milk and water are the best drink choices, although the occasional serving of 100 percent fruit juice is acceptable.

First Thing in the Morning

Complex carbohydrates are especially important at breakfast time, as they provide fiber and energy to keep kids full and active throughout the day. Grain products -- cereals, breads, pasta -- containing the word "whole" as the first ingredient are the most nutritious options. Set out breakfast ingredients the night before to save time, and help your kids make on-the-go breakfast items, such as smoothies. Allow them to add chopped veggies to scrambled eggs, or choose toppings for whole grain toast or cereal.

Noon Nibbles

Protein is important during the day, as it promotes fullness and growth and helps kids concentrate on learning instead of feeling hungry. A simple, healthy lunch to pack for school or eat at home may include a sandwich, wrap or salad containing lean protein from turkey or chicken. Pair these choices with plenty of fruits and veggies, such as carrots with hummus and an apple or banana. To help make lunchtime fun and interactive, pack ingredients separately so that kids can assemble their own lunches. Kids who eat lunch provided by school may not be getting all of the nutrients they need at noon. If necessary, supplement school lunch with some healthy items from home.

Dinner Decisions

Kids should eat enough at dinner to feel satisfied, but their meals shouldn't be loaded with carbohydrates or foods that are difficult to digest so close to bedtime. Dinner is an ideal teaching time, so involve kids them in the preparation process. Designate one night a week as "kids night," and challenge them to make healthy meals for the whole family. They can assemble their own veggie-loaded whole grain pizzas or spoon out the strings of spaghetti squash to make "pasta."

Snacks and Dessert

Because kids are constantly growing and moving, they get hungry in between meals. Unhealthy snack foods are appealing to kids, so providing healthy snacks should be a priority. Some examples of healthy snacks and desserts include raw veggies with hummus or yogurt dip, edamame, low-fat yogurt, or a piece of whole fruit. For dessert, serve trail mix with almonds and dried fruit, banana chocolate chip oatmeal cookies or fruit ice pops.

Variety Matters

When designing a healthy menu for kids, keep it creative 1. Take time to change the presentation of the nutritious ingredients you regularly prepare, and make it fun to eat healthy. Involve kids in the process and encourage them to try new foods and figure out their own preferences. Also, don't forget that part of the recipe for healthy kids is an hour of daily physical activity.