My friend and fellow dietitian Holley Grainger packs lunch throughout the week for her two girls, ages 4 and 2. She also takes photos of the lunches she packs and posts them for inspiration (check out #healthylittlelunchbox on Instagram!). I’m always amazed at how well she balances the nutritional needs of her two little ones with variety and fun–and so many of her lunch box photos make me say, “That’s a good idea!” So I asked her to share some of her preschool and toddler lunch box ideas, plus her best tips, with all of you.
Healthy Lunch Ideas For Toddlers And Preschoolers
by Holley Grainger, MS, RD
My girls, Ellie and Frances, tend to be “choosy” when it comes to what they eat. But I’ve found that lunch is definitely when they eat the most food, as well as the best variety. Maybe it’s from peer pressure–or maybe they’re just hungrier midday.
Either way, I take advantage of their undivided attention to provide a wide variety of nutritious foods. In this post, I’ve shared 20 of my favorite lunchbox concepts with you as well as what I call the “ABCs of Lunchbox Packing”.
The first five lunch boxes have a few concepts that are a bit more like an actual “recipe” than just finger (or favorite) foods. They also reintroduce some foods (specifically vegetables) that the girls have rejected in the past, like bell peppers, asparagus, black beans, and tomatoes.
The end-of-the-day results from these lunches: one ate almost everything (minus the peppers), and the other didn’t.
I’m not telling you this so you’ll wonder why I’m not sharing 100% no-fail lunchbox ideas with you. I’m sharing because I want you to know that as moms, we all are faced with many of the same challenges around the table (or, in this case, lunchbox), and there just isn’t one perfect meal (or lunchbox) prescription.
It is up to us as parents to offer variety, color, and, of course, fun, so our little ones learn to grow and cultivate an appreciation for food.
What to Pack in the Lunchbox: Lunch Ideas for Toddlers!
- Southwest Quinoa (quinoa tossed with corn, black beans, avocado, and chopped tomato), chicken breast, ½ and ½ Greek yogurt (½ plain and ½ strawberry), steamed broccoli, grapefruit
- Apples with sunflower seed butter, mini bell peppers, low-sodium turkey rollups, pickles, dried cranberries
- Graham cracker and peanut butter sandwich, “Dippable Salad” (thanks Sally for the idea!) with butter lettuce, rainbow carrots, and ranch, Pirate’s Booty, cheddar cheese, dark chocolate square
- Mini Veggie Quiche, raspberries, string cheese, low-sodium turkey, pistachios (I swapped pistachios for raisins for my 2yo since nuts are a choking hazard for toddlers.)
- “White Out” Lunchbox: Kitchen Sink Couscous (couscous with feta, zucchini, rainbow carrots, and asparagus), apples, grilled chicken, ½ and ½ Greek yogurt (½ plain and ½ vanilla), white chocolate chips
- Fruit salad, low-sodium ham rolls, brown rice, brownie, green beans
- Breakfast for Lunch: homemade whole grain chocolate chip pancakes, maple syrup, plain Greek yogurt with strawberry yogurt heart, and a happy (stickers)
- Hummus and veggie skewers, chicken breast, pears, whole grain O’s, happy (Cinderella sticker)
- Honeydew melon, hard-cooked egg, cottage cheese, whole grain pretzels, a note from Mommy
- Applesauce pouch, graham cracker, low-sodium ham, green beans, noodles
- Mini Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Muffins, grapefruit, low-sodium turkey, English cucumber, ranch
- Sunflower Seed Butter and Strawberry Wafflewich, hard-cooked egg, grapes (cut in small pieces for toddler), love note from Mommy
- Greek yogurt pouch, low-sodium turkey, strawberries, bell peppers, and carrots with ranch
- Penne noodles with tomato sauce, carrot sticks, grapes, cheddar cheese, dark chocolate chips
- Hawaiian roll ham sandwich, cucumbers, and bell peppers, homemade marshmallow, graham cracker, hummus
- Carrots and hummus, low-sodium turkey rolls, mandarin orange, fig cookie bar, note from Mommy
- Sunflower seed quesadillas, English cucumbers, plain Greek yogurt with pomegranate arils, cheddar bunnies, hummus
- Yogurt pouch, whole grain pretzels, mandarin orange, noodles, cheddar cheese
- Chicken and cheese skewers, watermelon, Gluten Free Peanut Butter Banana Bread Muffins,
- Pancakes with maple syrup, cottage cheese with cinnamon, apple ribbons, carrot coins
Tips for Preschool and Toddler Lunches
Aim for Balance: While some lunches may miss a food group here and there, I always aim for a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and protein (from either lean meat or dairy and sometimes both) in each box.
I don’t always include a dessert like a cookie or candy but sometimes I do and I’m okay with it. Again, it’s all about balance. If I miss a food group in the lunchbox, I make sure we make it up at another time of day such as an extra veggie at dinner or whole grain cereal with milk or yogurt at breakfast.
Bring in the Kids: In the same way that Sally and other feeding experts recommend, involving your children in lunchbox planning and preparation is key increasing their knowledge and acceptability of food.
If it were up to my girls, they would have yogurt, waffles, chicken nuggets, and strawberries for every meal. And if you scroll through my lunchbox pictures, it is likely that we have one that looks like that.
Since the girls are still young, I often give them choices to help guide what we pack (i.e. blueberries or apple; carrots or cucumber). At other times, they may just help to put everything in its place and close the box (that’s a big job for a 2 year old!).
Chill: As a mom, it can get stressful when I see food returned home uneaten. However, I don’t let myself get upset because I believe in the power of repeated exposure to the same foods (something my very smart mommy mentor, Sally, has taught me).
If something didn’t work, give it a few days (or even a few weeks) and try it again at another time. Allow yourself time to plan and pack lunches on the weekend or the night before so your mornings are more relaxed.
What’s the Best Lunchbox for Toddlers?
About the Lunchbox: The lunch boxes we’ve used this year are called Bentgo Kids (my affiliate link). I like them because they offer five individual slots for food, dips, or treats similar to another popular lunchbox brand (and another one of my faves), Planetbox. This allows me to offer lots of options in small portions versus one larger entrée and possibly a side (similar to how adults may eat).
For more tips and lunchbox concepts, check out my most recent lunch box post, 125 Healthy Lunchboxes for Kids.
Holley Grainger, MS, RD is a nationally recognized nutrition and lifestyle expert, who has instructed millions of home cooks on how to make simple, fast and healthy meals through her online videos, media appearances and writing.
I’ve looked at those lunch boxes for my kids. Like the separate sections, a good reminder to include each food group. How do you keep it cold though? With deli meat/dairy, I want to make sure it stays at a safe food temperature. Thanks.
Also, up to what age do you think the serving sizes are large enough for. Would it work for a 7/8 year old?
The box itself is not insulated however it keeps cold food cold for hours. I usually try to pack lunches the night before, refrigerate them in the box and then pack the cold box in the insulated punchbag. When the girls eat (around 11:30), the boxes and the contents are still cold. However, Bentgo makes ice packs that are the same size as the box that fit perfectly into a lunchbag and help to keep the food cold. I use these on warm days or when i take the lunches out with us for picnics and they won’t be in an air conditioned building.
Also, I definitely think the servings could work for an 8year old. Unlike Planetbox and some other popular lunchboxes, these compartments are very deep so it is hard to judge size based on overhead shots. Some days I fill the compartments more than others so it may depend on your child’s appetite. While my girls are just 2 and 4, I feel like there is plenty of room to add more food as they grow. I hope this helps!
They make special ones for these lunch boxes!!!
Great find-thanks Brianna!
Thank you for sharing, Sally!
This might be a silly question, but do your children eat the whole bento box for their lunch and thrn have separate containers with snacka or do they keep some of the food in the box for their snacks? My daughter is in JK and has a morning snack, lunch, and then an afternoon snack. I’m just wondering how convenient the bento box is as opposed to having snacks in separate containers from her lunch.
Sorry for the typos. Typing with one hand while breastfeeding twins!
Supermom–typing and breastfeeding twins!! I’m impressed! This is what I use for their lunch. On the days when my daughter stays after school for soccer, I usually include another snack in her school bag or insulated lunch bag. Depending on her appetite, you may be able to stretch it for all 3 but it might get confusing to her as far as what is “snack” and what is “lunch.” Last year I used the stackable Rubbermaid lunchbox containers and really liked those. I usually use those to hold snacks (or a zip top baggie).
All this made me cry. Working 2 crappy jobs also with 2 young daughters in day care I have neither the money or the time to do all this for my girls. For now they will have to get along on what I can pack for lunches and I hope they don’t get made fun of because the rich kids have these really fancy lunch things. This makes me feel just terrible because I don’t have the budget to care for my babies in this way. I would be embarrassed to have anyone take a picture of even one of the lunches I pack. This is so terribly depressing I just feel like giving up. It seems clear the girls would be better off without such a terrible mother.
Oh my gosh, this comment makes me want to cry and reach through the computer to give you a big hug. Please know that sharing these lunchbox ideas in no way, shape, or form are meant to induce feelings of guilt or make you feel like a bad mother. These ideas are meant to be inspirational for all budgets (many of the lunches use canned and frozen produce, leftovers from previous meals, etc). It sounds like you are doing an amazing job of caring for your girls–2 jobs, 2 in daycare, packing lunches and just doing what it takes to keep everyone alive!! I volunteered one day during lunchtime at my daughter’s school and saw that 13 of the 15 children brought their lunches in baggies and most in a brown bag. We do that too on many days. Part of my job and livelihood as a culinary dietitian is from taking pictures of lunches (hence the boxes) to help give ideas for balance and nutrition. Every day is very different for us just like every child and every family is very different. Keep up the good work!
You are a great mom!! Caring about your kids is the most important thing. My son takes peanut butter sandwiches and fruit for lunch most days. You’re doing a great job and you sound like Super Mom to me!
Tatiana, you’re doing great. Your kids are cared for and, most importantly, loved. Feed them the best, healthiest food you can and they’ll be fine! It doesn’t matter what it’s packed in.
Tatiana I don’t know if my comment is a bit late, but ivoukd really relate to you. I find it stressful sending my daughter to nursery because of feeling the pressure to give her food that she will eat and by other parents and teachers standards seems healthy. One big tip for super busy mums is to make up lunch for the whole week and freeze it during the weekend. Like chicken, shredded carrots, mushrooms with Italian spices, add cooked pasta and cheese. Fruit can be apples peeled and cubes or melon dew, and it keeps in the fridge well, make 5 pots, give a pot of yoghurt and a small bottle of flavoured milk. Bulk buy for the whole week. You can mix it up with other veg and fruit and just freeze it. Do whatever’s easiest for you. The most important thing is that your kids are FED, they’re not hungry.
How do you test to see if your toddler can chew something safely? Just by whether they spit it out or not? So, for example, I’m trying to figure out when my little guy can start munching on raw carrots sticks instead of me having to steam them.
I’m a little confused about the temperature of the foods. It seems like some of them would be better heated up, like the pasta and quesadilla. Do they just end up around room temperature?
Fortunately, our school will heat up the food if desired. So usually pasta will be reheated. The “quesadilla” is sunflower seed butter and jelly on a tortilla so no necessary there. Usually most of my lunches don’t require heating since many schools don’t offer that option.
Can you share links to all your recipes? The oatmeal muffins and the pancakes?