My friend and fellow dietitian Holley Grainger packs lunch throughout the week for her two girls, ages 4 and 2. 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.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 50 Healthy Preschool Snack Ideas
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!).
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).
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.