Lunchtime—especially lunchtime with toddlers—can feel overwhelming and frustrating as a parent. You want to make sure your little one is eating a healthy, well-balanced meal without the risk of a midday temper tantrum.
If you’re struggling to get your tiny human to venture outside of a PB&J or are looking for unique ways to incorporate more healthy foods into their lunch, you’re not alone. To help, we chatted with Registered Dietitian Leonila Campos, MBA, RD, LD. She shares her best advice for approaching mealtime, plus her favorite healthy, easy-to-pack and easy-to-keep-fresh toddler lunch ideas.
Packing a Healthy Lunch for Your Toddler: 6 Tips
Whether you're packing a lunch for the park, daycare or preschool here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Add balanced meals: “Make sure to add balanced meals—protein, fruits or vegetables, whole grains and high calcium foods,” Leonila suggests.
- Switch it up: Leonila says that it’s important to expose our kiddos to a variety of foods. Doing this increases the opportunity for them to try new foods. Try to avoid packing the same thing for lunch every week.
- Avoid high sugar, high-fat and too-processed foods: Foods that are high in fat and too processed (think cream cheese or chicken nuggets) should try to be avoided. These foods do not provide a lot of nutrition and take the place of more nutritious foods.
- Use apps to help you: One app some GoodBuy Gear parents love to use in the store to check on pre-made food is called YUKA. By scanning the bar code, it gives you a score out of 100 on how good or bad the item is and why. You'd be very surprised to see what's in you and your little one’s food!
- Keep portions in mind: “Remember that toddler portions are very small in comparison to adult portions. Knowing how much children eat, is important to not overwhelm them with too much food,” Leonila says.
- Replace sugar: To make meals more healthy while still yummy, you can replace sugar with banana or applesauce in most things (like muffins) for kids.
13 Healthy and Easy Lunch Ideas for Toddlers
Packing a lunch for your kiddo shouldn’t be complicated. Here are a few healthy and easy toddler lunch ideas Leonila recommends to get you started.
- Noodles with tomato sauce, chicken tenders and broccoli
- Soft taco with lean ground turkey, smashed avocado, cheese and shredded lettuce
- Chickpea patty, cauliflower and whole grain crackers
- Nut butter, banana whole grain roll (whole wheat tortilla), strawberries and yogurt
- Natural mac and cheese, soft turkey meatballs and a soft pear
- Whole grain mini pizza (lots of toppings here) and apple sauce
- Egg muffins with spinach and cheese and thin cucumber rounds
- Homemade crispy baked fish sticks, dipping sauce, peas and carrots
- Sandwich on a stick—piece of bread, ham, cheese, cherry tomatoes (diced) and lettuce
- Cheese and turkey quesadilla, blueberries and mandarin oranges
- Nut butter and jelly roll-ups with a side of fresh fruit (like blueberries, kiwi and raspberries) and cheese cubes
- Mini naan or pita, hummus and mixed veggies
- Turkey pinwheels with a side of broccoli
Other Toddler Lunch Ideas Recommended by Parents
The parents at GoodBuy Gear know how hard it can be to prepare a healthy snack or toddler meal that not only is yummy and kid-friendly, but that is healthy and will travel well. Here are some snack and lunch ideas our team recommends:
- “Since my toddler twins were in preschool full day, their lunches were packed! I took little Tupperware and put different foods in them. Favorites are sugar snap peas (I think since they have a fun crunch), hard-boiled eggs, yogurt tubes and apple slices.” — Allison Khurana, mom of twin boys and the CRO at GoodBuy Gear
- “Packing lunches stresses me out. ha! But my go-to is banana and peanut butter rollup. Kids love it and super easy. I cut up veggies on Sunday (store them in water as it's supposed to keep them fresh?) and add to the lunch along with cut up fruit (berries/apple).” — Kristin Langenfeld, mom of two and the CEO & Co-Founder of GoodBuy Gear
- “We're following French recommendations for our daughter's meals. In France, a healthy lunch is composed of 4 ounces of veggies, 3 ounces of carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, rice...), 1oz of protein, yogurt and fruit. One thing she loves: Cauliflower, sweet potato and cheddar nuggets. We try to avoid sugar as much as we can, so I also cook her applesauce and almond flour muffins. You can also freeze them to make your life easier.” — Aude de Taisne, mom of one and the Product Manager at GoodBuy Gear
How To Make Lunch More Exciting for Your Toddler
To make lunch more exciting for your toddler, Leonila suggests involving your little one in the preparation of the meal. “Children love to do hands-on activities,” she says. You can involve them in the process by helping them mix food, scoop servings and prepare the plate.
How to Pack a Lunch for Daycare or Preschool
When it comes to packing food for daycare or preschool, food safety should be top of mind. Here are a few toddler-friendly tips recommended by Leonila and other GBG parents:
- Avoid hot foods when possible: Hot food should be kept at or above 140 degrees Fahrenheit and should not be left out for more than one hour to avoid the “danger zone”.
- Use ice packs: Cold foods should be kept below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. When packing cold foods, include ice packs in your little one’s lunch box to keep the food cold enough.
- Know which foods do not pack well: Certain foods like bananas and cut-up avocados will spoil quickly and will look unappealing come lunchtime.
- Cut up food as much as possible: Cutting up into bite-sized pieces is key! This not only makes it easier for our little ones to eat the food, but it is especially important if they don’t have any teeth.
- Make multiples: To save yourself some time, our team recommends making multiples at the beginning of the week and then freezing them to be used throughout the week.
Preparing Lunch for a 1 vs. 2 Vs. 3-Year-Old
There are some important things to keep in mind when preparing food for your toddler at each age. Leonila says that textures and safety are important. “It all depends on your little one's developmental stage,” she says. Most toddlers can use their pincer grasp to pick up things, however, some may not know how to use utensils yet. It’s important to teach your little one how to use utensils as this can help improve their coordination.
"Choking prevention is important at any stage,” she says. So it’s critical to make sure foods are soft to chew. For example, foods like grapes and cherry tomatoes should be cut lengthwise.
How To Handle Picky Eaters
“Picky eating is normal in children,” says Leonila. “Children go through autonomy stages and want to have more control of what they do. Establishing rules around what is served and giving them options for 1-2 foods they want to explore is a way to help them try different foods.”
Leonila goes on to say that as parents we are in charge of what we provide and serve to our children. They are in charge of how much they eat. She suggests giving your picky eater a role when grocery shopping to get them excited and keep them involved. You can have them pick out a certain color food—like a yellow vegetable or green fruit.
Just like picking out the right gear for your children can feel like trial and error, so can packing their lunch. Pick a few of the recipes above and see what your toddler likes and go from there. Try to make the process fun by having them help you in the kitchen or grocery store. They may be a lot more inclined to eat something if they had a hand in the process.
Need some more help? Check out our Feeding Assortment for all the gear you need to keep your little one happy and healthy.
About Leonila Campos, MBA, RD
Leonila is the founder and owner of Fueled by Leo, inc. Leonila is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in nutrition education. Leonila has a passion for helping her community create healthy and sustainable eating habits that are family centered. Leonila is a mother of two young boys and she understands the importance of teaching young children where food comes from and how food helps their bodies grow and develop. Leonila and her sister, Maria, who is a certified personal trainer developed a camp- Fit and Nourished, to teach children about movement and nutrition in a fun way.