The first morning my daughter started daycare I had to pack her lunch, and I was suddenly paralyzed by a lack of appropriate lunch ideas for toddlers. It’s not that I was sending her off with anything different than she would eat at home, but having to organize her meal ahead of time and place it in to-go containers made the whole process feel overwhelming.
In the six months since she started daycare, I’ve become a pro at throwing together a real food lunch (plus snacks) in five minutes or so. It all comes down to having a variety of foods on hand to mix and match. Toddlers can be picky – understatement of the year – and I find providing small portions of five to six different foods is the best way to ensure she’ll eat a decent meal.
The foods below also work for dinner, breakfast, and lunch at home. I find it so easy to throw together her lunch in the morning that I often prepare her lunch ahead of time on home days, as well. This way, when she’s hungry and grumpy before nap, I can quickly pop her lunch out of the fridge and we’re ready to go.
To make sure my little one is getting a variety of nutrients, I select from proteins, fats, and carbs. I don’t have a set formula or anything, and I value her innate abilities to know what she needs to eat, but I do make sure that I’m offering at least an option or two for each with every meal.
Everything on this list is a real, whole food that is not refined and is easy for a toddler to eat. Some foods are processed, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with processing per say, it’s the refinement I try to avoid. I have also avoided any nuts on this list. While our daycare is not nut free, nor is our family, many of the play spaces we frequent are. I respect that rule and generally keep nut consumption to home only, as I can’t imagine the stress of having a child with an anaphylactic allergy.
Lunch Ideas for Toddlers: Proteins
1) Meatballs are a favorite around because I can make a giant batch (like three to four pounds of ground meat) and have many lunches ready to go with just one prep session. If you freeze on a cookie sheet before storing, meatballs are easy to defrost individually. I also find them a great way to introduce different spices and flavors. The cookbook Well Fed 2 has 15 meatball recipes and we enjoy them all.
2) Canned salmon is a great option to keep in the pantry for last minute protein needs. It’s full of Omega 3 fats in addition to protein and the bone-in variety is one of the best sources of calcium available per serving.
3) Turkey lunch meat often gets a bad rap as ‘processed’, but there are many brands the provide a quality product. At my Costco I find organic sliced turkey with salt and no other ingredients. Check what’s available at your store – you might be surprised! I often roll these up with a veggie, dip, or avocado in the center.
4) Sausages and hot dogs, similar to lunch meat, are often viewed as not real food. But again, look at the quality of meat and added ingredients. We find plenty of grass fed and/or organic options with only added spices at Costco and Whole Foods. These are great to stock up on for freezing and defrosting overnight.
5) Beans are a relatively new food to our diet (I avoided for years due to digestive issues) and my daughter seems to love them. I like to soak overnight, batch cook them in the Instant Pot, and freeze in small portions.
6) Quinoa is a great plant-based food that contains all nine essential amino acids. As with beans, I soak overnight before cooking. Soaking helps beans and grains to be more easily digested; I always recommend soaking when possible, especially for little ones. My daughter likes her quinoa tossed with olive oil and a little sea salt.
7) Eggs may not sound like a lunch food, but a scrambled or poached egg works great on the go. I realized this when I got tired of tossing my daughter’s uneaten eggs from breakfast and instead started adding them to her lunchbox. Her care provided has mentioned they’re one of the first things she’ll eat at lunch time. If you’re kid is not a big meat eater or you’re looking for something nutrient dense and filling, a simple egg is a great option.
Lunch Ideas for Toddlers: Carbs
8) Root veggies are a go-to in our house. They don’t get mushy when cooked and are filling. To save myself time, I buy frozen (sweet potatoes, potatoes, carrots, beets, etc.) and sauté in ghee or coconut oil for a few minutes. I only cook as much as we need for a day or two as I’m generally not a huge fan of leftover cooked vegetables. No need to cook the whole bag at once!
9) Peas are fun for toddlers. Like root veggies, I buy them frozen. I quickly boil a single serving and usually toss with a little butter and salt.
10) Veggie ‘strips’, or any veggie I can cut into strips like carrots, cucumbers, celery, and bell peppers are another great veggie option. If your kiddo is ready, serve them with a dip.
11) Pickles are one of my daughter’s favorite foods. We typically do spears, and I try to get the Bubbies dill pickles, which are fermented and full of probiotic goodness. I wrap in a paper towel which absorbs a lot of the juice and makes them less messy.
12) Seaweed snacks are a huge hit with little kids and an awesome source of minerals that we don’t get a ton of in our diets. I prefer to buy the SeaSnax brand as it’s made without vegetable oil (read more on why we avoid vegetable oil).
13) Beet chips are… chips made from beets. I’ve made them myself by baking thinly sliced beets with a tiny bit of olive oil (too much and they are soggy) and sea salt, but Trader Joes sells ‘Just Beet’ chips that I keep on hand for when I don’t have time to cook veggies.
14) Berries are the easiest fruit to pack as they require no cutting or prep work. They are also quite expensive, and I find that the less expensive option, frozen berries, are a little too messy for daycare. We include berries when in season, and stick to other fruits and carbs the rest of the year.
15) Apples, in a few forms, work really well in lunches. My toddler doesn’t care if they turn brown, so we do a lot of apple slices. We also do applesauce. I try to skip buying the individual pouches (though I do sometimes) and instead use a jar of applesauce and our reusable pouches.
16) Mango chunks are usually a big hit and Costco sells organic mangos for a great price. I really don’t worry about the sugar content of fruit for kids because they burn through more sugar than adults do. If it’s in whole, non-refined form, I’m all for it.
17) Plantain chips are a great carb that feels like a treat (chips!) but are full of nutrients. My favorite brand is Inka, as they use better quality oil than some of the other brands I’ve seen. These are also great as a mom snack with my 60 second guacamole recipe.
18) Raisins are my shelf stable fruit option. I keep them on hand for times we run out of other fruit. I often mix them with coconut flakes for a take on trail mix.
19) Veg and fruit pouches are expensive, but I keep them around. They are a (mostly) guaranteed food that my kid will eat, and when I’m really pressed for time, I can toss them in her lunch. I try to save them for when we’ll be out all day without access to refrigeration, but sometimes they end up at daycare.
20) Rice is an easy carb to include in a lunch box. I try to beef up the nutritional value by making it with broth instead of water and adding a few spices or chopped herbs. I rarely make this specifically for her lunch, but if we have leftovers from dinner it makes its way into the lunch box.Need ideas for toddler lunches? Try these 25 real foods that are easy, healthy, and toddler approved.Click To Tweet
Lunch Ideas for Toddlers: Fats
21) Olives are our favorite fat. And by ‘our’ I mean my daughter, because olives are the one food in the world I can not choke down. I wish I could – such a convenient, healthy fat! But I can’t. Anyway, I love to buy sliced olives because then it’s as easy as opening and draining a can.
22) Coconut flakes are fun because they feel like a snacky food and who doesn’t love a snack? You can buy sweetened or unsweetened. I find that my kiddo is fine with unsweetened so I skip the added sugar.
23) Avocado chunks are not the cleanest food, but my daughter loves them and I include them pretty frequently in her lunch. If I’m feeling fancy (like once), I toss them with a tiny bit of salt and lime juice.
24) Full fat yogurt is a great way to get healthy fats into a kiddo. I opt for a local brand that sweetens with honey, as many yogurts end up being more sugar than fat. If at all possible, find yogurt made from grass fed cows. I buy a large container and use our reusable pouches to serve.
25) Sunbutter is a nut-free butter made from sunflower seeds that is fun for apple or veggie dipping, or just eating plain if you’re my kid. Find it at your local store, on Amazon, or try this homemade version. You can find both sweetened and unsweetened options.
Our Favorite Containers for Lunches on the Go
There are tons of products out there for packing a kiddo’s lunch. I prefer reusable so that I’m not wasting a bunch of plastic bags, and I like bento boxes so that I can pack her entire lunch in one container. Here are some of our favorites:
- PlanetBox (1): My favorite bento box for lunch packing, but also the most expensive. The toddler friendly, stainless steel Rover from PlanetBox retails for around $50. It has a five year warranty and you can swap out a new sticker set ($10) yearly to make it more exciting. Our Rover is easy to clean and we’ve never had a leak problem. You can’t put non-solid food directly in it, but it comes with two small containers for storing dips, purees, sauces, etc.
- YumBox (2): Another great bento style box at a lower price point (about $30). It’s plastic and BPA-free, BPS-free, and phthalates-free. The best part of Yumbox is the silicone seal, which allows you to put foods the consistency of applesauce or yogurt directly in the box without spillage or leaking into other compartments. It takes slightly more time to clean than PlanetBox, but it’s pretty negligible in the long run.
- LunchBots (3): I’ve had a set of the Uno, Duo (shown in the photo), and Trio for over five years and I use them all the time for storing foods and my own lunches. I don’t prefer them for toddler lunches as much as the first two, but if you’re looking for something that will really grow with your child through the years, these are a good option. The quality is top notch. I totally throw them in the dishwasher and they show no wear after all this time.
- Reusable Pouches (4): I love reusable pouches for applesauce, yogurt, etc. I’m able to buy larger containers which save money and produce less waste. And these are by far the least messy way for a toddler to eat foods of this consistency. I currently do not make my own fruit and veggies purees. I tried once, but it was NOT toddler approved and I haven’t tried again. I can’t take that kind of rejection.
- Reusuable Snack Bags (5): I recently picked up a few reusable snack bags from Bumpkins as I’m trying (emphasis on trying) to buy less packaged foods for snacking. I’ve been using these to store bulk nuts, coconut flakes, raisins, etc. Anything dry that won’t leak out of them. They are great to throw in my purse for emergency snacks.
- Ice Packs (6): I love how slim the Chilly Packs ice packs are. They don’t take up much space in the freezer or in a lunch bag. I use these to keep our lunch cool if we’re going on an adventure or if I’m working from a coffee shop or outside the house for the day.
These are the most frequently eaten lunch foods around here for the toddler, and the products I use to pack them when we’re not eating at home. The bottom line is, keeping a variety of real foods on hand makes it easier for me to make lunch and more likely that my daughter will eat at least one or two of the foods I offer.
What are your favorite real food toddler lunch foods? Leave them in the comments!