Easy & Healthy Toddler Lunch Ideas for Daycare, Preschool or Home

November 7th, 2011

Maya has always been a good eater, thanks to baby-led weaning, but it seems pretty much as soon as she’s hit the age of one she seems to have lost her appetite a bit. She still eats a lot at breakfast time (obviously must be hungry after 12 hours without food!) but lunch time has become increasingly hit and miss with her often refusing to eat more than a few bites.

Lunch for Maya up until now has been usually rice, some kind of meat and fish with vegetables and fruit for pudding, sometimes yogurt. Now she’s really not so interested in her food and doesn’t want to stay in her high chair for longer than five minutes I’ve begun to realize I need to be a bit more creative in planning her lunches.

Maya enjoying her lunch

Maya enjoying her lunch

Healthy toddler lunches are not difficult to achieve but it’s easy to be persuaded into buying some of the convenience foods that are marketed at young children and full of additives and salt. I was horrified when looking for new meal ideas for Maya to find an ‘ideal’ toddler lunch menu for the day that included store-bought chicken nuggets and hotdogs! While I’m certainly no health food freak and Maya does have the odd chicken nugget when we’re out and a biscuit here and there, I do try and cook as much of her food from scratch as possible and give her healthy fresh foods that are low in salt and sugar.

As a society we are conditioned to believe that small children don’t like vegetables and will only eat ‘kiddie’ foods like chicken nuggets, fries, pizza and so on. This is simply not true if you offer healthy foods from the beginning! Some of Maya’s favorite foods are green beans, peas, apples and plain rice. Even here in Indonesia where children eat rice from being young babies they are surprised to see Maya enjoying vegetables and say that she won’t like spicy food when in fact she gobbles it down without blinking an eyelid!

Offer your toddler a variety of healthy lunches and you may be surprised what he chooses to eat.

Easy Toddler Lunch Ideas

Finger foods are definitely the way to go when it comes to toddler lunches. While your baby may have sat happily in his high chair for an hour, you’re more likely to find that your independent toddler is squirming to get out after a few minutes as they want to be running round, playing and getting up to mischief. This is certainly the case with Maya!

It is much easier to make up some tasty finger foods that can be carried round and nibbled on at will. This way if your child wants to get up and play, they can eat at the same time. I do think it is important to include young children with meal times and I always try to eat at the same time as Maya but if she wants to get out of her high chair, I don’t force her to stay there. I definitely don’t agree with the Balinese method of having no family meal times and chasing children round while they play, forcing handfuls of rice into their mouth while they’re distracted!

Toddlers are also natural grazers so it may be worth rethinking the traditional 3 meals a day model and offering a series of smaller snacks instead. This is helpful for little tummies and keeps blood sugar levels steady which can in turn reduce the dreaded tantrums and improve your little one’s naps.

Any of the suggestions from my healthy toddler snacks post would also work well on a toddler lunch menu. Try to offer a selection of grains, fruit and vegetables, dairy and protein and remember to include healthy fats in ingredients like peanut butter and cheese.  Toddlers need a fairly high fat diet and therefore should only be offered ‘full fat’ versions of dairy foods and milk.

Some of Maya’s favorite toddler lunches are:

  • Sandwiches with different fillings, cut into small squares
  • Home-made breaded chicken strips served with rice balls and vegetables such as green beans and corn on the cob
  • Home-made pizza
  • Pasta shapes with mixed vegetables
  • Potato wedges and salad vegetables

Always followed by fruit: apple, watermelon, orange and papaya being favorites.

Toddler Lunch Ideas For Daycare

If your little one attends nursery, pre-school or daycare over lunch time and you need to provide a packed lunch, the same principles apply but try to make sure the food you choose will stay fresh without refrigeration and make sure no prohibited or easy-to-choke-on foods are included.

Offer a wide selection of foods as your toddler probably won’t eat everything and you won’t be there to supervise. A variety of different small snacks is better than one large portion of something and expect at least half of the lunch not to be eaten (unless your toddler is not at all picky about what they eat!).

Sandwiches are always a popular option. You can make them less boring by offering lots of different fillings on different days and varying the types of breads. For a change try wraps rolled up with a filling and cut into sushi-style rolls, filled pita bread or use large cookie cutters to make normal sandwiches into fun shapes. Mini pizzas are also a popular snack with young kids or just offer a selection of bite-size fillings with crackers.

If your toddler is bored of sandwiches, why not try a bento style lunch? Japanese mothers lovingly prepare lunch boxes for their children every morning filled with rice and healthy treats, shaped into bunny rabbits, flowers and amazing scenes. You may not be able to achieve as impressive bentos as the Japanese but the idea is to be creative, include lots of different healthy foods and make the whole thing visually appealing. Try it! You may surprise yourself.

Try the following list of toddler daycare lunch ideas if you’re out of inspiration:

  • Crackers spread with peanut butter or cream cheese
  • Pasta salad
  • Homemade chicken nuggets
  • Cheese cubes with cherry tomatoes, cucumber and olives
  • Vegetable sticks with hummus or other dip
  • Steamed vegetables with tasty dressing
  • Dried fruit
  • Rice crackers
  • Bread sticks with dip
  • Fresh fruit salad
  • Mini muffins
  • Yogurt

Always provide a bottle or sippy cup of water or some other kind of drink if your toddler won’t drink water. We have given Maya water since she was a baby and so she has never had a preference for juice or sweet drinks. If you do offer juice, dilute it as much as possible as it is one of the main causes of toddler tooth decay – you can wean your toddler off juice gradually by increasing the amount of water you mix with it. Milk is also an option but only if it can be kept refrigerated until lunch time. You should also limit the amount of milk your toddler drinks to less than 500ml per day or they may fill up on milk rather than other foods.

Toddler Lunch Boxes

Of course you’ll also need a suitable lunch box or bag to put your toddler’s lunch in if you are sending him off to daycare. A toddler lunch box should be easy to open with no fiddly catches or small parts that will be lost easily. There are some fun bright plastic lunch boxes with different compartments that are great for toddlers who like to pick at different foods.

Try to find a toddler lunch box with a matching insulated bag that will help to keep it cool and also make it easy and fun for your child to carry himself. There are lots of character design lunch boxes and bags so you can choose your toddler’s favorite character

Bento style lunch boxes also work great for toddler lunches as they have several inbuilt compartments and are usually on the smaller side so they are perfect for smaller appetites. I have a few bento boxes already that I bought when I was in Japan and I’ll definitely be using them for Maya when she starts nursery.

Here are some fun lunch boxes and lunch bags that I think would be great for toddlers:

Skip Hop Zoo Lunchie insulated bag

skip hop zoo lunchie insulated lunch bag

Dr Sears Nibble Tray

dr sears nibble tray

Goodbyn Lunchbox

goodbyn lunchbox

Tiered Panda Bento Box

tiered panda bento box

Fresh Baby So Easy divided lunch box

fresh baby lunchbox

This book is also great for lunch ideas if you are looking for some extra inspiration. Yes it is vegan but the ideas are great for anybody and there’s nothing to stop you throwing some extra meat or cheese in. Good for kids with allergies too: Vegan Lunch Box: 130 Amazing, Animal-Free Lunches Kids and Grown-Ups Will Love!


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