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I’ll be honest… this post was born out of my own personal need. I do my best to send a variety of things with my son to daycare for his lunch, but like all moms, I can easily find myself stuck in a rut and sending the same things over and over. So I wanted to compile a list of a lunchbox ideas for toddlers, so that I could always have something to refer to when I’m feeling like our variety is lacking. I hope it’s helpful for you too!
If you like the ideas listed in here, I created a free printable so you can keep it handy on the fridge when you’re planning or packing your lunches. Grab it HERE if you’re interested!
Before I get to the list itself, I should probably say a little bit how I structure his lunchbox meals. I wrote a post recently about balanced healthy meals for adults, but young kids have different needs than we do, so the approach needs to be slightly different. I still tend to lean toward whole foods, but as I hope you’ve come to understand if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, I’m also realistic and very non-dogmatic about it.
Food and eating doesn’t have to stress us out. We don’t need to worry about following a bunch of rules just because some guru or diet told us to. Yes, we want to do our best to cover our nutritional bases, but we don’t have to go crazy making everything from scratch or being afraid of packaged foods (because yes, good packaged food options exist).
So my laid back approach is this: provide things I know he likes, while being sure to include some type of protein source, some carbs, some fat, and some fruits and/or veggies. That’s pretty much the extent of it. No rules or guidelines about how much of the plate to dedicate to each, just try to cover your food group bases by including some of each.
And before you ask, no, he doesn’t always eat what I send. Sometimes he picks out and eats only one thing (usually the bread/carb) and just plays with the rest. I don’t stress about it (or at least, I try very hard not to, lol). As the lovely and super smart ladies over at Feeding Bytes say: I did my part (they even made it a hashtag in their Facebook group). I provided an array of options across various food groups, including things I know he usually likes. That’s my job, and the only part I can control. What he eats out of what’s sent, and how much, is up to him.
This “my job” and “his job” approach is known as the Division of Responsibility outlined by Ellyn Satter (and discussed in both of the great books I’ve reviewed here on the blog: Fearless Feeding and How to Raise A Mindful Eater). I try my best to put that into practice in our house and when sending food to daycare for my son. Do I do it “perfectly”? Nope. But I’m human, and humans are imperfect. I’m constantly learning and growing and doing my best, and that’s really all that matters!
So back to the lunches. Fruit is my son’s favorite thing ever, so I always include some type of fruit as a side. Then I try to check the boxes for protein, carb, and fat. Check out the lists below for details!
Our daycare is nut-free, so that’s why all of these options have no nuts. I’ve actually never tried sunbutter, since we are a house full of peanut butter lovers, and we don’t have allergies to it (thankfully!). But I plan to get some soon specifically for daycare meals. Pretty much all of the ideas below can be eaten cold. Most daycares don’t have a way to reheat things, so my typical go-to of leftovers from the previous night’s dinner doesn’t work when packing a lunch.
Some kids don’t care if certain things are hot or not (like quesadillas, pancakes, or previously cooked veggies). Other kids will only eat them hot. You have to use your own knowledge of what your particular kid will and won’t eat. I tried to keep these as simple as possible.
I use these lunchbox containers (affiliate link) because they’re cheap and they don’t have a bazillion compartments. My only qualm about them is that they don’t seal super securely, so things could easily spill or leak depending on what you put in them. But for most of the stuff in this list they work very nicely for a very small investment.
Greek yogurt (full fat)
Low sodium sausage or hot dogs
Muffin or baked good
Grains - rice, bulgar, couscous, barley
(Sneaky ones inside morning glory muffins or zucchini bread)
Full fat yogurt or cottage cheese
Hummus (that has oil in it)
Ok, so that was the mix-n-match version. In practice, our lunches usually look like one “main” thing and one or two “side” things. I try to get the protein into the main food, and the sides are usually fruit and something to round out the main offering. Here are some examples:
Sandwiches (Including wraps, pinwheels, pitas, and english muffins). These usually have a protein and fat inside the carb sandwich exterior:
Pasta salad with veggies
Meat+cheese or spinach+cheese tortellini
Whole grain waffle or pancake with fruit and/or sun butter
Chicken nuggets/fingers, or low-sodium hot dogs with ketchup
Quesadilla: fill with cheese and any of the following: beans, chicken, ground beef, cooked veggies, corn.
Rotisserie chicken pieces w/ bbq or ketchup to dip
Grains (couscous, barley, rice, etc) with veggies or beans mixed in
Morning glory muffins
Veggies (plain or with hummus or ranch for dipping)
Cheese sticks, babybels, or cheese cubes
Mini muffins or other baked good, like banana bread or zucchini bread
Hard boiled eggs
I hope this has been a helpful roundup that has inspired at least a couple new ideas for you! I am in a breakfast rut too, so I have a feeling I’ll be doing a breakfast version of this post fairly soon! Don't forget to grab your free printable!