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  • Writer's pictureChickadee Contributor

Healthy Toddler Lunch & Snack Ideas (for Daycare)

Tired of packing the same thing every day for your toddler? It’s understandable. Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters, so your menu might be limited. Plus, their daycare may not offer refrigeration or re-heating for lunches and snacks.

It's important to send nutritious food that your toddler will eat so that they have the energy to feel good throughout their day. Here are a few key rules to keep in mind:

  • Don’t send new foods. Introduce new foods at home so you can monitor if they like them and have any difficulty eating them (chewing, holding, etc.).

  • Try to keep a variety of flavors, colors, and favorites.

  • Ask for specific feedback from teachers, specifically regarding the quantity of food you send.

  • Don’t overthink it if one day they eat everything and the next they don’t. It’s very normal for their appetite to vary widely.

  • Always cut and serve foods in sizes that your toddler can handle.

  • Remember that they may eat differently at daycare than they do at home. Use that to your advantage to serve certain foods for lunch and different foods for dinner.

Here are some ways to stay creative and serve your kids healthy meals and snacks.

Why are Toddlers Picky Eaters?

Are you wondering why that baby of yours, who ate almost everything you put in front of them, is now refusing anything you serve? You’re not alone. Almost all children between ages two and six go through some form of picky eating.

The theory is that evolutionarily there is a correlation between when children start walking and when they start being pickier about food. They are newly toddling around and exploring which means they are more likely to accidentally eat something that they shouldn’t. An innate pickiness may help toddlers without much food experience distinguish between what they can eat and what they shouldn’t put in their mouth.

Healthy Toddler Lunch Ideas for Daycare

Play the Hits: Classic Lunch Ideas

Sandwiches! If your toddler can pick up a sandwich properly and knows how to bite and tear, this is a great lunch addition. Here are some classic flavor combinations.

  • Peanut butter and jelly

  • Ham and cheese

  • Cream cheese and jam

  • Avocado and turkey

  • Hummus and tomato

  • Banana and almond butter

  • Tuna salad

Pizza! Whether it’s leftovers from the night before or just melted cheese on toast, there are many ways to use the pizza format but add variety. Here are some ways to change up your pizzas for more variety and nutrition.

  • Use a different “dough” – use sliced bread, English muffins, tortilla, rolls, burger buns as the base.

  • Add a secret ingredient – broccoli florets, diced mushrooms, or bell peppers may go (mostly) unnoticed if they are underneath melted cheese.

  • Change the “sauce” – if tomato sauce is getting tired, try barbeque sauce, alfredo, cream of mushroom soup, olive oil, or pesto.

  • Make it in a different shape – the same ingredients can look very different if prepared a new way. Make pizza muffins: lay your pizza dough flat and add toppings; roll the dough up into a log; cut into 1-inch rounds, place each round (spiral side up) in a muffin tin then bake. You can also cut the dough into sticks, or fold them up into crescent rolls or calzones before baking.

Pasta! Consistency is huge for toddlers and that’s why many of them love pasta. It’s a very recognizable food that always tastes the same. Find a few pasta shapes that your toddler finds easier to eat, and cycle through them often. Here are a few pasta additions to try.

  • Tomato and cooked peppers (chunky or pureed into sauce)

  • Pesto sauce (add kale, broccoli, or avocado to your sauce, it’ll be camouflaged!)

  • Mushroom and onions (caramelized and cooked down)

  • Bacon or ham chunks

  • Antipasti (salami, mozzarella, peppers, and olives chopped up)

  • Mac and cheese

  • Broccoli rice (cooked and chopped up)

  • Meatballs (or ground beef)

  • Chicken parmesan

  • Winter squash (blend with cheese and you can’t tell the difference!)

Breakfast for Lunch! Tired of making sandwiches? There are so many breakfast foods that translate well to lunch too. Here are a few ideas.

  • Hard-boiled egg, cut into slices

  • Muffins or loaf bread (make your own to add in some veggies)

  • Frozen waffles with maple/yogurt dip

  • Overnight oats

  • Zucchini cakes (or carrot)

  • Fruit and veggie smoothies

  • Yogurt and granola

  • Dry cereal with dried fruit

  • Pancakes

  • Egg and cheese roll up or burrito

  • Cottage cheese and fruit

  • Avocado toast

Add Lots of Color: Easy Fruits and Veggies for Lunches

The best rule of thumb to make sure your kids get adequate variety and nutrition is to “eat the rainbow.” By adding a variety of colors to their lunches you not only keep it fun, but make sure they have the right kind of energy throughout their day.

  • Cut up fruit (apple, melon, pineapple, mango, peach, plum, pear)

  • Orange or clementine segments

  • Berries

  • Grapes (cut in half)

  • Fruit cups (premade or homemade)

  • Shredded carrots

  • Cooked broccoli

  • Cucumber or bell pepper spears

  • Tomato wedges

  • Sweet potato fries

  • Zucchini noodles

  • Cooked carrots

  • Cauliflower rice

  • Frozen peas or corn, thawed overnight

Add any dips they love to make it more fun: ranch, ketchup, mild barbecue sauce, queso, guacamole, cream cheese, mild salsa, mustard, salad dressing, hummus.

Dried or freeze-dried fruits are also a great substitute, especially during months when fresh produce isn’t abundant (or is more expensive).

Frozen fruits and veggies are a great way to keep up variety and eliminate too much waste.

Alterations: Lunch Variations That Work

Many kids love a few very specific types of food, but they may get tired of eating them in the same way, day after day. Changing how you serve these foods might help get them interested again.

Here are some lunch variations to try:

  • Serve it naked – if your kid loves turkey, cheddar sandwiches, take the meat and cheese out and serve them on their own, rolled up, cubed, or on a skewer. Pair with crackers, French toast sticks, or waffles.

  • Make it sushi – if your kid loves peanut butter and banana, try rolling those ingredients into a tortilla. Cut it up into rounds and serve. This also works with meat and cheese. You can buy whole wheat or spinach tortillas.

  • Deconstruct it – if your kid loves pizza, take all the ingredients and serve them separately, Lunchables style. Shredded cheese, tomato dipping sauce, and breadsticks might be super fun for them to eat. This also works with a dry-cereal snacking plate, or deconstructed burrito.

  • Go for convenience – there is no shame in buying pre-made lunches. There are so many versions out there. Bars and pouches are also great supplements to any homemade packed lunch.

Toddler Lunch Recipes and Resources

There are many sites that offer recipes and lunch ideas for toddlers. Here are a few

Each site has its own strengths, but the common theme is that there are many ways creative ways to pack delicious and healthy food for your kids every single day.

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