Packing a Toddler Lunch for Daycare or Preschool
If you have a little one in daycare or preschool, you probably already know that packing snacks and lunch can be a project. I mean, do we really need to send them in with food every single day?? 😂
The repetition of it can be just… draining.
This is why it’s helpful (cough, understatement) to have some sort of step-by-step formula or plan for packing your toddler’s lunch. (This is also why meal planning will change your life…) There are a few different tricks in the book, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it, but I’ll share the method that we at Amara love to use when we’re packing lunch boxes for our own young kids — feel free to adapt these tips to your own family and child and do what works best for you.
At the end of the day, having some sort of MO for packing a toddler lunch will help streamline your mornings (or evenings, if you’re the type who does this the night before), relieve some stress, and help make sure your child is getting a great lunch to boot.
How to Pack a Toddler Lunch
There are two basic “rules” (hah) for packing a toddler’s lunch:
- Hit all the major food groups.
- Include a variety of options.
Also, adding 2.5: don’t stress! It doesn’t have to look IG-worthy or be perfect — you’re doing great, and don’t think anything otherwise.
Alright, let’s explore these two precepts a little bit:
Dieticians and nutrition scientists explain that when you’re packing lunch for a child, you want to try to include something from all the major groups.
We’ve written before about the healthy plate formula from Harvard’s School of Health, which is incredibly user-friendly and attainable. It goes like this:
- ½ lunch = fruits and veggies
- ¼ lunch = healthy whole grains
- ¼ lunch = healthy fats or dairy
Especially with the advent of bento boxes for toddlers, this really makes it pretty easy to break down the process and hit all the targets. If you have a 4-section bento box, lunch practically packs itself, hah!
Here are some easy staples in each group:
- Sliced apple/pear
- Banana (SO easy!)
- Cooked carrots
- Cucumber slices
- Sliced cherry tomatoes
Healthy whole grains (add “whole grain” to the beginning of this entire list!):
- English muffin
- Oatmeal or cereal
- Nuts/nut butter/seed butter (if your daycare/school allows)
*By the way, if your little one is still eating purees, take a peek at Amara organic baby food’s daycare favorites bundle — these are SO easy to prep and pack and just as nutritious and flavorful as whole foods. This variety pack features fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains plus yummy, melt-in-your-mouth toddler yogurt snacks.
If the above fruit/veggie/whole grains/dairy approach works well for you, that’s great. If you’re not into that, another way to approach things is to include something from each of the three macronutrient categories — protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fat.
Here are some of our top go-to’s in each macronutrient category:
- Small pieces of cut/shredded meat or fish
- Eggs (frittata muffins, omelets, hard boiled eggs, scrambled eggs)
- Yogurt (or dairy-free yogurt)
- Legumes (canned beans, edamame, hummus)
- Tofu (read more about babies and soy here)
- Nuts/nut butter/seed butter (again, if it’s allowed…)
- Whole grain or sprouted breads, bagels, crackers, etc.
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grain pancakes
- Dairy (cheese, yogurt, etc.)
- Nut butters
Depending on what I have on hand, I often switch back and forth between using both of these approaches^^ to pack my kids’ lunches.
Whichever route you go, one key to packing your toddler’s lunch is to give them lots of options. Since toddlers are notoriously finicky eaters, the more they have to pick from the better. Plus, although many daycare and pre-Ks say that they have a designated morning and afternoon snack time, in my experience most of them pretty much just let kids eat whenever they want.
Having lots of small proportions and a diversity of different foods is the way to go, friends! This is another reason why bento boxes are awesome… just saying. 😉
Some other tips, thoughts, and pieces of advice for packing a toddler lunch:
Here are a few bonus ideas for lunch prep for daycare or preschool:
- Be mindful about sending in new foods.
Most advice-givers recommend against sending your child off to daycare with foods they’ve never tried before, but our advice is actually just to consider whether this is best for your child. Personally, I’ve sent my kids to daycare with new foods before, and I still send them in with new foods sometimes, because they have on occasion been more open to trying (and liking) new things in a different environment. (You know how you’re more likely to try that escargot at the restaurant in Paris than if you made it yourself?) But I have friends who feel the opposite — that their kids are better off trying new things in the safety and comfort of their own homes — and that’s great too. The point is: think about your child, and stick with what’s serving them and works for you.
On a similar note…
- Be mindful of sending in foods your child “doesn’t like.”
Once again, there are plenty of moms and dietitians (and caretakers and teachers, I’m sure!) who think it’s best to send kids to daycare or preschool with foods they *usually like. And once again, I don’t personally follow this advice — I send my kids in with foods they “don’t like” all the time because it’s another low-stakes exposure for them. Maybe they’ll see Oliver with hard-boiled egg too and decide it’s their new favorite food. Maybe they’ll take one look and send it home, but that’s fine with me. I repeat: just think about it and do what makes you feel comfortable.
**Another thing: kids change their mind about what they “like” and “don’t like” all the time…
- Cut foods appropriately.
It may sound obvious, but don’t forget to cut up foods that need cutting into toddler-sized bites. (I can say firsthand that it’s embarrassing to have your child’s pre-K teacher pull you aside at pick-up to request that you do this… whoops.)
- A simple twist in presentation — a new shape, a pop of color, etc. — can go a long way.
Kids are sensitive to the ways in which we present food, and a small bit of flare in their lunch presentation can really appeal to them. Try using colorful containers, adding colorful foods (such as berries, Amara organic toddler yogurt melts, bell peppers, or edamame) or cutting foods into new shapes for a little novelty and excitement.
- Remember: Children eat differently every day.
It’s completely normal for kids to eat totally different amounts of food from one meal or day to the next, so don’t be stressed or read too much into exactly how much of her lunch your toddler ate (or didn’t). Kids are constantly changing their minds about what foods they like, too, so your 3-year-old might eat a whole hummus wrap one day and tear it apart and complain she doesn’t like it the next. Irritating though it may be, this is 100% normal.
- Ask your child, and invite them to help!
This last is actually our biggest tip — if your little is old enough, ask them to contribute. Many children love being asked to weigh in on lunch; and when kids feel like they have a hand in their meals, they’re not only more likely to eat those meals, but the entire process becomes a fantastic learning and bonding opportunity. (Be forewarned: your child’s help is guaranteed to elongate the packing process…)
While packing your toddler’s lunch may be tedious, it really does help to have a general plan and some go-to foods in all the major categories — we’d love to hear: what are your favorite things to pack for daycare and preschool lunches?