Packing food for toddlers as they transition into day care or preschool can be daunting. It’s not easy to pack a well-balanced and satisfying meal every day! That’s why we’ve compiled a list of healthy, easy toddler lunch ideas that fulfill your baby’s nutritional needs and keep them full and energized all day.
Planning for Success
Planning how and what to pack for day care lunches sets you up for success. For starters, you should determine the right portions for your toddler based on their calorie requirement. Generally, toddlers between 1 and 3 years of age require approximately 1,000-1,400 calories daily, depending on their size, age and activity level.
To satisfy these calorie needs, consider filling half of their lunch box with an assortment of colorful fruits and veggies, one quarter with healthy proteins and the second quarter with whole grains. You can also add healthy fats and dairy to ensure they have something from all the five main food groups. Cut the food into toddler-sized pieces and include finger foods to encourage self-feeding.
Packing foods of different colors and textures is also a good idea because it encourages kids to try the various food groups. Additionally, when packing day care snacks and lunches, you must keep the following food safety considerations in mind:
- Keep poultry, meat, fish, dairy products, cut fruits and vegetables at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) or below.
- Pack cold foods in an insulated lunch box or bag with an ice pack.
- Keep soups, casseroles and stews hot at 140 degrees F (73.9 degrees C) or above.
- Pack hot food in an insulated container.
- Before packing hot food, fill the container with boiling water, let it sit for a few minutes, pour out the water and then add the hot food.
Building a Balanced Lunch
Toddlers have rapidly growing bodies that require specific nutrients from all food groups to support their developmental needs. The following are the top food categories you should include in every toddler lunch:
- Fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are essential in every toddler’s lunch box to supply them with vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. Fruits and veggies also add color and texture to a lunch box.
- Proteins: Protein-rich lunches keep your kids full for longer, maintain their energy levels, and support the development of a healthy immune system, organs, and muscles. Switch between animal and plant-based proteins to ensure a well-balanced diet.
- Whole grains: Whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and oats are great for toddlers because they provide the energy they need to learn and play.
- Dairy and dairy alternatives: Dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt—as well as dairy alternatives like tofu—provide toddlers with calcium, protein, and a range of other vitamins and minerals. They are essential for building strong bones and teeth and maintaining overall health.
Creative Toddler Lunch Ideas
Ensuring your toddler gets all their nutrients requires you to be creative when preparing their meals. Below are some toddler day care lunch ideas.
1. Finger Foods
Finger foods top the list of day care lunch ideas for 1-year-olds and older toddlers. They are essential to teach babies self-feeding and allow them to interact with different food textures. Additionally, they help toddlers develop their hand-eye coordination and chewing skills. Here are some top options:
- Mini veggie wraps: An excellent way to increase your toddler’s veggie intake is by wrapping the veggies with yummy whole grain tortillas and cutting them into small pieces.
- Fruit kabobs: Fruit kabobs are pieces of fresh fruits cut into cubes, balls, or other interesting shapes and threaded onto skewers with blunt edges. They are easy to assemble and boast a visual appeal that makes babies eager to dive in. For the perfect day care snacks for a 1-year-old, opt for soft fruits like bananas. Always be sure someone keeps an eye on your baby while they eat these kabobs, and make sure the skewer is not short enough to fit into their mouths.
- Cheese and whole grain crackers: Whole grain crackers made of wheat, brown rice, oats, corn, or quinoa paired with sliced pieces of cheese make perfect day care snacks. The best baby crackers are thin, soft and able to be crumbled with two fingers because they are easy on the gum and dissolve quickly to prevent choking.
2. Fun Shapes and Themes
Children often crave variety in the food they eat. Presenting food in fun shapes and themes may get your picky toddler to finish the lunch you pack for them. You can try:
- Sandwiches cut into shapes: Cutting regular sandwiches makes them easier to manage for toddlers. You can add flair using cookie cutters or a waffle maker to create fun shapes or waffle lines.
- Animal-themed lunches: You can get your toddler excited about lunch by taking inspiration from their favorite animals. Butterfly sandwiches, puppy dog pancakes and cute boiled egg penguins are some examples of animal-themed lunches toddlers will love.
3. Engaging Toddler Favorites
Many toddlers love fun foods like pizza. You can use these favorites to reimagine day care lunch ideas for 2-year-olds. Here are some top options:
- Mini pizzas: Homemade pizzas can be made using healthy ingredients, including veggies, to ensure nutritional value for your toddlers. Pizza pockets and roll-ups are mess-free options that make eating pizza with tiny hands more enjoyable.
- Homemade chicken nuggets: Chicken nuggets are a hit with many toddlers and are easy for parents to make. Pack two or three baked or air-fried chicken nuggets in an insulated lunch box with paper towels at the bottom to keep them warm and crispy.
- Nut butter and banana sandwiches: These are a simple and yummy lunch option that’s healthy and nutritious. They contain protein, fiber and healthy fats.
4. No-Cook Options
Here are two yummy no-cook toddler snack ideas for day care:
- Greek yogurt parfaits: These are easy to throw together provided you have all the ingredients, which include fruit, Greek yogurt and crunchy toppings like granola. It’s best to pack the crunchy toppings in a separate container to prevent them from getting soggy. Remember to write a note to the educator to add these before serving them for your toddler’s lunch or snack.
- Hummus and veggie dip platter: Hummus contains a lot of healthy plant-based protein. You can pack it with pre-cut veggies like celery sticks and baby carrots for your toddler’s snack.
Dealing With Picky Eaters
Most toddlers are picky eaters — not just yours! They’re still discovering new foods, flavors and textures. Here are tips to help your picky eater develop healthy eating habits:
- Offer new food without pleading, bartering, with or pressuring them.
- Involve your child in the preparing, ordering, or packing of their food.
- Allow them to pick out lunch boxes and utensils.
- When introducing new foods, smile and use words of encouragement.
- Ask open-ended questions when they refuse to eat.
The Role of Caregivers and Educators
Kids often have different feeding habits at home and in school. That’s why parents must communicate openly with day care and preschool staff to track the differences. You should also discuss your feeding style and dietary restrictions with your child’s educators to ensure you’re on the same page. Also, take the opportunity to find out if your child’s day care or school refrigerate or reheat foods to determine the variety of foods your child can bring.
Get Creative and Healthy Toddler Lunches From Nurture Life
Preparing healthy toddler lunches for day care or preschool daily can become tasking. Nurture Life is here to make sure your child enjoys healthy and nutritious meals and snacks every day with minimal effort on your end. Our chefs and dietitians make fresh meals weekly using real ingredients and deliver them to your door. We stock Baby Finger Foods, Kids Meals, Superfood Smoothies and Mighty Bites.
Check out healthy kid’s meal menus and meal plans to start planning for your easy toddler lunches. You can also learn more about our delivery services or reach out to us online if you have any more questions.