Do you have a toddler and are racking your brain for what to feed them at meal time? Toddler meals can be a minefield for many parents as their previously adventurous babies turn into picky eaters in their toddler years.
Sometimes, lunch time can feel like a bit of last minute rush. It’s in the middle of the day after morning activities but before nap. So many times lunch creeps up on us without us even realizing it! And then it turns to just surviving and getting something on the plate for them.
If you have a toddler in daycare or preschool, packing a lunch box for them can seem like an endlessly daunting task!
With all that in mind, I’ve compiled some simple ideas for you to have on hand to get a nutritious meal on the table for your toddler, or one that’s ready to send off to school.
Things to Keep In Mind About Toddler Lunches
It is 100% developmentally normal for young children to experience a period of neophobia, or fear of new foods. This often happens when your child is over a year old and often closer to 2, or when they are just starting preschool between the ages of 3 and 4.
From a practical approach, this aversion to new foods can make mealtimes really hard for parents. Make sure that as you are planning and serving your meals, you do your best to divorce yourself and your success as a parent from how much your child eats.
I know that is easier said than done! But their appetite will vary widely from one day to the next. They might be tired, hungry, sick, anxious, or so many other things that can affect their appetite. It’s not about just you serving and them eating it without any outside influences.
How to Help Your Child Eat What They Need at Lunch
As you go to serve or pack your toddler’s lunch, here are a few specifics to remember.
Their bellies are usually small. They don’t need large serving sizes! Often, if they get a large amount of something on their plate that isn’t a favorite of theirs, it can result in them being overwhelmed and their appetite actually decreasing.
Focus on starting small when you are serving meals at home, and they can always have more.
If you are packing a lunch, it can be tricky to get the right serving sizes. Focus on several small containers for their lunch, or a bento box style container instead of a lot of one thing.
As you pack lunch for your child and get feedback on how much they eat, you will be better able to tailor the serving sizes you send for their average lunchtime appetite.
With that in mind, don’t use a packed lunch to serve new foods. Instead, focus on a variety of foods that you know they are generally okay with. Especially when they are at school, their focus is on other things at lunch. Serving new foods or foods they generally refuse at home can backfire.
What Foods to Serve for Your Toddler’s Lunch
When it comes to the kinds of foods to serve, keep the general food groups that I recommend in mind. That means doing your best to serve an iron-rich source, a high calorie source, and a fruit or a veggie.
Especially if you are at home, you can simply keep it to one of each of these foods at lunch time.
If you are packing a lunch, often offering an iron-rich food and 2 high calorie foods and 2 fruits or veggies can help to ensure your child is getting ample opportunities to fill their bellies.
Easy Options for Toddler Lunches
Before we even get into specific ideas to make at lunch, my absolute favorite lunches are ones that are leftover from dinner. Most nights you’ll find me doubling what I’m making for dinner. It takes a minimal amount of time to make extra, and then I have it all ready to go for the next day’s lunch.
But on the days I don’t have leftovers in the fridge, I like to base my lunches around the main component of them, and then vary the foods I serve alongside them.
The main components in our toddler lunches are usually pasta, bread for sandwiches, tortillas, pitas, and grains. Once you decide which one of those you want for the meal, the options are endless for filling out the rest of the categories you need! Here are some specific combinations to get you started.
Want to boost your child’s nutrient intake? Start with a high-iron pasta like chickpea or lentil. Here are our favorite pastas! Once you’ve decided on pasta, try:
Pesto pasta with a favorite fruit or veggie on the side. A chickpea pasta will satisfy the need for iron, and store bought pesto sauce is fine!
Pasta salad like this one from Spend with Pennies. Add anything you have in your fridge for the veggies, and use chickpea or whole wheat pasta. A rotisserie chicken is also a great addition to this!
Pasta and veggies. Simply boil some pasta, add in some sun dried tomatoes and feta, and drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice. Serve with some shredded chicken or chickpea pasta to cover your iron category, and a fruit or vegetable on the side.
Sweet potato pasta with kale chips. (This one is a great leftovers recipe to cover a dinner and lunch!)
Ravioli with pea pesto sauce like this one from My Kids Lick The Bowl, and a fruit on the side. Grab any ravioli from the store fridge section that you can find for a quick meal.
Spaghetti with tomato sauce or alfredo sauce. Another easy go to that just takes boiling pasta and adding a jarred or pre-made sauce. Add in some zucchini and mushrooms to the sauce, or serve them on the side.
Hummus sandwiches. Choose your bread, spread some hummus on it, and add some veggies and cheese. If you have a younger toddler or are packing it bento box style, you can easily back each component separately. Our go-to options for this are a whole grain bread (we aim for sprouted when we can!), cheddar cheese, thinly sliced carrots, spinach, beet sauerkraut, and beets.
Fried egg sandwiches. We tend to stick with the above sandwich combination and just switch hummus for eggs. Adding some mashed avocado to this one is a great added calorie option!
Egg sandwiches with this egg salad recipe from Love and Lemons. Serve with a veggie or fruit on the side!
Chicken sandwiches- simply add some plain greek yogurt to some shredded chicken for a chicken salad (rotisserie style chicken is an easy go-to here!) and serve on a piece of bread with a fruit or veggie on the side.
Roasted carrot and kale pesto grilled cheese sandwich. Believe it or not, these are actually our favorite leftover sandwiches. We make them for dinner, double the recipe, and have the leftovers for lunch the next day.
Peanut butter and chia seed jam. Or almond butter or sunbutter sandwich if you need a nut free option.
Tortilla-Based Lunch Ideas
We like uncooked tortillas like these!
Our number 1 go-to lunches are burritos. Grab some tortillas, grate some cheddar cheese, heat up some black beans or lentils with some chili powder and garlic, and open some salsa. We usually serve with spinach, tomatoes if we have them, and an additional fruit or veggie like cucumbers or mandarin oranges on the side.
Mashed pinto bean quesadilla. Mash some pinto beans, add in some cheese of choice, and grill it up. Serve with a fruit or veggie of your choice.
Spinach and black bean dip quesadilla. Find the recipe in the Baby and Me meal plan. A simple go-to recipe!
Mashed sweet potatoes and black bean quesadillas. Microwave a sweet potato, fork mash it and spread it on a tortilla. Add some black beans and cheddar cheese and grill it up. These go great with some plain yogurt to dip in, or switch it up by stirring some chili powder and garlic powder in.
Breakfast burritos. Instead of black beans or lentils, make a burrito with scrambled eggs.
Pita-Based Toddler Lunchbox Ideas
When it comes to pita, they can be almost interchangeable with bread or tortillas. But there are also some great things you can do with them on their own!
Hummus pita sandwiches. Spread some hummus in a pita, add in cucumbers, spinach, feta, and beet sauerkraut. Serve all toppings separately if sending in a lunchbox.
Peanut butter and fruit pita sandwich. (Or nut butter/sunbutter of choice) Slice some strawberries or smash some raspberries, spread some peanut butter inside. Serve with peas or snap peas on the side.
Think of barley, farro, wheat berries, quinoa, and rice. The easiest way to use these for lunches and lunchboxes is to cook a big batch of them at once and use them throughout the week. Most can also be frozen for easy access.
Roast up some veggies like carrots, zucchini, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, or anything in season.
Serve the grain and veggies with a sauce. Think tahini sauce, peanut sauce, pesto sauce, tikka masala sauce, or tomato sauce. Really anything will work! Round it out with a rinsed can of beans, like chickpeas or white beans for some iron.
Send this with some fruit on the side if you are making it for a lunch box.
Lunches Can Be Easy With Just a Little Shift in Mindset!
When lunch sneaks up on you, it can be hard to think of what to get on the table. Simplifying lunch to leftovers, or something based on tortillas, bread, pita, grains, and pasta can make life a lot easier.
If you are looking for an even easier option, grab the Baby and Me Meal Plan. You’ll find lots of easy breakfast, lunches, and dinners that work for not only your toddler, but for the whole family all the way from 6 months to adults.
With simple recipes, a variety of healthy foods included, and pictures that show you exactly how to safely serve it for every age, it is a great resource to simplify mealtimes!