Holy smokes! Feeding a toddler can be tricky, can’t it? As if learning breastfeeding positions, weaning, and introducing your baby to their first foods wasn’t hard enough. Suddenly your sweet little blob who would drink anything that came from a boob or bottle won’t go anywhere near perfect yummy food. And the stuff they ate last week is often the same food that offends them the next. It’s all part of dealing with those big feelings and regulating their emotions. Feeding your toddler is an absolute challenge. We get it. In fact, our empathy led us to come up with a whole list of toddler lunch ideas you can feed your finicky preschooler.
Because let’s be honest: Lunchtime can be especially hard. Your days are jam-packed without the added stress of stopping in the middle to whip up something edible. If you’re sending your little one to preschool, you’re probably dealing with a long list of school-wide restrictions. Homeschooling your kid doesn’t make this meal any easier. Between doing your own work (household or paid), you’re undoubtedly juggling jobs like therapist, teacher, and cruise director. How are you supposed to have time to create well-balanced lunches for a toddler who currently refuses to eat anything red?
We have some tips that just might help.
What Toddlers Need
A nutritionist once told us that it’s often easier to think about eating in terms of making choices that are “healthier” instead of “healthy.” What she meant was that choosing “healthy” foods can be overwhelming, but that simply searching for something that might be slightly healthier than the norm is a great start.
From your own attempts to eat healthily, you probably know what kinds of food you need to eat each day to stay alive. Your toddler isn’t much different. An optimal lunch should contain about:
- One serving of fruit
- One serving of veggies
- One serving of protein
- Plus, additional complex carbohydrates and healthy fats.
Are you laughing yet? Yes, us too. Let’s face it: Some lunches, your kid will eat six servings of protein. Other times, you’ll be glad if your chunk finishes half a Cutie. If lunch is veggie-heavy, just try to offer more of the other stuff for dinner or snacks. But also remember that no kid’s diet is perfectly balanced. It’s OK. You and your toddler are both doing your best.
Toddler Fruit Serving Ideas
- Strawberry hearts
- Fruit “salsa”
- Orange wedges
- Fruit cut into tiny shapes
Toddler Veggie Serving Ideas
- Raw veggies with dips
- Butternut squash soup (or sauce for pasta)
- Vegetarian chili
- Sautéed veggies on a quesadilla or in a toddler-sized wrap
- Veggie spring rolls
Toddler Protein Options
- Cubed ham
- Shredded chicken
- Eggs (hard-boiled or leftover scrambled eggs from breakfast)
- Nut butters for dipping or spreads
- Taco meat
- Nuggets and fish sticks*
*We know you already know these are options. We also know you probably feel unnecessarily guilty when your kid is nugg-obsessed. Don’t. It’s protein. End of story.
Carbs And Fats For Toddlers
- Crackers (yes, boo, even the occasional serving of Goldfish)
Most toddler feeding experts don’t suggest being “sneaky.” After all, is your kiddo ever going to really learn to love zucchini if she only eats it when you sneak it into a brownie? There are ways to sneak in or introduce more foods without being deceitful, however. These are some of our favorite ways to cram more nutrients into our toddlers’ already established habits.
- Replace ketchup with red sauce or salsa for dipping
- Replace ranch with yogurt (or ranch-flavored yogurt)
- Broccoli pesto
- Butternut squash spaghetti sauce
How do you take these switches and turn them into a new, safe food your toddler will eat? Go slow with your introductions, e.g., getting from ketchup to tomatoes.
- Start with, “Here you go.” No big explanations. No urges to “try it.” Just put the salsa in the spot where the ketchup goes and see what happens.
- Call it by its name. “Salsa is pretty good, huh?”
- Explain ingredients. “Salsa is made from tomatoes, just like ketchup.”
- Transition to something that looks similar to your end goal. In this case, look for chunkier salsa until “salsa” just becomes some roughly chopped tomatoes.
- It might be helpful to include your child in the food-making process. Kids are usually more interested in eating meals they’ve helped prepare.
- Sometimes toddlers refuse to eat and not because of stubbornness. They may be sleepy or full, so do not force them to eat if that’s the case.
- Stick to finger foods or meals your child can easily pick up and eat with their hands. This makes meals less intimidating.
Channel Your Inner-Insta Star and Emeril
Some kids will eat whatever you sit in front of them, no matter how ugly or how bland. Other kids, though, require more coercing. If you’re here, you probably have the second kind of toddler. Well, we’ve found two reliable ways (in our experience) to get our toddlers to eat their lunches:
- Eat with them or eat the same thing — without shying away too much from flavor. Sure, you should be careful of your toddler’s salt and sugar consumption. But if you find that ultra garlicky pesto delicious, your toddler probably will too. We all like bold flavors. Don’t be afraid to kick it up a notch.
- Buy the stupid cute mini cookie cutters and animal-themed toothpicks. Literally everything is more fun to eat when shaped like a flower. You’ve already made the PB&J. It takes precisely two minutes to butcher it with a kitty-shaped cookie cutter. As a bonus, those scraps make a pretty tasty mama snack.
Is it silly? Yes. Is it worth it? Also, yes.
Leftovers, Leftovers, Leftovers
What’d you have for dinner last night? Did they eat it? Do it again! If you’ve ever watched a kid eat chicken nuggets for five straight meals, you know that comfort is key. Each meal doesn’t have to be wildly different. If you ate noodles with pesto last night, don’t be afraid to serve it for lunch the next day. If you want to change it up, try a different pasta or protein. If you had zucchini with dinner last night, mix in peas tonight. Or, ya know: Serve. The. Exact. Same. Thing. If they ate it once, they’ll probably eat it again.
Foods Toddlers Should Not Eat
While crafting creative and yummy snacks for your little one, it’s important to know which foods to keep off their plate or serve in small toddler-sized pieces.
- Whole grapes are slippery and can cause choking. The same danger is likely when eating hot dogs, so make sure to cut these in small pieces that will not pose a choking hazard.
- Foods like nuts, popcorns, and pretzels may seem like the perfect snack, but they can be a choking hazard for toddlers because of how small and hard they are. Serve these snacks under your supervision.
- Honey is super sweet but not for kids under the age of one. It can cause botulism or intestinal bacteria in young children.
- Speaking of sweet and sticky, peanut butter and marshmallows should also be served in an age-appropriate manner, as they too can cause choking.