When I first started packing my young toddler’s lunch for daycare, I was intimidated. With his limited command of utensils, there were only so many things he could eat independently and it was overwhelming to try to figure out what to give him every day. Especially since I wanted to send him with a variety of foods and don’t have the budget to rely on store-bought snacks like pouches and puffs.
About six months in to the packing grind, I feel like I’m finally settling into a groove and want to share some of my strategies in case they’re helpful.
1. Use a formula (and I don’t mean baby formula).
No more hemming and hawing over what to put in. My formula for a packed lunch is simple, since it’s basically just the categories on the food pyramid, or the “plate” which is the USDA’s latest healthy eating graphic: protein, vegetables, fruit, grain/starch, dairy. The way my husband and I eat, the majority of our meals are comprised of vegetables, fruits, and proteins, so I focus on following this same ratio with JE’s lunches (depending of course on how bare our fridge is).
2. Meal prep and use that freezer.
With my formula in my head, it’s pretty easy to think about individual things I can pair together to create my son’s lunches. While fruits can be easy to quickly cut up, most vegetables need to be lightly steamed and some proteins need to be cooked ahead of time. Instead of stressing about fitting in this work every night, I set aside time on Sunday to prep batches of food. Since I’m taking the time to meal prep for him, I like to include a few things that everyone can include in their lunches. Once everything is prepped, I keep a stash in the fridge for the week and then flash freeze the rest to defrost and use over time. Then during the week, I’m mostly just pulling different food items out and tossing them into his lunch bag.
Below is a quick list of my go-to foods and recipes sorted by type. I’ll do a follow-up post sharing some of the recipes.
- Protein: mini egg muffins, sulfate free lunch meat, meatballs, tuna cakes, beans (rinsed from can)
- Veggies: frozen peas and edamame (they thaw in his lunch bag), broccoli steamed in the bag, steamed carrot sticks, tray of roast veggies, roasted bell peppers from the jar, spinach “two ingredient” pancakes.
- Fruit: diced up pears, sliced strawberries, frozen mango chunks (they thaw in his lunch bag), etc.
- Starch: roast sweet potatoes or regular potatoes, mini whole-wheat muffins, mini pancakes, half of a hummus sandwich
- Dairy: cheese sticks or cubes, sippy cup of milk
3. Invest in better lunch containers
Having the right containers for my son’s lunches makes a big difference. I use a combination of container types. I have a set of small tupperware that fit individual portions of fruit, vegetables, and small bites like mini muffins (this set is similar). Once I’ve prepped food for the week, I’ll fill and label multiple containers with toddler sized portions. Then, to pack his lunch, I simply select a container or two of each food group to throw in his lunch bag along with his sippy cup. This system works well for now because his daycare teachers open his containers for him. They’d be hard for him to do on his own.
With this in mind, I recently tried out a “bento box” lunchbox. The one I have is the Bentgo Kids brand, but there are a ton of options on the market. I love that it streamlines his lunch into one container instead of four or five. I like that the latches are kid friendly, so in 6 months he’ll probably be able to open them on his own. The inside tray also comes out for easy washing which also creates the option to buy multiple trays for prepping lunch in advance. The biggest downside is that this is a pricer option, particularly if you want multiple tray inserts. Our lunchbox was a gift. If I were to buy it brand new, it would cost twice as much as I spent on my little tupperware containers, and that doesn’t include the cost of additional tray inserts.
4. Do a quick color check.
Once my son’s lunch is ready to go, my final step is to do a quick scan to see if everything is beige and brown. I like to have a couple colors in there and try to have something green in his lunch every day. He doesn’t always eat his green food, unless it’s kiwi, but I continue to pack it anyway (sorry food waste police).
For me, it’s been important to find a strategy to manage my anxiety around what my son is eating. The approach I’ve settled on is the idea that my job is to decide what our meals are and his job is to decide what and how much to eat (within reason). I’m trying to focus on what I can control, which in this case is putting healthy food in his lunch box. So I do a quick check for multiple colors, zip up his lunch bag, and fist pound myself for killing it as a mom. It’s the power of positive thinking, right?