25 Kids Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters
Every mom and dad will agree that grocery shopping is challenging week after week when you are trying to stick to a budget, choose healthy options, and switch up the menu to keep things interesting. Now, on top of that list, if you have a picky eater to consider your job is even harder! Our goal is to help you have enough kids lunch ideas for picky eaters to help get you through the school year.
Having Picky Eaters is Normal!
The biggest concern for parents is to make sure their children are healthy. This means they have to get enough to eat to continue healthy growth, but you also want them to eat a well-balanced, healthy meal, and sometimes this feels impossible with a picky eater situation, when all your kids want are chicken nuggets and pizza. You may not be able to convince your kids that salads are delicious, but there are a ton of other options for parents who have simply run out of ideas in their grocery lists and are about to throw in the towel.
The first thing to remember is that picky eating is completely normal for kids, especially at primary ages. It can be difficult to pack lunches for those fussy eaters in elementary school. The list below provides fresh school lunch ideas for snacks, meals, and even healthy treats.
What Foods Should You Pack in a Kids School Lunch Box?
School lunch boxes will look different for every kid in the classroom, but the goal should be that they all contain a balance of:
- healthy fats,
- dairy or alternative that has calcium,
- grains, and
- a source of protein.
School lunches that contain this balance will help to reduce sugar highs and crashes, keep kids full and satisfied for longer stretches of the day, and provide enough energy to think and play. The options to achieve this list are endless, but you may have to get creative when it comes to your own fussy eaters. There are a variety of ways to include fruits, vegetables, fiber, healthy fats, and proteins in fun and tasty lunch box ideas.
Most schools have a similar structure for meals and snack time, usually starting with morning snack time, lunch, then an afternoon snack time. Kids will also have an after-school snack when they get home to hold them over until dinner. Generally, a morning snack will be sweeter, like fruit or a granola bar, lunches should include a balanced meal, and an afternoon snack will include a salty snack or sweet treat, or fresh veggies for something crunchy.
Save this list and refer to it anytime that you need new school lunch ideas for packing lunch with a variety of foods.
Healthy Kids School Lunch Ideas
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a great go-to, but your kids will get bored of them; so what do you pack instead of a PB & J sandwich? Sandwiches can be healthy with a few small tweaks, plus, they are a great budget-friendly option for kids school lunches and can be made in a matter of minutes.
Tips for a healthy sandwich:
- Choose healthier pieces of bread, such as whole grain, whole wheat, or even sourdough instead of standard white bread.
- Use whole-wheat tortillas, flatbreads, or English muffins instead of bread.
- Spread avocado or hummus instead of mayo, or try a more subtle swap using healthier mayonnaise options such as mayo made with avocado oil or olive oil.
- Switch out peanut butter for other nut butter favorites like almond or cashew, or just choose peanut butters that are organic and don’t have unhealthy additives.
1. Deli meat
- Let your kids choose their favorite deli meat like turkey, ham, chicken, or salami. Some kids will want the deli meat plain, or with butter, mayo, or cheddar cheese slices, but you may be able to sneak in healthy toppings like lettuce and tomato, and even avocado.
2. Egg salad
- Your kids will either love egg salad or hate it, just like tuna salad sandwiches. For the kids that love it, eggs are an inexpensive protein that are rich in vitamins and minerals like B2, D, and iron.
3. Cucumber and cream cheese
- Some picky eaters hate meat but love vegetables. This simple tea sandwich has mild flavors and is a great vegetarian option.
4. Tomato sandwich
- A tomato sandwich is especially yummy when the bread is toasted, so send the slices separately if a teacher or adult is available to help with a toaster or toaster oven.
5. Bagel sandwich
- A bagel sandwich can be as simple as cream cheese, plus there are low-fat and non-dairy options available at most stores. Bagels can be very filling, so consider only packing half for young kids.
6. Breakfast sandwich
- Breakfast on a sandwich? This option won’t be for everyone, but some kids love bacon and have a bigger appetite than others. Try on a whole wheat bagel and add cheese and ketchup for the more skeptical kids.
7. Twist on Peanut Butter & Jelly
- There are plenty of ways to switch up a PB&J sandwich for variety using things you already will likely have in the kitchen. If your kids’ classroom allows nuts, try a favorite nut butter with honey, or nut butter and banana.
Non-Sandwich Lunch Ideas
A common issue for picky eaters is that they like to snack but need something more substantial during lunch.
8. Macaroni and cheese
- Substitute whole wheat noodles and hide them under a greek yogurt or even dairy-free cheese sauce. Mac & cheese is easy to bake in advance and separate into containers for the week.
9. Noodles with butter
- It’s true, some kids don’t even want macaroni and cheese. Plain noodles with butter are a quick and easy option, plus it’s easy to swap with healthier noodles. Most kids will notice a change in color with black bean or zucchini noodles, but you may be able to get away with whole wheat or even chickpea noodles.
10. Pasta with marinara sauce
- Pack pasta with your favorite healthy sauce – marinara is one of the best options. You may even be able to chop up some veggies like carrots, onions, or celery and mix them in with the sauce, and add a meatball for protein.
- Pizza may not sound like the healthiest option, but think outside the box for a pizza dupe. Try make-your-own mini-pizzas with whole-wheat pitas, bagels, tortillas, or crackers as the crust, top with tomato sauce, add a sprinkle of cheese and pepperoni if they aren’t “cheese pizza only” picky. It’s a fun activity for the kids to prepare the night before, too!
- Quesadillas are a picky-eater favorite for most kids. Usually, you can swap for a whole wheat tortilla, but if you are lucky you may be able to add some veggies or extra protein, like chicken, in the cheese, too!
14. Breakfast for healthy school lunchboxes
- Pancakes for dinner is always fun in our house! Why not do the same at lunch? Pancakes and waffles are easy to make and freeze ahead of time, and they feel like such a treat. There are so many ways to substitute healthy ingredients into the mix using bananas, coconut oil, almond flour, and more, plus you can send toppings like dark chocolate, honey, and strawberries.
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Microwave-Free and No-Cook Lunch Ideas
Sometimes, a microwave or oven are not always an option. Try these options to pack these for lunchtime when they don’t have a microwave oven, such as on a school trip. Hot items can still be an option if you use a thermos to maintain a hot temperature, or pack foods that can be eaten right out of the fridge or cooler.
- Soup recipes deserve a list on their own. Most picky eaters will refuse soups, like vegetable or chowders, but I’m sure you can find at least one go-to that can be made in advance, or bought and kept in the cupboard for a perfect lunch idea. Try tomato soup, classic chicken noodle soup, ravioli, or choose soups that have a main ingredient that they love on its own, and store in a thermos.
- Some picky eaters like to keep their foods separate, so even a sandwich is “off the table”. Try turkey rollups (or other favorite deli slices), and cheese rollups so you kids can get their protein and calcium with simple finger foods. Serve with crackers on the side.
16. Pasta salad
- Cold pastas are always forgotten, but so easy! Make a standard pasta salad with a healthy mayo and mix in cherry tomatoes, celery, and carrots, or try this pesto zucchini pasta from Popsugar’s Cold Lunches list.
Healthy Snacks for Kids
When you have picky eaters, sometimes bite-size snacks are the best way to get enough nutrients and calories into their diet. Finger foods are usually the best option, especially snacks that can be eaten in a few minutes during a short snack time or shared with a friend.
- If you have a little rabbit that likes to crunch on raw veggies, pack broccoli, baby carrots, cherry or grape tomatoes, celery, and any other vegetable that your child will eat (or tolerate). For the kids who don’t like their veggies, try to send a yummy dressing or another condiment for dipping on the side. Don’t forget the classic celery and peanut butter for extra protein.
- Crackers usually become a parent-favorite at the toddler stage. Goldfish Crackers are a household name, but you can swap for whole-grain Goldfish cheese. Grain crackers or club crackers are great on their own or served with cheese, tasty hummus, or salsa.
19. Fresh fruit
- Fruit seems like an obvious lunch box staple, but apples and bananas get old if kids eat them every day. Try pears, berries, or orange slices to switch it up. You can even have some fun with fruit by having the kids choose one at the store and learn about it, like persimmons or dragon fruit. They may hate it, but at least they tried!
- Cheese is a great snack for picky eaters. Try string cheese or cheese sticks and send them with pretzels for some extra crunch. Some kiddos will even like cottage cheese, especially with strawberries or blueberries mixed in.
- Yogurt tubes always seem to be popular in the classroom for an on-the-go snack. Greek yogurt or yogurt made from almond or coconut milk are also options. Mix in some granola as a meal or to simply keep their tummies full.
Lunch Box Treats
The key to lunch boxes isn’t perfection; sometimes cookies or Halloween candy are a great treat! Just remember balance and portion sizes for kids. There are also healthy treats
22. Fresh fruit & chocolate sauce
- Try sending fresh berries with a chocolate sauce to dip in, or vanilla if they prefer. Pudding topped with berries or banana slices are good options as well.
23. Healthy muffins
- Muffins are a great treat and fun to bake with the kids as well. There are so many healthy muffin recipes to choose from that remove the unhealthy oils and flours usually found in muffins (try one of the recipe lists from Good Housekeeping).
24. Applesauce and fruit cups
- Applesauce and fruit cups are great to keep in the cupboard and throw into lunch boxes when you need to make a trip to the store for fresh fruit. Did you know that applesauce is also a great ingredient to remember when substituting ingredients for baking treats.
25. Granola bars
- Not all granola bars are healthy, so make sure to look at the ingredients and look for healthy bars that still taste great. Granola bars can also be very high in calories and fat, which may not be a great every-day snack for young ages, but can help with energy on track and field days or school trips.
Bonus Kids Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters
- Have fun with it! Try something like Martha Stewart’s bento box, which encourages whole foods, less packaging in an organized container for what you are feeding your kids. Bento boxes also help with picky eaters who don’t like their food touching.
- When you can’t get picky eaters to eat certain things on their own, especially vegetables, try hiding them in some of their favorite foods. For example, carrot muffins or avocado chocolate pudding.
- Sometimes kids aren’t eating enough, so combine a light lunch with milk, chocolate milk, or non-dairy alternatives for extra calories that will last longer than sugar highs from juice boxes.
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