- Toddlers learn to self-regulate based on how they are fed at mealtimes
- Serving healthy, palatable meals at appropriate intervals helps prevent “picky” eating
- Nutritious lunches for toddler don’t always need lengthy preparation
- Leftover rice and pasta form the ideal foundation for a healthy, enjoyable lunch
We’ve all been there: It’s five minutes before lunch time and you realise you haven’t planned a meal. Then your toddler appears, seemingly out of nowhere, to sit whining at your feet because they're hungry and need lunch NOW. It’s no wonder we tend to throw together an unbalanced meal for our toddler at the last minute, or end up feeding them the same lunch three days in a row.
This certainly isn’t ideal when you’re trying to provide a balanced diet and also keep them interested in their food. That’s why this article will not only provide you with 7 fantastic toddler lunch ideas, but will also remind you of the importance of mealtimes, how to prevent picky eating and look at whether you should indeed be limiting the amount of salt, sugar and fat in their lunches.
The role of mealtimes in toddler development
Mealtimes provide opportunities for toddlers to develop self-regulation of feeding. That means every time they eat, they are learning what they should eat, how to eat and how much is enough. It’s an important lifelong skill.
If parents understand that children can self-regulate their energy intake, they should be less likely to use controlling feeding practices, such as restriction, which have been associated with obesity, failure to thrive and other problematic eating behaviors
While parents choose which foods to offer, it is up to the child as to how much they eat, and indeed if they eat at all. When toddlers are having difficulty learning to self-regulate, poor parental feeding behaviours tend to ensue - such as bribery at meals, power struggles or rigidly controlling every aspect of mealtimes.
While it can be tempting to play it safe and stick to the foods we know they’ll definitely eat (well most of the time!), trying new foods is an important experience for toddlers. Some toddlers might be excited to try new foods, but others might be more reluctant. And it can take 10-20 tries “for a toddler to develop a taste preference for a new food” . That’s why it helps to offer new foods along with foods they tend to enjoy eating already.
It’s not only about the food however - the mealtime environment is also very important. Having your toddler sit around a table where they can observe others is critical to learning appropriate eating behaviour and also encourages them to eat what everyone else is having. Scheduled meal times, having no distractions (eg. TV) and the opportunity for social time are all important aspects for promoting self-regulation of feeding.
So when you’re considering toddler lunch ideas, don’t get caught up in choosing the foods you’ll offer, without thinking about the environment you’re providing for eating too.
What you should know about ‘picky’ eating
Would you say you have a picky eater on your hands? Research shows that up to 35% of toddlers and preschoolers are described by parents as picky eaters . But, it’s important to have realistic expectations of how much your child will eat, and when. After all, during the toddling years, weight gain, and therefore, their food requirements slow down, with appetites appearing quite erratic. This is normal.
Pressuring your child to eat more when they aren't hungry can turn them into a picky eater. And eating problems like these often result in continuing parent-child conflict. Planning healthy and palatable meals can help to overcome some of those problems and therefore reduce the conflict.
Letting your toddler graze between snacks, or offering them too much fruit juice or milk can interfere with them consuming their nutrient requirements through proper meals and make them appear to be a picky eater when they aren’t really. So when you’re looking at toddler lunch ideas, it might also be time to consider the whole day of meals from a more holistic viewpoint.
The truth about feeding salt, fat and sugar to toddlers
When you’re planning toddler lunch ideas, you’re no doubt thinking about providing nutritious meals and avoiding too many of the nasties. After all, we’ve been told to limit salt, fat and sugar in what our kids eat. This is not only for the sake of their health now, but as a way to prevent lifelong unhealthy eating habits setting in.
Research shows that we should indeed avoid adding unnecessary sugars and fats to toddler meals in order to prevent obesity and even poor sleep. However, a study concluded that we shouldn’t suppress the use of salt when feeding toddlers vegetables , because we’re looking to promote consumption of veggies. Therefore, rather than avoiding salt when serving vegetables to a toddler that might be struggling to eat them, try limiting salt instead.
So, with these points about toddler nutrition and development in mind, it’s time to explore our 7 recommended toddler lunch ideas. And as we understand you don’t want to hang out at the stovetop all day, these ideas have very little or no cooking required (yay!).
7 fantastic toddler lunch ideas
Fresh sandwiches are a lunch staple for toddlers. They are fast to make, there’s no cooking required and they’re easy to pack in a lunchbox when they need to eat on the go.
But it’s also easy to fall into the habit of providing the same sandwiches day in, day out. And while toddlers thrive on routine, you still need to keep things interesting! There are two easy ways to add a new spin on the classic sandwich.
Choose interesting fillings
Here are some of our favourites:
- Cream cheese, cucumber and grated carrot
- Mashed eggs and avocado
- Chicken and hummus
- Turkey, cheese and avocado
- Tuna and coleslaw
Cut them into fun shapes
You can buy special sandwich cutters, but these ones can easily be done freehand:
- Roll the strips like sushi
- Feed pieces onto skewers for a deconstructed sandwich (if your toddler is old enough for this to be safe)
In cold weather, or if your bread is less than fresh, toasties are the perfect solution. Try these fantastic fillings to tempt your little ones’ taste buds:
- Avocado, cheese and ham
- Cheese and spinach
- Tomato, red onion and cheese
- Sauteed mushrooms, cheese and spinach
This is such a great option if you have some left-over rice from dinner the night before. Try these rice salad versions, or substitute for foods that your toddler prefers and create your own tasty combo.
- Mexican rice salad : Capsicum, black beans, cheese, sweetcorn and a pinch of ground cumin.
- Cold rice salad : Spring onions, capsicum, peas, corn, pineapple, sultanas, grated carrot, grated zucchini with a dressing of olive oil, white vinegar, mustard powder and sugar.
- Lunch box rice salad : Ready-cooked pulled chicken breast, four bean mix, cherry tomatoes, grapes, with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice and turmeric.
- Greek rice salad : Fetta, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, fresh basil, fresh mint, fresh parsley, with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, grated lemon rind and seeded mustard.
Like rice salad, pasta salad is great for using up that left-over pasta and means the prep for your toddler’s lunch is already half-way there!
- Tuna pasta salad : Your toddler’s favourite mixed veggies, tinned tuna with a dressing of olive oil and oregano.
- Tomato, chickpea, cheddar and shells : Cherry tomatoes, chickpeas, diced cheddar with a drizzle of olive oil.
- Italian tortellini salad : Pepperoni, sliced black olives, grape tomatoes, red onion, yellow peppers, shredded parmesan and a drizzle of Italian salad dressing.
- Healthy pasta salad : Cherry tomatoes, white beans, cheese, cooked chicken, dressed with basil, garlic and olive oil.
With just some tomato paste and grated cheese, a tortilla wrap can easily be transformed into a Margherita pizza.
If your toddler likes pizza with a few more toppings, you can also try adding a combination of these:
- Diced red onion
- Thinly sliced tomato
- Pineapple chunks
- Ready-cooked pulled chicken
- Avocado slices
- Thinly sliced zucchini
If your toddler prefers their foods separated rather than mixed in, a grazing plate is the way to go. The key is not to overwhelm with too many combinations and make sure they eat it seated at a table, like they would any other lunch (it’s not there for snacking on all day!).
Here are a few of our favourite ideas:
- Boiled eggs, hummus for dipping, seeded crackers and apple
- Ham, cheese, smooth peanut butter for dipping, rice crackers and strips/sticks of fresh vegetables
- Ready-cooked pulled chicken, mashed avocado for dipping, wholegrain crackers and your choice of dried fruit
Is your waffle maker sitting untouched in a kitchen cupboard? Well pull that thing out, because it’s sure to get a workout when you read this exciting take on an omelette. Are you ready for it?
Simply make a scrambled egg mix, throw in some mix-ins and cook in the waffle maker. Technically it’s just an omelette, but we’re convinced your toddler will be excited by this new waffle-y presentation!
Here are a few fun mix-in ideas:
- Classic ham and cheese
- Red onion and capsicum
- Tomato and basil
- Spinach and avocado
So now that you're armed with these toddler lunch ideas to nourish and satisfy your little ones (even at the last minute), the only question that remains is: which one will you try first?