Packing Lunch for the Picky Child

Adorable young child eating a snack

Woe is the mother of the picky toddler- especially if that toddler becomes a picky preschooler. It’s one thing to send your child to a care center that provides a meal at lunchtime that’s freshly prepared and kid friendly. It’s quite another to have to pack a lunch in the wee hours of the morning that your picky child can eat and enjoy in the middle of the day. As the parent of a picky eater knows, the lunchbox is often the biggest foe.

Picky Eater Blues

Picky eaters tend to prefer things that simply don’t go well in a lunchbox. Grilled cheese and orange juice, for example, are fine if your child is eating lunch at home, but a big cold, congealed and soggy (or warm, for the orange juice) by lunchtime at school. If your picky eater would decide to like peanut butter and jam or roast beef sandwiches instead of grilled cheese, you might have a healthy, easy-to-pack alternative, but the picky eater knows this and thus refuses to eat anything simple. Packing lunches is hard work as it is, but packing one for a child eating only four things this week is very hard indeed if those four things don’t travel well.

Determine Your Staple

Every lunch needs and entrée or staple food item. In the easy child’s lunch box, this is the peanut butter sandwich. In the picky child’s lunch box this staple is usually of a more creative variety. Your first step will be to check if the childcare center or school allows teachers to heat a child’s lunch. If so, you have a few more options. If not, you can still find ways to feed your child without losing your mind – although you might get used to a few raised eyebrows.

Invest in a quality thermos and consider options such as noodles with butter, cut turkey hot dogs or chicken nuggets. In short, things that are enjoyed by your child that might stay warm in a thermos until lunch time. Just remember to pack a plate and fork, too as your picky child probably won’t eat out of the container. Once you find a few things that work, you can move on by adding snack type foods that help to balance out the lunch. A few suggestions for the main item in a lunch box:


Toast is suitable for breakfast, so why not lunch? The same is true for cooked waffles and pancakes. Wrap the hot foods in tin foil, put in a packet of syrup or jam and your child can enjoy breakfast for lunch.

Soups and Pasta

If your child will eat soup or pasta, they are another good option for your thermos. Just be sure you make the soup thick to make it easy for the little one to eat with his spoon. Pasta can be prepared with a bit of butter to keep it from sticking inside the thermos.

Cheese and Crackers

Whole wheat crackers and cheese cubes make a nice lunch for a picky toddler. Cheese provides calcium and protein and the crackers provide carbs and fiber – it’s like a grilled cheese sandwich on the go.

Corn Dogs and Chicken Nuggets

Two childhood favorites are possible if you prepare them immediately before heading out for the day and wrapping the food in a thick layer of tin foil. If the food stays marginally warm, your child will probably enjoy it as much at school as home.

Healthy Sides

When it comes to the rest of your child’s lunch, you would do well to include a little bit of a lot of things so that your child has a choice of food items every day. The more choices available, the more likely he’ll eat something. Explain your strategy to his caregiver or teacher, and then load up his lunch box with non perishable items. Individually wrapped servings sold at the store work well for this, but to save money you can also just put a small handful of each into a separate plastic bag. (You can’t combine the items as that makes them unsuitable to many picky eaters.)

By stocking the lunch box with a nice variety, you can easily see what your child is eating this week by judging what comes home. Ask the teacher or child care worker to give your child a choice of items, but not to open anything until he asks for it. That way, the unopened food can come home to be used again another time and you’ll be able to see at a glance what’s been eaten and what’s still intact. Some healthy sides to try include:

Apple Slices

Apples go bad quickly, so if your child doesn’t eat the apple that day, it will likely be thrown away in the evening. Just remember to cut the peel off if that’s the only way he’ll eat it. He’s not going to change his mind about peels in an afternoon away from home.


Raisins are the perfect fruit option for a lunchbox. The small boxes are inexpensive and can be stored forever. Throw in a small box. If it gets eaten, great! If not, leave it there for next time.

Fruit Cups

the plastic fruit cups are a terrific addition to the pantry of a toddler. These cups can be stored at room temperature, opened, drained and then the fruit inside is the perfect size for little fingers or plastic forks. Buy the fruit cups that are packaged in light syrup or water to avoid heavy amounts of sugar, but the variety in fruit cups means you can try different things each day and store what doesn’t get eaten each time until another opportunity presents itself.


Goldfish, cheese, and other small crackers are prepared in small pouches perfect for the lunch box. Throw a packet in and wait to see if it’s a hit. If so, throw in another one the next day – if not, pull out the uneaten one, put it back in the pantry and try a new variety. These individually wrapped packages are often good for years, so there is no rush on using them up.

Cheese Sticks

Individually wrapped cheese sticks are a nice addition to a lunch box. The cheese sticks should stay cold or cool to remain safe to eat, which isn’t a problem between morning and lunch, but by the end of the day, the cheese is likely to bit a bit ripe. You might be able to prolong the life of the cheese by putting a small packet of ice or blue ice into the lunch box – just be sure it doesn’t come near the parts of the lunch you’re trying to keep warm.

Squeeze Yogurt

Again, it likely won’t be good after one day, even if it’s never opened, but squeeze yogurt is usually rather popular with kids looking for fun foods and flavors. The yogurt is also easy to throw into a lunch box without worrying about a spoon. They literally just eat it right out of the plastic tube.

Cereal Packets

Cereal companies are now making cereal available in an individual serving packet for finger foods and lunch boxes. If your child won’t eat cereal for breakfast, maybe she’ll eat it as finger food at lunch time.

Sweets Are Optional

When you’re dealing with a picky eater, you can rest assured there is always something he will eat – sweets! Unfortunately, most of the yummy lunch box treats kids want are sweets and will surely be eaten every time. You don’t want your child gobbling up sugar at lunch, especially if it’s the only thing he decides to eat that day, but you don’t want to be the mum who never lets him have any fun. For this reason, treat sweets as you would any other lunch box item – the sweets should be something that adds to the overall nutrition, however scarce, of the meal. Sweets might include:

Fortified Fruit Snacks

Most packets of fruit snacks are fortified with Vitamin C. Some contain all the vitamin C a child needs during the day.


Yogurt contains a lot of great things, but a lot of sugar as well. Most children don’t truly consider yogurt a dessert.


A pudding cup that can be stored at room temperature makes a nice lunch box addition. It tastes like a dessert, but it’s made with skim milk in most cases. Some pudding cups are sugar or fat free as well. Just remember to pack the spoon.


A Jell-O cup that is stored at room temperature is another good choice These Jell-O cups are usually available as sugar free so they are essentially congealed water, color and flavoring. What more could a kid want?

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