Easy Healthy Lunchbox Ideas For Toddlers

By Penelope Henderson, MSc, RNutr/ 09/26/2023
some cucumber and tomatoes being chopped on a board for a healthy lunchbox

I often hear mums moaning about the tedious task of making packed lunch boxes or fed up with their children not eating all their lunch. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and stick to the same old sandwiches, snack, fruit or whatever your child will eat but there are so many healthy lunchbox ideas for toddlers. 

In this blog I will share with you what makes up a healthy lunchbox, what to include to make sure it is a healthy lunchbox. I will also give you some tips on making it easy for a toddler to eat their lunch and some recipe ideas that are savoury, sweet and vegetarian. 

What makes a healthy lunchbox?

Only 1 in 100 of children’s lunch boxes are actually healthy and meet nutritional standards according to a study carried out by the University of Leeds (1).

So what actually makes up a healthy lunchbox? Healthy lunchbox ideas for toddlers of 2 – 5 yrs need to include the 4 food groups (2). This makes sure they will be getting all the nutrients they need. 

An infographic of four food groups for lunchboxes including 1-2 fruit and vegetables, 1 carbohydrate like a bread roll, 1 protein like an egg and 1 dairy or alternative such as a yoghurt.

  1. Starchy carbohydrates: potatoes, bread, rice, pasta, fortified breakfast cereals and other starchy carbohydrates and grains.
  2. Fruits & vegetables: fresh, or canned in juice all count. 
  3. Protein: beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, tofu
  4. Dairy & alternatives: milk & dairy foods

The four food groups listed above don’t include healthy oils and fats as they don’t stand on their own as a food, but form part of one of the foods. For example an olive oil salad dressing or some low fat olive spread in a sandwich contribute to this.

In addition – a drink such as water or diluted sugar free squash.

You need to include one food from each of these food groups. For fruit and vegetables 1 -2 of these ideally, so one fruit and one vegetable. 

What should I put in my child’s lunchbox?

Lunchbox ideas for 1 -2 fruit and vegetables including celery sticks, baby tomatoes, berries, pear and a peach

For each of the food groups here are some suggestions of the types of foods to include. 

Carbohydrate – choose different breads, wraps, bagels, flatbreads, filo, pastry, cold pasta, grains, other cereals (breakfast), crackers, rice cakes, breadsticks, croissant, couscous, cold potatoes.

Protein – cheese cubes, chicken pieces, tuna flakes, egg pieces, strips of ham, beef strips, grated cheese, pot of hummus, cottage cheese & vegan alternatives.

Fruit – can be dried, fresh or tinned. Dried fruit like apricots or raisins are fine after 18mths. Don’t forget you can use tinned fruit in fruit juice (not syrup) like pineapple, peaches etc. Other whole fruits or in pieces are suggested below.

  • chopped blueberries
  • grapes
  • kiwi
  • melon strips or balls
  • strawberries
  • raspberries
  • blackberries
  • whole apple or in slices
  • pear
  • banana
  • fresh clementine or satsuma in pieces
  • apricots
  • cherries
  • figs
  • lychee
  • mango
  • nectarine
  • orange
  • passion fruit
  • plum

Vegetables– don’t have to be fresh. There are lots of alternatives like using cooked vegetables, tinned or from a jar. For example using leftover cooked vegetables from a previous meal makes an easy option. These could include:

  • green beans
  • edamame beans
  • broccoli
  • peas
  • mange tout
  • mixed vegetables in a dish like pasta
  • cooked beans that can be eaten cold like butter beans, black beans etc

Raw vegetables are often preferred by kids for their crunch. These ones don’t require cooking below;

  • strips of peppers
  • cucumber
  • celery
  • chopped tomatoes
  • radishes
  • carrot sticks
  • salad leaves

Dairy – pot of plain yogurt, yoghurt drink, cheese or rice pudding, 

Drink – water or diluted sugar free squash

Not essential but you may like to include a low sugar option too from the following;

  • Small scone
  • Slice of malt loaf
  • Plain popcorn
  • Mini muffin

What foods should I avoid for toddlers’ lunches?

If your child is under 5 yrs of age then there are certain foods that could make them sick and are best avoided. These include, honey, unpasteurised cheeses, lightly cooked egg, rice drinks, raw fish (3)

foods to avoid in lunchboxes are shown in the picture of mixed whole nuts with the word allergy in the middle.
Nut allergies
  • Allergens 

It is likely that the preschool or nursery will have a nut free policy and other maybe other potential allergens. So it is best to not bring any nuts into the nursery or any nut products. 

  • Foods high in salt, fat and sugar. 

Some nurseries may have a policy or request that you don’t include foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. This would include foods such as chocolate, crisps, sweets. Toffee popcorn, other salty snacks. 

You could swap these high fat, salt and sugar foods (chocolate, sweets, crisps) for things like plain popcorn, malt loves, tea cakes, scones or low sugar biscuits, buns etc.  

  • Foods that could make them choke

Whole nuts, large grapes, tomatoes, blueberries, raw jelly cubes  

If you want to include these fruits then just make sure to chop them small enough (quarters) for toddlers. 

How do I make it easy for my child to eat their lunch?

Toddlers or children often don’t have very long to eat their lunch at a nursery or school, or they want to eat quickly so they can go and play. Here are some ways to make it easy for your child to eat their lunch at speed and make it appealing too. 

sandwiches cut into fun shapes using different cookie cutters
  • Make most of the lunch available as bite sized pieces. For example, serve veg or fruit that won’t go brown in slices or small pieces such as chopped apple slices, halved grapes, cucumber sticks.
  • Use little snack pots or silicone bun cases to put chopped food in. This makes it more colourful and they can easily eat with their fingers or a fork. 
  • Try making fun shapes with bread – mix with wraps, bread, rolls etc. This doesn’t have to be complicated, so it could be sandwiches cut into triangles or wraps chopped into log shapes. 
  • Use lots of attractive colours by putting in a variety of fruits and vegetables. This will make it more nutritious and more appealing to eat too. 
  • Get kids involved in making the lunchbox if they are old enough – it might make them more likely to eat it!

Other lunchbox tips

  • Offer variety and keep mixing up the things they have. This will ensure they are getting to try new things as well as having safe foods they enjoy. For example try mixing up different type of breads from day to day.
  • Dried fruit bars or dried fruit roll ups still contain alot of concentrated fruit sugars and best avoided. An alternative would be a small amount of some dried raisins or apricots, as long as they are only eaten at a mealtime with other foods so too much sugar is not being left on their teeth.
  • If they struggle with vegetables on their own then you could try adding a dip like hommous or sauce to make it more appealing to eat.

What are some healthy lunchbox ideas for toddlers? 

Savoury lunchbox ideas

Sweet lunchbox ideas

Vegetarian ideas

References given on request

Now you know what makes a up a healthy lunchbox as well as some recipe ideas. I hope your inspired to mix things up and give a fun variety of different foods for your child’s lunch.

If you also struggle with healthy snacks I have the perfect mini guide that can help with recipe inspiration and portion sizes.

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MEET THE AUTHOR
Author Penelope Henderson

Hi I’m Penelope Henderson RNutr Registered Nutritionist specialising in children’s nutrition and responsive feeding therapy.

I am a mum of 2, with over 15 years of experience in nutrition. I support parents to feel confident in how and what to feed their child. I hope you find my recipes and nutrition posts useful, so you can enjoy stress free cooking and mealtimes.

More about me

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