How to Pack a Healthy Lunchbox for Toddlers and Preschoolers

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Preschooler and toddler lunch box ideas

If you have a toddler or preschooler in your home, packing a nutritious lunchbox for them is a simple way to ensure that they are getting the fuel that they need to grow and thrive.

A lunchbox allows you to define the right balance of nutritious foods and snacks in appropriate portions for your child. And this is exactly what their little bodies need to get sustained energy and key nutrients that support growth and development.

This article will provide some tips and ideas to take the guesswork out of packing balanced lunches that your child will love. Let’s get started!

Why do healthy lunches matter?

A nutritious lunch gives toddlers and preschoolers the nutrients they need to support their growth and development.

Between ages 1 and 5 years, children experience rapid growth and require nutrient-dense foods to thrive. Their physical activity levels also increase substantially, so they need foods that provide lots of energy to keep up.

Unfortunately, many lunchbox favourites like sugary snacks, fruit juices, and processed deli meats are low in nutrients and high in unnecessary added sugar and salt. When you rely too heavily on these, your child might end up missing out on many essential vitamins and minerals and fall into bad habits of eating high-sugar, processed foods to get quick energy.

Healthy lunches that balance protein, whole grains, fruit and vegetables will provide optimal nutrition and lasting energy. This will help avoid the “crash” from high-sugar foods and ensure long-term satiety. The rule of thumb is if you are providing a carbohydrate, like bread, pasta, or crackers, ensure that it is paired with a protein source. This will help with sustained energy through the day, rather than having energy peaks and crashes which happens when eating refined carbohydrates on their own.

Additionally, these early formative years help lay the foundation for lifelong eating habits. Exposing young children to a variety of healthy foods sets them up to enjoy nutritious choices as they grow up.

With a little bit of planning, you can pack healthy lunches they’ll love while keeping nutrition a priority.

Understanding the nutritional needs of children

While toddlers and preschoolers have similar nutritional needs, there are some differences in the recommended daily intake of certain nutrients. It is also very important to remember that every child is an individual, therefore these quantities are only an estimate. It’s important to allow your child to regulate, which may mean that your child eats more or less than his/her peers and this is OK. It’s also important to focus on what your child eats over 3 days rather than focusing on every meal and every day as it’s normal for a child’s intake to have considerable variability across days. Here’s everything you need to know:

Toddlers (1-3 years):

  • Calories: About 1000-1400 per day
  • Carbs: 130g
  • Protein: 13g
  • Fruit: 1-1.5 cups
  • Vegetables: 1-1.5 cups
  • Dairy: 2 cups (16 oz.)

Preschoolers (3-5 years):

  • Calories: About 1200-1600 per day
  • Carbs: 130g
  • Protein: 19g
  • Fruit: 1-1.5 cups
  • Vegetables: 1-2 cups
  • Dairy: 2.5 cups (20 oz.)

As you can see from above, the difference in their needs does not differ that much between the two age groups. They both benefit from eating a variety of nutrient-rich foods. The key is to read their signs and offer food until they are full and allow them to stop a meal when they say they are done. The most important skill you can teach your child is how to regulate themselves and to be able to listen to their body.

Choosing nutrient-rich foods

Packing a healthy lunchbox starts with stocking your pantry with wholesome food staples. Here are some nutritious options to include from each food group:

  • Grains: Choose whole grains like whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, and oats. These provide important nutrients like fibre, B vitamins, and iron. Limit refined grains such as white bread.
  • Protein: Protein helps kids feel full for longer. If you can, always opt for organic and grass-fed. Try turkey, beef, chicken, eggs, beans, tofu, natural Greek yogurt, legumes and cheese.
  • Fruit: Pack a variety! Berries, citrus, apples, bananas… The sky is the limit. Fruit is a great source of vitamins, fibre and polyphenols (antioxidants).
  • Veggies: Incorporate different colours and textures. For example, you can have a meal with carrots, beetroot, capsicum, cucumbers, pumpkin, and sweet potato. Try to expose them to some greens like spinach, cabbage and broccoli. Green and cruciferous vegetables are a powerhouse of goodness. The bitter taste could be a challenge for some kids, but you could encourage them to dip it in hummus or avocado mash to make the taste more palatable. Struggling to get your kids to eat more veggies? Read our article How to Have Fun with Vegetables for some ideas on how to encourage your kids to eat more vegetables.
  • Dairy: Cheese, natural Greek yogurt, and yoghurt-based dips. Choose unsweetened varieties and organic and grass-fed, if possible.

If you prefer buying packaged foods rather than cooking meals at home, focus on minimally processed options and look for items with short ingredient lists. Little Bellies offers an extensive range of wholesome, organic, clean and simple snacks that would make a perfect addition to a healthy lunchbox for toddlers and preschoolers:

  • High in wholegrain, Little Bellies crunchy brown rice bites with mango and banana flavours are perfect mini munchers for tots on the go!
  • Looking for bite-size fruit options? How about Little Bellies organic fruit bars and sultanas?
  • Want to expand your toddler palate with some vegetable flavours? Look no further: Little Bellies veggie tubes and pumpkin & carrot softcorn!
  • Looking for ways to introduce nut butter? Try spreading it on Little Bellies wholegrain animal and gingerbread men biscuits to make grumbly tummies happy.

Pre-schooler lunchbox ideas:

Keep kids hydrated

Water helps to digest food and keeps kids going between meals. Kids can feel hungry when they are dehydrated as hunger symptoms are very similar to thirst. So, make sure they always have plenty of water with them.

Avoid sugary beverages like juice drinks or chocolate milk which are just empty calories – lots of sugar, minimal or zero nutritional value. Adding lemon, cucumber, or frozen berries to the water can help jazz it up a little and make it more flavourful to encourage drinking.

Lunchbox Ideas from the Little Bellies Community of Mums:

  • Carrot sticks, cucumber cubes and lightly steamed cauliflower florets with hummus or avocado and feta mash
  • Little Bellies Mango Bites and Animal Biscuits with almond butter spread.
  • Pumpkin and sweet potato mash (excellent source of fibre) with beans or lentils (protein).
  • Chicken sandwich with multigrain bread. Sneak in some green veggies like rocket and spinach, cucumber and Brussels sprout slices.
  • Turkey sandwich with multigrain bread, beetroot slices and Little Bellies sultanas.
  • Swiss cheese on multigrain toast and Little Bellies BBQ flavoured puff corn.
  • Quinoa and cucumber cubes salad with shredded beetroot, carrots and cauliflower florets. Add in some Little Bellies watermelon sultanas to bump up the flavour.
  • Boiled egg with yolk mixed with some cod liver or chicken liver. Could be an acquired taste, but worth a try given the incredible nutritional value this combination provides.
  • Low in sugar berries like strawberries or raspberries with sesame spread on Little Bellies Sweet & Tangy Brown Rice & Quinoa crackers.
  • Quiche with peas, cheese, mushrooms or chicken.
  • Unsweetened Greek yoghurt with berries and oats.
  • Swiss cheese cubes with Little Bellies apple flavoured sour sultanas – a flavour bomb!

Final Thoughts

As you can see, with a little creativity and some preparation, packing nutritious lunchboxes for your toddler or pre-schooler is easy. The key takeaway here is that you need to focus on providing balanced portions of wholesome foods for maximum nutrition and long-term satiety. Bon Appétit!

Photo by Ola Mishchenko on Unsplash