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School lunch ideas for picky eaters

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Countertop with school lunch box containing foods picky eaters may like

If your child is a picky eater it can be quite the challenge to come up with easy school lunch ideas that he or she will still eat. Don't worry, here are some great solutions that I myself use for my own picky eater.

And yes, this article does not assume that your kid likes sandwiches! I totally get that the picky eaters are not going to be happy with just trying variations on sandwiches. Here are some tried-and-true lunch box ideas for kids that I myself use and that work beautifully with picky eaters. And not a sandwich among them.

These ideas will all be quick and easy to assemble in the morning before school - there is nothing that takes a ton of prep time.

First, let's look at some general tactics that will help you (groceries, setting it up) and your kid (making it appetizing to eat) and then we'll look at some specific packed lunch ideas that will go over well. This is mom-to-mom advice; I'm not a qualified nutritionist so if your child has specific nutrition needs or you want to be certain it's a balanced diet, see a nutritionist or have your child's doctor refer you.

If you want to skip the tactics and jump down to kid friendly lunch ideas for school, here are the lunch menu options where I give ideas for cold mains, hot mains, sides and drinks.

Important tactics for fixing packed lunches for picky eaters

For your sanity with groceries

  1. I've found it helps keep everything simple if you take the "main and sides" point of view with school lunches, even if you're not fixing sandwiches or something that's an obvious "main". I'll show actual menu examples further along about this, but for now, just bear in mind that you'll be serving a main and some sides. The amount of sides versus main may vary from day to day, but it really does help take the stress away to think of it as a main with sides, as you'll see in the next points.
  2. The side items you pack would typically be things like fruits and vegetables, pretzels, etc. Try to always include at least one fruit or vegetable in their lunch box, preferably more if possible. I know it's not always going to be realistic to do more than one fruit or vegetable each time depending on your child's tastes. Under the next heading I explain how to select those for picky eaters.
  3. When going to the grocery store, don't try to over-plan the fruits and veges side items. Do not say "on Monday, the fruit or vegetable will be this, on Tuesday that", and so on. This is actually quite hard to do and inevitably you run out of something and need to go back to the store too frequently, or the item goes bad before you can use it, and so on. Instead, simply buy a few different fruits and vegetables - your child doesn't need to love them as long as he or she doesn't hate them. The key here is to buy different items that won't all go ripe at the same time. For example, one week I might buy cherry tomatoes, plums, a cucumber, and strawberries in my shopping trip. I would use the strawberries first as the lunchbox side, since they'll go bad soonest. Then on subsequent days I'd use the others as sides based on which needs to be used first. So in this situation, each morning when you fix lunch, you look in the fruit bowl and the vegetable drawer of your fridge and say "what fruit or vegetable could I use today?"
  4. Below I'll show plenty of options for mains, but don't feel bad if you're starting out by rotating between only a few different mains during the course of the week. (You'll be rotating the sides more anyway). Over the course of a few weeks, aim to start branching out gradually into other mains I've listed. By contrast, with a less picky eater you could easily do a much bigger menu rotation, but realistically at this point you're just trying to get healthy nutrition into your child. So if there's a bit more repetition than you'd like, that's OK for now.

To make it appetizing to your child

  1. Lean towards putting several different things in their lunch box in smaller servings, instead of a massive serving of one or two things. It sounds obvious I know, but this makes a huge difference to your child. It shows them they have options and choices when they open their lunch box.
  2. Make sure there are foods of different texture - aim for some crunchy and some softer foods in the lunch box. Don't worry, I have lots of options of sides and mains further below, so most likely this will happen naturally. Many picky eaters are sensitive to texture just as much as to taste, and prefer a variety of textures within a meal for it to appeal.
  3. Make sure there's at least one item they like and will definitely eat in their lunch box. Don't include anything you know they hate, but aim to put in at least one item they're so-so about. Remember that sometimes kids need to be exposed to a food they're not excited about multiple times before he or she eats it, and they're more likely to wind up eating it if it's right there in the lunchbox. For example, my child hates bananas so I don't put them in. But he will eat cherry tomatoes even though he's not a big fan of them. He won't ask for cherry tomatoes, and probably won't think to eat them on his own, but if there are a few in his lunch box, he will still eat them. So put those sorts of things in to get your picky eater accustomed to eating other foods.
  4. For those items they're so-so about, only include a small amount of those. If an item appears scarce, the child is more likely to eat it than if there's a whole lot of it. Scarcity can make something look more appealing! Plus, your child won't get overwhelmed by the item. Literally a few bites worth is fine for these types of items. Remember, you'll also be including items they like, and a main (ideas of these will be shown below).
  5. Inform your child they are allowed to tell you what foods they want to see in their school lunch more often (if your child is old enough to be able to request - a preschooler might struggle with that). So instead of asking your kid what foods they want to avoid, ask what they want to have more frequently. So long as it's not candy or something like that, you'll do your best to put it in more often. Remind them you're not a mind-reader and therefore might not already know what they want to have more often. You may be pleasantly surprised here. When I tried that tactic with my child, he said "oh - I didn't know I was allowed to request!" So this tactic is a win-win for both of you.

Menu options for your child's lunch box

For each lunch, I typically fix 1 main, 2 - 4 sides, and a drink. Some mains here are smaller or bigger than others, so adjust the amount of sides accordingly.

If you want the items to not touch each other yet you want to be sustainable and avoid plastic wrap or zip-lock bags, take a look at these adorable small snack containers from ECOlunchbox. You simply place these mini-containers into your child's existing lunch box - you don't need purchase a whole specific "system". Read product descriptions carefully as some are designed to be leakproof (you could use them for yogurt) and others are not (use them for pre-cut fruit, cheese, etc).

Cold mains

  • Mini charcuterie board - a few slices of salami and of any other lunch meat you have on hand (chicken, ham), plus some crackers and small cheese slices. A regular cheese slice cut into 4 equal squares is perfect
  • Protein bar - I recommend Clif Kid Z Bar Protein - they also make regular Z bar without protein, but for a main you'd want the one containing protein
  • Healthy dippers - Hummus can be bought pre-made and is high in protein. Pair it with a selection of dippable items such as baby carrots, celery, pita bread squares, cucumber or whatever your child may like to dip
  • Beef jerky
  • Chicken salad rolled in a small taco or fajita wrap
  • Boiled egg
  • Roasted garbanzo beans (chickpeas) - prepare this fun, high protein item a day or two ahead using the instructions in this easy recipe
  • Tuna salad with crackers
  • Parfait with fruit, granola and Greek yogurt

A thermos lets your kid expand into hot lunch options

It's well worth getting a small thermos designed for food that can easily fit into your child's lunchbox so that he or she can occasionally have a hot main instead of a cold one. It really helps expand out your child's menu options. My son has this exact thermos from Amazon in the small 12oz size option and it's working beautifully for his lunches.

In the morning simply microwave the food as you would normally do, then put it into the thermos and place the thermos in your child's lunch box. Make sure you include a utensil in the lunch box! Here are hot school lunch ideas for a picky eater's thermos.

Hot mains

  • A pre-prepared frozen microwave meal - I recommend the Michelina Pop'n Chicken because it's very kid-friendly as well as being affordable. Just heat according to instructions in the morning, place it in the thermos and voila! I find this even easier to fix than many of the cold main options.
  • Macaroni cheese - No, you don't need to spend ages at a hot stove for this! Many mac-n-cheese brands come in cup-sized packages designed to be heated up quickly in the microwave; these are perfect to fix for a lunch thermos
  • Leftovers from the previous night's dinner - if your child liked what you cooked last night, reheat a portion in the morning for their thermos. Cut larger items into bite sized pieces after heating up.
  • Chicken nuggets - Any brand of frozen chicken nuggets that you happen to have on hand will work fine so long as they can be microwaved. Simply microwave a serving of nuggets and place in the thermos
  • Leftover pizza - If you have a slice of pizza left over from last night's dinner, microwave it and then, while it's still on the plate, cut it into bite sized pieces with knife and fork and place the pieces in the thermos. I can attest that this goes over just fine with kids! Even if it's probably not your preferred way to eat pizza, kids think it's a whole lot of fun
  • Scrambled eggs - this is something you would cook quickly in the morning and then pop into the thermos

Side items

Remember to keep portions and serving sizes small unless you know it's something your child loves. Don't give them an entire apple, for example, unless you know for sure they'll eat it all. Remember, you don't want to overwhelm a picky eater.

  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Apple slices
  • Clementine segments
  • Canteloupe or melon chunks
  • Any other fruit your child will eat
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Regular tomato wedges (cut a tomato into 4 quarters, then remove the hard bit where the stem was)
  • Cucumber slices
  • Red or yellow bell pepper strips - I would not recommend green bell pepper as it's quite bitter, but red or yellow is sweet and refreshing, and goes over surprisingly well even with picky eaters
  • Radish slices - this sounds like an odd choice, but many kids, even those with who you might not expect to like radishes, find the zing of radishes to be a positive and exciting thing. A little goes a long way, so I'd recommend no more than 3 or 4 thin slices of radish per lunch.
  • Applesauce - there are other flavors of applesauce too, such as ones with pear or strawberry in it by Mott's
  • Dry cereals - not the ones you have for breakfast, but maybe something that is a little more of a treat or "fun food" yet still healthier than cookies, chips etc
  • Fruit or vegetable pouches - for example GoGo Squeez or Organic Slammers
  • Pretzels
  • Pirate's Booty cheese puffs - I don't know if it's the pirate themed packaging, the word "Booty" or the fun taste of the item, but I found that these healthy cheese puffs go over really well with my kids and all their friends. These are gluten free, kosher, and baked not fried, with no artificial colors or preservatives.
  • Yogurt
  • String cheese
  • Green pea snack crisps by Harvest Snaps - these come in a range of different flavors. They're very nutritious; they are real peas dried into crunchy crisps and lightly flavored
  • Pita bread or naan bread cut up into squares
  • Dried fruit - there are so many options here besides raisins. Try dried apricots, dried dates, and more. Browse the dried fruit section in the grocery store. If you have a very picky eater, try Sun-Maid yogurt covered raisins or chocolate covered raisins
  • Fiber One chocolate brownie bars - these individually wrapped bars are cheap, healthier than cookies, and kids love them. This was another item that was always a big hit when my kids had friends over. If you can find your store brand generic of these, I'd recommend it because the packaging of the generic might look more fun and appealing to your child. By contrast, the Fiber One package looks rather "healthy" and grown-up even though the food is fun and kid-friendly.

Drinks

Here are some ideas to switch things up from water, even though water is usually the best choice. It's not just about keeping teeth healthy by avoiding sugar, it's also because you'll want your picky eater to eat the food and not just fill up on the calories from drinks. All of that said, here are some options if you want to pack a somewhat healthy drink in their lunch box.

  • Naturally flavored sparkling water - you can find a variety of these at your local grocery store. Any berry-flavored ones tend to be kid friendly, for example strawberry, raspberry or blackberry flavor. Flavored sparkling waters typically have no sugar at all in them, and with certain brands there are also no artificial colors or flavors either. Although this is not as fun as other types of drinks your child might like, it's still a step up on regular water.
  • Shelf-stable / ultra-pasteurized chocolate milk - the kind that you find on the shelves not in the refrigerator (unless you have a way to keep the drink cold the whole time). I recommend the ready-to-drink Nesquik 8oz bottles, but there's also Horizon Organic's shelf-stable chocolate milk - it comes in other flavors too.
  • Capri-Sun - This brand makes a variety of juice drinks in pouches, and what I like best about it is that they have a collection of these with no added sugar and nothing artificial. Usually it has much less sugar per serving than fruit juice. You'll need to look carefully at individual cartons and flavors, as store shelves usually place all the Capri-Sun items together - the natural and the regular ones.

The bottom line for easy school lunch ideas

To sum up, take an approach of fixing a main and sides when packing school lunch. Above I've given you lots of kids lunch ideas for cold mains, hot mains to go into a thermos, sides, and drinks.

Packing reusable lunch ware makes an impact

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