Toddler lunch daycare strategies
April 3, 2023 8:42 AM   Subscribe

In around a month, we will have to make 5x lunches a week for our 2 year old son to bring to daycare. No food restrictions, there's a microwave but we're thinking cold food easier. Trip is about 20 minutes on public transit, 30 walking. It can get hot. What are your tips and containers to make this as painless, effective and not wasteful as possible?
posted by sandmanwv to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The first tip I have is not to get too upset when food gets wasted, because it will. Kids' appetites really do go up and down and part of packing lunches is to accept and/or plan for that. My rule of thumb is aim for the middle and pack an extra something.

For keeping lunch cold we have lunch bags (ours are Roots but I think Costco carries a different brand in the US) that have ice packs that fit them, the solid kind, and that helps keep food decently cold. For containers, we have the small Thermoses (because we don't have a microwave) and then a series of containers that fit in the bag.

For a toddler I'd go with bento-style finger food. I didn't like the bento actual containers because I wanted more variation but ymmv. If you look up bento style lunches you can find a ton of ideas. Some things that were favourites with my kids at young ages were:

- pinwheel wrap sandwiches cut small
- cereal or french toast (cereal eaten cold, french toast dipped into a bit of jam or syrup)
- all manner of vegetables/fruit/etc
- chickpeas. Just chick peas.
- smoked tofu cubes

And then pretzels, small crackers, mini breakfast cookies, etc.

Cheese cubes sometimes got slimy so we did end up going to the babybel-type cheeses. Packaging sigh.

But other powerhouse options were:

- mini quiches (I used the mini frozen pie tarts to make them)
- muffins - savoury and sweet, but I would stuff them with grated veggies and sometimes proteins
- mini hand pies - samosas, empanadas, filo pastry around ratatouille, mini tofu dogs in blankets, that kind of thing
- mini bagels and cream cheese

You can use cookie cutters to cut out sandwiches and that made the 'hit rate' of the kids eating them go up.

We still try for low- or no-waste in terms of packaging, in which case I recommend containers that your child can open and which go in the dishwasher. But sometimes I have caved to the convenience of something like the Mann's dried apple slices or packaged crackers, mostly because if they don't open them they can go back in the next lunch.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:00 AM on April 3, 2023 [3 favorites]

Our daycare provides lunch, but we thought our oldest had some food allergies when she first started eating solids, so we’ve packed her lunch. And pretty much the whole time we’ve been packing, it’s been basically the same thing: turkey cold cuts, single-serve microwaveable green beans, single-serve applesauce, berries, and a snack. The snack varies, but Pirate’s Booty is the most common. Sometimes we’ll switch up the beans for peas, and if we have leftovers of something like grilled chicken that might replace the turkey, but that’s the basic formula. Nutritionally, the applesauce and berries are probably redundant, but she loves fruit, so that’s kind of her treat. We generally avoid real treats like candy at school, because we know that’ll get eaten first, and she’ll leave the expensive and protein-rich turkey until it gets tossed out at the end of lunch. But she gets one when she gets home. Some kids would probably prefer more variety, but she’s a real routine-eater.

We’ve used an LLBean lunch box to keep it cool. No ice packs, but they put it in the fridge when she gets to school. Everything except the turkey and berries is pre-packaged, and we used Sistema tupperware to hold those (strong seal).
posted by kevinbelt at 9:16 AM on April 3, 2023

Sistema tupperware is your friend.

Mine were much happier when their daycare was able to microwave their lunch (in which case I used small pyrex containers for their hot food: pasta, risotto, any and all leftovers). Alas that didn’t last long and thermoses SUCK so it was cold food for a long time. Mine hate sandwiches or anything sandwich related, so it was a lot of finger foods: cold cuts (ham or turkey) rolled into strips and cut into wheels, cheese, pickles, vegetables, lots and lots of fruit, Hummus packs, guacamole packs, yogurts (drinkable or pouches), protein or fruit bars (no nuts).

Mine are in elementary school now and I still have to pack their snack (and lunch often, since our school lunches suck) and my formula essentially has not changed since daycare. Lots of small things so they can pick! Thermos the brand makes a nice insulated lunch box that can be wiped down easily.
posted by lydhre at 9:54 AM on April 3, 2023

We love Planetbox lunch boxes. They don't have any plastic, which is a) better for your health and b) lasts much longer. Our kids have been using theirs from age 2 to ages 11 and 8, and the boxes show no signs of wear. You just need to replace the bags from time to time because they get smelly. They're a little heavier than most but kids can handle it, especially if you put it in a backpack. You can get little inserts for sauces or other runny things. You can hand wash or dishwash the boxes every afternoon and then repack them every night. And Amazon sells some great flat blue ice packs that you can throw in the bag in the morning and then put back in the freezer every night.

For snacks, we like compostable ziplocs and Ziptop silicone bags.
posted by equipoise at 11:09 AM on April 3, 2023

For my little person I bought 8 bento type containers. Washing a box and having it ready for the next morning is just not going to happen in our house so we needed at least 5. They were sold in packs of 4 so I ended up with 8. I chose a non-fussy style. 4 same size compartments and no weird edges to collect grit.

We usually put various things in the 4 containers. Hard boiled eggs, fruit, crackers, veggies, cut up bites of chicken, cereal etc. And then I pack a yogurt and granola bar. Our child eats morning snack, lunch and afternoon snack. Sometimes the granola bar comes back. Very rarely the yogurt comes back.

The granola bar and yogurt are in disposable packages and thats what works for us to make packing lunch easy. In summer you can put the yogurt in the freezer for a cooler treat.

The whole thing goes in a lunch bag with a cold pack. We have 6 cold packs so also not dependent on re-freezing the one from day before. In the event that the lunch bag doesn't make it home for some reason we put the usual lunch items in shopping bag.

Haven't done this yet but my little person really likes soup, which is a new thing and I might buy a couple of small thermos to send in soup.
posted by MadMadam at 11:30 AM on April 3, 2023

Remember not to make too large servings, they can be overwhelming for small children. Bento boxes are nice. I used small sistema containers in a plastic bag, but today I wouldn't do the plastic bag. I know some people wash them, but that doesn't work for me.
My children strongly preferred a simple pasta salad or a sandwich as the main course.
Pasta salad: penne, olive oil, lemon juice, seasoning, cherry tomatoes, pitted olives, fresh basil. Maybe frozen peas. This is vastly better if the pasta is cooked in the morning and packed warm. It won't be warm for lunch but the flavors meld better that way. A half cup of dry pasta is more than enough for a small child.
Sandwich: rye bread, lettuce, mayo, ham, salami or chicken, cucumber. Cut into triangles, because triangles taste better. For a two year old, you might only need two half triangles (quarters).
Potato sandwiches were also very popular, if we had leftover potato.

Sides could be carrots cut into manageable sticks, steamed broccoli, raisins, a few almonds, cherry tomatoes on sandwich days. Mandarin oranges when in season, but larger fruits were too big for them.

I try to avoid processed food, and they didn't often ask for them, but those little packages of processed cheese with tiny bread sticks were popular for a while.

In winter, I sometimes made a little thermos of soup for them, with a slice of bread on the side.

On ambitious days, I'd make hand pies, like samosas. Leftover pizza is nice, too.

I've mentioned this before here on the green: don't struggle to get a full nutritional meal in a lunchbox, there are at least two other meals a day. And don't worry about variation. When I tried to vary my kids' lunches, they often complained. (Actually, I think they got a lot of variation from trading things with friends, my youngest sometimes asked me to make a double lunch so she could share more. But that was in second grade).

My sister-in-law is a teacher, and she once reminded me that the lunchbox is a little bit of love from home, every day. So I often put in a little drawing -- just a heart or a cat, nothing special.
posted by mumimor at 11:52 AM on April 3, 2023 [1 favorite]

We used a four spaces bento thing, one for a veggie, one for a fruit, one for a protein and one for a carb.

So we might have one of the following: (pretzels/crackers/potato), (dried fruit/fresh fruit) (cheese/ham/turkey/beans/tofu), and (cucumber/carrot/broccoli/tomato). Thinking about it this way helps us substitute when something is out or we just need to use up what we have

Right now our kiddo gets a bunch of snacks, so she goes with a snack usually an applesauce or sometimes pretzels and cream cheese, and she's doing just fine.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:29 PM on April 3, 2023 [1 favorite]

Hello and welcome to the Donut Kingdom's lazy (AKA perfectly acceptable) toddler lunch packing 101.

Lesson number one is that the best thing to pack is what your toddler will eat. The internet would have you believe that you need to cut bell peppers into flowers so your toddler will eat vegetables at lunch. It's better if your toddler is full from lunch than if they leave their very fancy cut vegetables uneaten. (They still know when a flower is really a bell pepper).

We have these bento boxes. We put the bento into an insulated lunch box with a yumbox ice pack and a cold water thermos. We may put in two ice packs in the summer.

In the large container, munchkin gets a sandwich made with one slice of bread folded over the filling and then cut in half. The fillings are either sunbutter with honey, some sort of salami (cheese optional), or chocolate humus (when I can find it).

Smaller section number one is for fruit: sliced banana, squished blueberries, baked apples, orange segments, cut up melon. Seriously whatever is available.

Smaller section number two is a wild card. Could be the second half of a banana, a different fruit if I overbought fruit that week, pretzels, cheese in various forms, leftovers from takeout, occasionally some sort of baked good if I'm feeling extra charitable.

I used to make cute little labels but my toddler told me to stop doing that which just made life easier for me anyway.
posted by donut_princess at 6:52 PM on April 3, 2023

Also, since our method is pretty easy, we pack the night before right before we go to bed. Makes for a much more pleasant morning.
posted by donut_princess at 6:56 PM on April 3, 2023

Once you've tried out a few of these ideas, or maybe when your kid is a bit older, you might try making a chart with some of the options and letting your child choose lunches for the week. I think I did that around age 4 or 5 for mine, with a column for protein, carb, vegetable, and fruit (being fairly basic about it). (I could also then look quickly at the chat to make that days lunch, because it has already been decided.)

Lunches don't need to be exactly balanced, but it's a fun way to start learning about the concept. And it's nice to find out if your kid is the sort who would rather have the same lunch every day or the one who wants a new vegetable every day this week, so you can shop accordingly.

And a little note is always nice. At first we mostly sent quick drawings, when our kid couldn't read. But some of the first things she learned to read were the "I love you" at the bottom.
posted by blueberry monster at 3:37 PM on April 4, 2023 [1 favorite]

« Older Looking for article about Trump in New York City.   |   Niagara Falls / NYC road trip ideas Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.