One size doesn't fit all when it comes to school lunch. Find out how to pack healthy lunches your toddler or preschooler will eat up!

By Sally Kuzemchak
October 26, 2016
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Pancake sandwich bento box lunch
Credit: Yunhee Kim

Packed lunches aren't just for K-12 kids. If your child attends daycare or eats lunch at preschool, you may be prepping lunch boxes every day too. A lot of lunches you see online are geared toward older kids, so here are a few tips for packing for the pint-sized set:

1. Rethink portions. One of my biggest tips for parents who see a lot of unfinished food come home: Cut back on the amount that you pack. Big portions can be overwhelming to kids—especially little kids—and that may prevent them from even starting. Small portions simply look more doable. Five grapes is a lot more manageable than a big bunch! I actually find that the less I pack, the more food my kids eat.

2. Go for hand-held. Hand-held foods are my favorite for packed lunches, especially for little kids who may still be learning how to manage utensils. Finger foods are quicker and easier to eat and more likely to go from lunch box to belly. Cut sandwiches into four smaller pieces and slice fruit. Pack a cloth napkin for messy hands.

3. Consider the packaging. Toddlers and preschoolers may have a tough time opening packages—and teachers may be stretched thin when helping kids during lunch. When possible, unwrap packaged foods. Even opening bananas can be tricky at this age. Cutting a slit in the stem will help get them started. Also, be sure to get a lunch box that's easy to open and close (sounds silly, but I know from experience that a cute lunch box is no good if your kid can't even open it!). And be sure your child is able to open and close all containers easily (practice at home to be sure).

4. Watch out for choking hazards. For kids age 4 and younger, slice foods into small pieces and avoid things like chunks of hot dog, popcorn, whole nuts, whole grapes, and chunks of meat or cheese that could get lodged in their throats.

5. Think outside the box. This is a perfect time to start building healthy eating habits, so consider ALL types of food when packing, not just the usual lunch box staples. For instance, instead of a sandwich, you could pack some bites of leftover chicken or pieces of hard-boiled egg. Don't think your child will eat veggies at lunchtime? I didn't think mine would eat leftover roasted broccoli until I packed it—and he ate it! Here are some fun lunch box ideas for little kids that will help them learn their letters while having fun with food.

For more inspiration, check out these 20 Healthy Lunchboxes for Toddlers and Preschoolers and follow the hashtag #healthylittlelunchbox on Instagram.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.