In the laundry list of things we parents worry about, for some reason, my toddler’s daycare lunches have been a troublesome topic for me.
I know it’s silly—there are far greater worries to have—and yet I have spent countless hours researching, baking, and preparing lunches.
When I really think about it, this began when I was pregnant and concerned with every item I consumed and how each might impact my son’s development. The responsibility of nourishing him is even greater now that he is actually here, and eating the food in his daycare lunches on his own, with watchful (observant) eyes all around us. Yes, I have worried about judgment about our food choices. Perhaps because I am guilty of judging others (many of us are). But since not one of us is perfect, I remind myself that I don’t know the story or circumstance (and that what other people eat is truly none of my business). Besides, I can say with absolute confidence that while I endeavor otherwise, I don’t always make the best food choices.
My son eats a lot. Or, more than I expected a little human to consume. I found myself searching for a variety of daily daycare lunches that would be healthy and fill his belly, without being to0 time-consuming for me to put together.
When my son first started daycare, daycare lunches would take me over an hour each night to prepare and pack. Nowadays, I can put it all together in about 20 minutes.
As much as I have worried about my son eating well, life is crazy busy, and I simply don’t have an hour to spend on lunch each night (and still keep my sanity). I’ve found some food options that provide fairly healthy eats, without creating too much fuss. Some of these can be made in bulk, and even frozen, so it’s easy to portion out what I need in a moments notice.
Here are some of my favorite recipes for winning daycare lunches:
- Mini muffins: my mini muffin pan gets a lot of use. I’ve made a variety of muffins—banana, carrot, apple, blueberry, zucchini… It was a great way to introduce my son to foods when he started eating, and as a lunch snack, I would typically include two. These also freeze perfectly. I make a big batch, freeze them, and then defrost them the night before. Here are a couple recipes to try » Healthy Carrot Zucchini Mini Muffins / No Sugar Added Banana Mini Muffins
- Mini quiche or egg muffins: this is a really easy snack. I just whip up some eggs, milk, parmesan, chopped red peppers or chopped spinach, pour it into mini muffin liners, and bake at 350 degrees for around 12 minutes. Here is one recipe I follow (but I add in veggies rather than bacon) » Mini Egg Muffins. One batch makes a lot of mini quiches, and luckily these freeze well. (Note: I use paper towels to absorb moisture from the thaw).
- Mini pancakes: I had this idea on a whim as an alternative to muffins. I cut a banana into many slices, make some pancake mix, pour a small amount of batter into the pan, press a banana slice into the batter, cover the banana with more batter, and flip to perfection. You could use other fruit as you prefer. This one, while easy, takes quite a while to make in bulk. I usually cook 6-8 mini pancakes in a skillet at a time, and an hour later, I’ll have around 40 mini pancakes. For a snack, I give my son 3-4 pancakes and often cut them in half. Here’s an easy homemade pancake recipe you can use for the batter » Easy Homemade Pancakes. These also freeze well.
- Apples with cinnamon yogurt: my son hasn’t been crazy about apples, but he loves to dip his food in sauce. I thought, what could I have him dip his apple slices in, to make them more enticing? Peanut butter was out, with a peanut-free school. I decided to try Greek yogurt instead, mixed with a tiny amount of syrup and cinnamon. I don’t follow a recipe for this, but if you’re someone who likes more precise measurements, here is a recipe to try » Maple Cinnamon Greek Yogurt Dip.
- Sandwich sushi roll: a friend of mine did this for her son, and I thought it was genius. Take a wrap, layer ingredients, roll it up and slice it like a sushi roll. You now have bite-sized sandwiches. I use cheese and sliced turkey as the main ingredients, but my son really didn’t like the tortilla, so he would just unroll them and eat the insides. I still love this as a lunch option though, and I am sure other kids would, too. You can use sliced bread as an alternative to a tortilla, like in this recipe » Sandwich Sushi Roll.
- Mini Caprese salad: this was another idea I had on a whim. Since my son loves cheese, I wondered how I could use that to introduce him to other foods. I combined pearl mozzarella, sliced cherry tomatoes, basil and a drizzle of balsamic. I even added cucumbers. Honestly, he would just eat the mozzarella and nothing else, so I didn’t make this often, but given the size of the ingredients, this made for great finger food for little ones. Here is a good recipe to try » Mini Heirloom Caprese Salad.
- Mixed fruit: this is an obvious one. Since my son started eating solids, he has had mixed fruit in some variety every day (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, kiwi, mandarins, grapes, and strawberries are our go-tos). With washing the fruit, I wouldn’t say it is the easiest of his lunch items, and it certainly isn’t inexpensive, but it is the food choice I feel the best about.
Now, I don’t always have time to make a big batch food item, so I always include easy snacks that require very little prep.
Here are some simple daycare snack ideas to fill out your toddler’s lunch bag:
- Bananas (my son eats one a day)
- Freeze dried fruit pouches
- Squeeze pouches
- Prepared pasta
- Raisins or low-sugar cranberries
- Cheese and crackers or a cheese stick
- Veggie sticks or veggie booty
- Fresh or dried vegetables
- Boiled egg (we cut the egg in half and remove the yolk due to daycare allergies)
- Cottage cheese (alone or with mandarins)
- Smoothies (my favorite way to sneak in spinach and kale)
While there is some variety here, I do have a tendency to stick to the same items on a weekly basis to save time. However, I’m always looking for new ideas to keep things from getting stale (as long as they won’t take me an hour to prepare).