Lunch Ideas for Toddlers at Day Care

By Erica Loop
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Even though your toddler isn't with you for lunch, you can still serve him the same nutritious foods that he delights in at home. While the day care setting presents obstacles that may get in the way of him having foods that require complicated preparations, you can simplify his menu to make it fit for school.

Food and Allergy Safety

Before you pack your toddler's midday meal, you'll need to take safety guidelines for her age group into mind. Children under the age of 3 can easily choke on small-sized, hard, sticky or chunky foods. Foods such as whole hot dogs, jelly beans, chunky peanut butter, raw carrots, celery, seeds and whole grapes are all potential choking hazards, according to Food allergies also present safety issues. Day cares often have strict food guidelines that prohibit common allergens such as nuts. Check with your child's center about its food policies. Avoid those foods or make substitutions as a courtesy to keep other kids safe. For example, if your child adores peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at home, skip the peanut products and just add jelly. Another option is to swap out the potentially problematic filling for flavored cream cheese, a vegetable spread or hummus.

Fruits and Vegetables

Two-year-olds need one cup each of fruits and vegetables daily, according to KidsHealth. Even though a baggie of grapes and carrots seems like an easy option, without proper preparation, these foods aren't safe for toddlers. Stick to easy-to-eat foods that are equally as easy to transport, such as an individual serving of applesauce, a mashed avocado spread over whole-wheat bread, grapes cut into quarters, melon pieces or a banana. Anther easy-to-eat nutritious option is cooked broccoli or cauliflower. You can also pack a fruit or vegetable juice blend as an alternative. Opt for a no-sugar-added 100 percent juice to maximize the nutrition value.

Whole Grains

Your 2-year-old needs 3 ounces of whole-grain foods per day, according to KidsHealth. Choosing whole-grain foods such as 100 percent wheat bread or toasted oat cereal help to provide your young child with the daily fiber that she needs, according to For example, pack a cheese sandwich made with whole-wheat bread or whole-wheat crackers. You can also pack a cup of toasted oat cereal in a baggie that she can eat as a finger food or pour into a bowl to have with milk. Pack up leftovers from last night's dinner and include a serving of whole-wheat pasta. Add tomato sauce with cooked vegetables in it to make the meal more nutritious. Another leftover option is to give your child breakfast for lunch and have the center reheat whole-wheat pancakes. Add cut strawberries or bananas to sneak in a serving of fruit.


Toddlers require two cups of milk and two ounces of meats or beans per day. Pack a tot-sized portion of the previous night's dinner. Include easy-to-chew foods such as meatloaf, cubed tofu or a tuna casserole. Before you add leftovers or a frozen favorite such as chicken nuggets, ask the center if they are able to reheat your child's lunch. If the day care is unable or unwilling to warm your child's food, pack lean slices of turkey on whole-wheat bread or roll up deli ham into a scroll shape for him to eat with his hands. Switch up your child's protein selection and add beans, suggests the nutrition health professionals at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. While hard whole beans can be a choking hazard for toddlers, a smooth spread such as hummus or white bean paste is an easy alternative that you can add to a sandwich. You can also pack extra protein into your little one's lunch with a dairy item such as yogurt, cheese, cream cheese spread on a cut-up bagel or a container of milk.

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.