Real Food Without Fuss: Easy Daycare Lunch Ideas

by Nicole Lemperle Correia
Our kids are constantly growing and learning (and wiggling and giggling and, yes, testing those boundaries), and it’s important to fuel their busy little bodies with nutritious meals and snacks.

I often feel stuck in a rut when packing daycare and school lunches at this time of year, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I find myself resorting to the same lunches that I know my 20-month-old and 5-year-old will eat, and we all get bored with the same food day after day. I try to pack lunches that include healthy and nutritious food to get them through the day, and it always helps me to have a list of ideas to refer to. 

Real Food Without Fuss

Simply put, “real food” is food made with few, simple ingredients (or, in the case of fruits, vegetables, and grains, only one ingredient). 100 Days of Real food has a more detailed definition, and many helpful real food resources. 
The best meals for kids (and grown ups) contain whole grains, food made with no (or very little) refined sweeteners like white sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and include some healthy protein. There are a lot of options for nutritious, kid-friendly (and daycare-friendly) meals out there. 

Healthy Lunch Ideas:

Here are a few daycare lunch ideas to help us all out of that spring rut. These are all nut-free:
  • Whole wheat mini pitas with one of the following fillings: cream cheese and jam, sunflower seed butter, tuna, sliced turkey, or hummus and cheese 
  • Chicken and/or veggie and cheese quesadillas on a whole wheat tortilla with plain yogurt for dipping (some favorite fillings in our house, along with cheese: spinach and black beans; mashed sweet potato; shredded carrot; corn; chicken)
  • Beans + a grain (black beans and brown rice or quinoa, chickpeas with bulgur, farro and white beans)
  • Sweet potato topped with beans, salsa, and/or cheese or seasoned with cinnamon and a bit of honey
  • Cucumber and cream cheese sandwich (toast the bread first to keep it from getting soggy)
  • Turkey chili sent in an insulated jar
  • Cous cous with peas, cooked carrots, or beans
  • Scrambled eggs, plain or with cheese and veggies
  • Whole wheat pasta or soba noodles (with pesto or red sauce or just a little butter) mixed with peas or corn or beans
  • Tortilla roll-up with your child’s favorite fillings
  • Soup and whole grain crackers 
  • Oatmeal, plain or with cinnamon and/or fruit
  • Lentils - can be punched up with veggies and whatever seasoning combo your child prefers.
  • Burrito filled with brown rice/beans/corn/spinach/cheese/whatever you have on hand
  • Pizza made with whole wheat crust, english muffin, or pita (to get in some extra veggies, shred/puree and mix them into the sauce or put them over the sauce and cover with cheese- this works well with chopped spinach, shredded carrots, etc)
  • Sunflower butter and jam on whole wheat bread or rice cakes
  • Pita with hummus or pesto (this easy kale pesto recipe is great)
  • Waffle sandwiches (we make and freeze a batch of waffles on the weekend) - with cream cheese and/or jam or sunflower butter and/or honey (for kids over age 1).
  • Pancakes (again, we freeze the extras when we have pancakes on the weekend - extra points for getting some fruit in there)
  • Avocado sandwich with lemon juice
  • Dippers- spears of peppers, snap peas, carrots, cucumbers, and any other veggies your kids like, along with pretzels or pita triangles, served with a side of hummus, dressing, or yogurt for dipping.

Easy sides and Snacks (also nut-free): 

  • Freeze dried fruit (I find this at Trader Joe's). My toddler likes the bananas, strawberries, mangoes, and raspberries.
  • Cheese stick 
  • Frozen peas or corn, heated or sent cold
  • Apple sauce (look for the individual cups of unsweetened applesauce that contain only apples and water- no sugar added, or make your own.) 
  • Fresh fruits and veggies: Grapes, pomegranate seeds, strawberries, banana, melon, avocado, cherry tomatoes, carrots, cherries, clementine segments, cucumbers, etc - serve with hummus or dressing for dipping.
  • Edamame (shelled, sent warm or cold - buy frozen and keep on hand)
  • Yogurt (plain with some jam or honey mixed in)
  • Hard boiled egg
  • Dried seaweed/nori (it may sound weird, but I know lots of toddlers and preschoolers that love it!)
  • Homemade cheese crackers (easy and tasty- just 3 ingredients)
  • Homemade sweet potato chips or 'fries' - another thing that can be made in big batches and frozen/reheated. 
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Cottage cheese with fruit
  • Stove-top or air-popped popcorn (we make this in big batches to have with lunches all week)

*Real food should be organic and/or local when possible.

Check out these additional resources for real-food lunch and snack ideas:
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