With little ones back in school, it’s time refocus on packing nourishing, on-the-go (and kid-friendly!) food. But what should toddlers eat for energy and lasting fuel? And how can you get creative when your child’s particularness is discouraging? Knowing what to pack can be stressful—I get it. If you’re stumped over what to piecemeal for snacks and lunches, look no further. These 15 nutritious meals for toddlers will help keep their energy up and their blood sugar stable. Without further ado, I’m sharing a simply lunch box formula, as well as tips and tricks for raising healthy eaters. This guide will spark inspiration and help make lunch box prep easy, healthy, and fun.
children are intuitive eaters
One of the most powerful things we can glean from our children is how in-tune they are with their hunger cues. They’re intuitive eaters. And while their pickiness can certainly be frustrating, it’s our responsibility to model healthy behaviors around food—including staying calm when they refuse to eat what’s for dinner. Ultimately, when given the space to eat unconditionally, they can develop a healthy relationship with food. And this can have a positive, lifelong impact. Because as many of us know, a negative relationship with food can lead to an everlasting struggle with body image, self-confidence, and weight. But by encouraging your kids to foster a natural, trustful relationship with food, maybe you’ll find healing for yourself, too.
How to raise a normal eater
While normal looks different for everyone, the gist is to raise children to have a mindful yet enjoyable (read: stress-free!) relationship with food.
1. STRIVE for body neutrality
Monkey see, monkey do. A wonderful place to start is to not see our bodies as an enemy. Rather than strive for body positivity, strive for body neutrality around your kids. Remember, how you regard your body will influence your child’s perceptions about “good” bodies, and how their own bodies compare to this standard.
2. TRY NOT TO USE FOOD AS A REWARD OR PUNISHMENT
This is one is easier said than done. However, using food as a reward—or punishment—is so tempting. The problem with this is that it automatically deems certain foods are good and others are bad. Non-food rewards, like special activities or a day out with a parent, can be just as effective. Not using food as reward or punishment also avoids putting foods into boxed categories—a mentality that can carry over into adulthood.
3. LET GO OF THE CLEAN PLATE CLUB
Remember that children are inherent intuitive eaters. They know when they are hungry and when they are full. They might gravitate toward some foods more than others, and in that case you can explore more foods, together.
4. PRIORITIZE FAMILY MEALS
Family meals are crucial for how to raise a normal eater. After all, they protect against disordered eating. Planning family meals with busy schedules can feel impossible—therefore, aim to eat together as often as possible, even if it’s not every night.
5. don’t focus on your child’s size
Studies show that being teased and bullied as a child impacts an adult’s food and lifestyle choices. And their mental health (not surprising). Rather than focus on a child’s size, which will change over time, try to be neutral. Note the diversity of bodies and how they naturally come in different shapes and sizes. Encourage children to eat a variety of foods, and encourage them to do physical activities that bring them joy.
Expanded tips on how to raise a normal eater, plus book suggestions, here.
5 Nutrients toddlers need to grow
Before we dive into nutritious meals for toddlers, it’s helpful to understand what nutrients help toddlers grow, have energy, etc. As a whole, it’s pretty easy to provide the nutrients your child needs—particularly once you learn what they are.
Iron helps move oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. It’s essential! It’s best to turn to iron-rich, real food sources to help meet your toddler’s need for iron. Iron is available in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme is found in meat, seafood, and poultry. It’s more absorbable than non-heme iron (plant-based sources of iron, like lentils, beans, tomato puree, and quinoa). Regardless, to increase absorption, pair iron with vitamin C (citrus, bell peppers, etc.).
Protein is another essential nutrient for your child’s growth and maintenance. Of all the nutrients kids need to be healthy, protein is key! It contains many nutrients that are needed for your child’s health. Other nutrients they also get from protein foods include iron, omega 3s, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium and selenium. If your child is plant-based, chat with your pediatrician about a B12 supplement.
Healthy fats are vital for everyone—infants and adults, alike. They protect major organs, increase nutrient absorption, prevent constipation, and stabilize blood sugar. And of course, they keep toddlers full and satisfied. The human brain is made up of nearly 60% fat, specifically the fatty acid DHA. DHA and EPA are found in fatty fish (ex: sardines or salmon), grass-fed beef, and algae (only reliable plant-based source of DHA). If your little one is vegan or mostly plant-based, my recommended plant-based source of DHA supplementation is marine algae.
Calcium is vital for building strong bones and teeth. For optimal absorption, pair foods with calcium with fat. Kid-friendly foods with calcium include plain yogurt, canned sardines (mashed with avocado), kefir (add to a smoothie), salmon, chia seeds, tahini, and spinach.
Choline is not a widely recognized nutrient, but it plays a crucial role in your child’s development. It supports brain development, enhances memory, improves cognitive function, and more. Food sources of choline include eggs, liver, salmon, beef, beans, lentils, and plain yogurt.
Follow this easy lunch box formula
There’s something momentous about opening your child’s lunch box, only to be pleasantly surprised by its emptiness (or near emptiness). It makes you feel superhuman—like you’ve solved the world’s problems, one lunch at a time. Or, maybe that’s just me? At any rate, here’s the lunch box formula I use to pack nutritious meals for toddlers. Follow this guide, and you’ll promote blood sugar balance, encourage satiation, and bring fun to functional foods.
Main + Fruit + Veggie + Snack / Treat
Main: protein, sandwich, wrap, quesadilla, pasta salad, pita + hummus, meatballs, pizza, egg bites, etc.
Fruit: berries, clementines, apples, grapes, banana, pear, stone fruit, watermelon, etc.
Veggie: carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, roasted veggies, zucchini, kale chips, potatoes, olives, etc.
Snack / Treat: crackers, veggie sticks, energy bites, homemade granola bar, etc.
15 Nutritious meals for toddlers
In need of health lunch box ideas? Look no further. Keep in mind that you can involve your toddler in the lunch-packing operation! One of the ways you can do this is by creating a go-to snack drawer. Consider this is the “school lunch basket.” If possible, buy these items in bulk—you’ll save money while having a drawer full of healthy snacks to add variety to lunches. Furthermore, this gives you child choices. Involving them in this process gives them authority.
- Turkey sandwich with pesto and provolone on sourdough + apple slices + cucumber sticks with hummus + honey cinnamon crackers.
- Egg bites + ketchup + cantaloupe + nut-free granola bar.
- Shredded rotisserie chicken + sprouted wheat pita + string cheese + clementine.
- Leftover pizza + roasted zucchini + blueberries + cocoa cashew creme cookies.
- Sunflower seed butter sandwich on sprouted grain bread with mashed raspberries and chia seeds + yogurt + allergy-friendly granola bar.
- Fried rice + edamame + clementine + coconut chips.
- Meatballs + steamed broccoli + hummus + breakfast snack bar.
- Cheese quesadilla + guacamole + mashed black beans with sea salt + berries.
- Baked tofu + BBQ sauce + sauerkraut + watermelon.
- Ground meat (turkey, ground beef, or tofu) with mild taco seasoning + roasted sweet potato fries + avocado + sliced grapes.
- Pasta (ideally with chickpea or lentil-based pasta) with olive oil, sprinkled with parm and hemp seeds + blueberries + allergy-friendly granola bar.
- Chicken nuggets + roasted summer squash + ketchup + strawberries.
- Hummus-a-dilla (quesadilla with hummus) + black olives + carrot sticks + ranch dressing + cheddar crackers.
- Cottage cheese topped with hemp seeds and berries + veggie sticks + cocoa cashew creme cookies.
- Mac and cheese + green pea crisps + strawberries + hard boiled egg.
Cup of coffee in hand, happy packing! Speaking of, if you’re on the hunt for your child’s lunch box, check out these: leak-proof bento-style box, insulated lunch box for elementary kids, compartment-style box with a removable ice pack, or this cute and colorful lunch box for toddlers.
Images courtesy of Unsplash. This article contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting Wellness with Edie! This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider.