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Build a Nutritious and Delicious Lunch for Your Toddler

By Sara Vance, Nutritionist and Author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan

Toddlers can present a unique challenge to parents when it comes to food — they don’t sit still for very long, they tend to be picky and since they are not growing as fast as they did as babies, they may not be as hungry as they used to be. Coming up with ideas for lunch that will end up in their tummy and not the trash may be easier said than done.

When putting together a lunch for a toddler, keep the following goals in mind. Their lunch should: Provide lasting energy, Deliver key macro and micronutrients, Be delicious.

1. Provide lasting energy

You want to choose options that will fill their bellies. Food should give them long-lasting energy as opposed to spikes in blood sugar, which can make them crash and burn. Blood sugar crashes can lead to moodiness and toddler melt downs.

When teaching my clients how to avoid crashes and eat for lasting energy, I share my “Rule of Three.” Each time they eat, they should include at least one of the following three blood sugar leveling and satiating macronutrients:

  • Healthy Fat [HF]
    The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against serving reduced-fat diets to preschool children, stating that “low fat diets may actually promote weight gain.”[1] Fats are an important nutrient for skin, brain, and cellular development and health. Fats help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins, keep the blood sugar level, provide lasting energy, feed brain cells and give a feeling of satiety. Good sources include nuts, seeds, avocado, and full-fat organic dairy products like cheese and yogurt.
  • Fiber [F]
    Fiber is important for healthy digestion and gut bacterial balance. Like healthy fats, it provides a feeling of fullness and lasting energy. Not all experts agree on the ideal amount of fiber. According to the AAP, if your child is getting 5 daily servings of fruit and vegetables and other good sources of fiber, then there is no need to count grams. If you do want to count them, they recommend that for ages 2 and up, you add the numbers 5-10 to your toddler’s age to yield the average amount in grams of daily recommended fiber.[2] So for a 3-year-old, that would mean 8-13 grams. The American Heart Association recommends more fiber — 19 grams a day for ages 1-3.[3] Fiber intake needs may vary from child to child. One sign that your child might not be getting enough fiber is constipation. Make sure to increase fiber gradually to allow the body to adjust and to get plenty of fluids with it. Good sources include whole fruit and veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Protein [P]
    Needed for muscle building, brain chemicals and nerves, protein also helps to keep energy and blood sugar levels stable. Good animal-based sources include meat, dairy and eggs, while good plant-based sources include nuts, seeds, legumes, hemp, chia and quinoa.

2. Deliver key macro and micronutrients

If you follow the Rule of Three above when composing your toddler’s lunch, it not only will help provide lasting energy, but it will also naturally nourish with nutrient-dense foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. When you limit the processed foods and focus primarily on whole foods, you will increase the nutrient value of what is on your plate.

3. Be delicious

Toddlers can be a picky bunch. If their lunchbox contents are not tasty or enticing, they probably won’t eat them. I firmly believe that food can be both delicious and nutritious — it just takes a little planning and some smart recipes. Below are both delicious and nutritious suggestions for a toddler’s lunchbox:

  • Hummus and veggie sticks[Contain: HF, F, Protein]
    Kids love to dip. A small container of hummus with carrots and other veggies or crackers is a great lunch option.
  • Wrap sandwich[HF, F, Protein]
    Fill a tortilla or wrap with sliced turkey, cheese, shredded carrots and lettuce. Add a little honey mustard, then roll it up into a wrap. Serve as is or cut into fun “sushi” shapes. Mix it up with different toppings.

  • Buttered noodles with chicken and broccoli[HF, F, Protein]
    Most kids love buttered noodles. Choose curly pasta or macaroni that kids can pick up with their hands. Add a little Parmesan cheese and some blanched broccoli. This dish is good served warm or cold.
  • Apples and nut butter[HF, F, Protein]
    Slice apples and smear on your toddlers’ favorite nut butter or sunflower butter. You could also top them with raisins or a dash of cinnamon.

  • “Dessert” hummus dip with Healthy Times Organic Arrowroot Cookies [HF, F, Protein]
    Dessert hummus — a sweet spread made from chickpeas and flavored with cinnamon, cocoa or vanilla — is a tasty new trend. It’s loaded with all the protein and fiber of regular hummus, but it’s reminiscent of cookie dough or frosting. Dip into it with Healthy Times Organic Arrowroot Cookies and apples slices. If your child does not like dessert hummus, try dipping in organic full-fat plain yogurt instead, which delivers protein and healthy fats.

  • Yogurt parfait with crushed Healthy Times Organic Hugga Bear Cookies [HF, F, Protein]
    Kids love parfaits! Layer organic full-fat plain yogurt with chopped fruit and crushed-up whole grain organic cookies. Top it with a little shredded coconut, chopped nuts and more chopped cookies. You could even drizzle a little honey or melted dark chocolate on top. It looks like dessert — but is still full of nutrients, healthy fats and protein!

  • Guacamole and organic corn chips[HF, F]
    In Southern California, avocados are a major part of the diet. High in fiber and healthy fats, they are a great food for toddlers. Mash them into guacamole and serve with chips. Or top toast with them.
  • Fruit shapes[F]
    Using small cookie or fondant cutters, cut melon and kiwi into fun shapes, like flowers or stars. Eating a cool star is more enjoyable than a regular piece of watermelon!

  • Pasta salad[HF, F, Protein]
    Leftover curly pasta or macaroni can be turned into a delicious cold pasta salad. Chop up some peppers, olives and cucumbers — or if your little one has a sensitive tummy or has not tried those yet, stick with ingredients they have been exposed to, like grated carrots and broccoli. Top pasta and veggies with a little Italian dressing and voila! — you have a yummy pasta salad.

The food you give your toddler is helping them to develop their eating habits for a lifetime. Stay the course and try to keep offering food that is not only delicious but also nutritious. Keep in mind that it’s not unusual for toddlers to be a little picky and not sit still for long during mealtime. Since their appetite may wax and wane from day to day, they may seem to eat well one day but not so well other days. Sometimes it can take up to 15 exposures before they learn to like a certain food, so don’t give up.[4][5] If they don’t like something, put it away for a couple weeks and then give it another shot. Seeing a friend eat it may motivate them to retry. Or prepare it a different way. And remember to follow the Rule of Three — because you may have fewer tantrums to deal with, too!

About the Author: A nutritionist and the author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan, Sara Vance is a passionate advocate for natural approaches to health. She regularly offers cooking and group classes and has developed a series of online courses to empower people to use foods to balance their metabolism and overall health. As a mom and a specialist in childhood nutrition, Sara loves working with kids, speaking frequently at school assemblies and leading children’s workshops. Sara is a frequent guest on the Fox 5 San Diego show, CBS Los Angeles, KUSI and CW 6. She has contributed to Delicious Living, Mind Body Green and Refinery29. Sara has also filmed videos for eHow and created a Kids Yoga series for GaiamTV.

References and Sources

  1. Preschoolers’ Diets Shouldn’t Be Fat-Free: Here’s Why
  2. A New Recommendation for Dietary Fiber in Childhood
  3. Fiber and Children's Diets
  4. The science of getting your kids to eat more vegetables
  5. Taste: Exposure study results


The content provided in this article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not recommended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem without consulting a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical questions or concerns. See additional information.