Building a better lunch

As the meal that comes right in the middle of the day, lunch has a lot to live up to – lunch competes with playtime, naptime, and run-around-the-house-playing-chase-with-imaginary-friends-time. More than that, it has to catch the attention of your little one who may still be dazzled by their breakfast or mid-morning snack, and it has to tide them over until it’s time for their late-afternoon snack, or even their dinner. Luckily, lunch is the little meal that could, and with a little help from you, it’s up to the task.

The job of lunch

At this age, Baby is probably still snacking a few times a day to keep their little tummy filled in the times between meals. This means that each meal doesn’t have to have quite as many parts as it might otherwise, in order to keep their diet balanced. If they had cheese cubes as a part of their snack this morning, you might not need to worry about making sure they get some dairy products in their lunch. Still, lunch is a great time to address any gaps in their nutritional intake from breakfast. Protein and vegetables are both areas that breakfasts can go a little light on, for example, which means that lunch is a great time to load up on those things.

Lunches on-the-go

Lunches at home are one thing – they may be a little more hectic, but in a lot of ways they’re similar to dinner. Lunches at home have the flexibility to change a little based on how much effort you do or don’t want to put in, and on whether or not Baby is having a picky day. On the other end of the spectrum, lunches at home can mirror the quick and easy, snacky quality of lunches on the go, but with fewer containers to clean out at the end. Lunchtime at home is also a great chance for toddlers to get involved in helping prepare their own meals, which gives a sense of control, and helps convince pickier eaters that trying something new can be fun.

Lunches on-the-go, on the other hand, are a whole different challenge.

  • The deconstructed sandwich: Your little one’s little jaws may not be up to the task of taking on a sandwich yet, even a bite-sized roll-up sandwich, which might be a good transition for them a little ways down the line, but that doesn’t mean that they can't enjoy all the flavors of a sandwich – just as long as they’re separated out and given to them in bite-sized pieces.
  • The vegetable element: Baby’s chewing skills still aren’t quite up for the traditional raw vegetable snacks like carrot sticks and celery, so vegetables generally need to be cooked and then cubed before being packed into a lunch box.
  • Adding sneaky protein: If Baby isn’t ready to be a full-on carnivore, or they aren't ready to embrace the rice and beans combination, there are still ways to make sure they are getting the protein they need. Chickpeas and soybeans can be great snacks for little fingers, but if you need something even sneakier than that, peanut butter or other nut butters, or hummus, are easy to add to anything from a piece of toast to fruit and veggie sides, where they can make lunch more fun as a dip.
  • Utensil practice: As Baby’s coordination improves, lunch is a great time for them to practice their utensil-using skills, before dinner when they might be starting to get tired out, but after breakfast, when they haven't eaten all night. Rice and beans are a great texture for scooping onto a spoon or fork without slipping off, and so are mashed potatoes and yogurt. Next level tests of skill might include peas, pasta, and other, slipperier targets.
  • The magic of leftovers: Some days, there’s no better lunch choice than leftovers from a yummy dinner the night before. From noodles to pizza to soup, there are any number of more traditional dinner foods that translate perfectly well into lunches, and using some of the same foods between lunches and dinners can help persuade picky eaters that just waiting until dinner if they don’t like lunch isn’t a winning strategy.

Aside from safety issues like choking hazards, there is no “wrong” way to make your toddler’s lunch, but as a general rule, it’s a good idea to avoid packaged lunch foods “for kids” which tend to be packed with added sugars and dyes, and also aren’t a great preparation for healthy adult eating habits.

  • “Feeding & Nutrition Tips: Your 1-Year-Old.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, December 29 2016. Web.
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