Healthy Preschool and Kindergarten Lunch Ideas – For Lunches That Will Actually Get Eaten

children eating lunch

Preschool and Kindergarten Lunch | Best Lunchbox for Kids | Healthy Snacks for Kids | Best Water Bottle for Kids | Best Vitamins for Kids | Best Probiotics for Kids | Best Melatonin for Kids | Best Thermometer for Kids | Best Deodorant for Kids | Best Sunscreen for Kids

"I send my child with veggies, but it's like a game of boomerang!"
"I just send plain pasta for preschool lunch. Every day. His teacher has a problem with it, but it's what he’ll eat."

Lunch can be a challenging time for kids at school. The cafeteria is usually full of chatter, the smell of their own food mixes with the aromas of other lunch boxes, and the room is usually brightly lit with fluorescent lighting. None of this is conducive to the appetite, but the traditional lunchtime setup persists.

In a perfect world, school lunches would be longer, not attached to recess, and appropriately timed—sandwiched between well-timed snacks. Kids would sit at family-style tables and truly enjoy communal meals. There would be extra fruits and veggies available at a salad bar. Children would take their time eating and begin recess all at the same time—a recess not beginning at the last bite. Given the amount of evidence to support how beneficial these ideas are for children, this is a future reality. But for now, let's work with what we've got.

Lunch doesn't have to be very exciting, but there are plenty of ways to get creative with school lunch ideas if that's your jam (pun intended). You can even increase the fun factor tenfold with a note or a hidden treat.

Tips on Packing Lunch

The number one problem kids have at lunch is being unable to liberate their food from its oppressor (they can't open their lunch box or food containers). Teachers are there to help, but the child who needs help accessing their food will have that much less time to fill their belly. Make sure to buy a lunch box that is easy to open so your child can more effectively reject the food you so carefully packed.

After assessing the actual lunch box situation, look at any wrapped foods (i.e., string cheese). Also consider the foods that are naturally packaged: the banana, for example.

Here are some lunch box hacks for you:

  • Cut a slit down the length of the banana for easier peeling
  • Cut off the very top of an orange and cut slits down the sides, at least halfway (or pre-peel it altogether)
  • Cut apples into slices and soak in lemon water for a few minutes before packing. Or go for a whole banded apple if it will fit in the lunch box!
  • Make it fun by packing a pre-scored mango half–just pop and eat!
  • Individual food items can be kept separate by using plastic lunch box inserts or silicone muffin liners.
  • If you're interested in lunch box hacks, there are plenty more out there.

Tips You Wouldn't Expect from a Dietitian

  • Remember that school nutrition isn't the whole picture. In fact, it's usually just one meal and a snack or two each day. Most of a child's nutrition happens in the home, so it's okay if you fall into a rut.
  • It's also okay to send familiar foods every day. It's wonderful to expand the child's palate, but the cafeteria might not be the ideal location to try brown rice, and vegan mac and cheese for the first time. Make an event out of new foods by trying them together at home.
  • Include a sweet treat. No, not fruit. I'm talking about dessert. Being proactive with sweets sends a message that there isn't anything special about them. We can enjoy sweets right alongside other foods and we don't have to put them on a pedestal.
  • Invite your child to join in the process. Kids thrive with autonomy. By setting up a system where they can help, they get the message that their adult trusts them. This is the self-sufficiency every kid needs. Another great way to get kids involved in their own nutrition is by letting them pick out their own snacks.

The Anatomy of a Lunch Box

This writer/mom's method is simple:

  • 1 main
  • 1 fruit
  • 1 veggie
  • 2 snacks, chosen from the snack bins


When it's broken down like that and easy veggies like cucumbers and snap peas are kept on hand, the only thing to worry about is the main dish. You can choose to have a five-dish rotation or you can get really fancy with more options to switch in and out. You can also stick with the same main dish every day: If your child wants a cream cheese and raspberry jam sandwich on sliced wheat every day, you can simply vary the rest of the food and you are still covered for nutrition.

Fruits and Veggies: This is a common point of contention. It might seem pointless to send food with your child every day that you know won’t get eaten.

There are two ideas to get across:

  1. Exposure: The food that is traveling back and forth is providing exposure to the child. Maybe the tomato's destiny wasn't to be eaten, but to become an inspiration for art class, sparking a curiosity that leads to gardening, ultimately culminating in a single bite of Caprese salad 10 years from now.
  2. Fruits can provide many of the same nutrients that vegetables do. If you're getting some resistance, pull back on the veggies and replace them with more fruit. You could then work on making veggies fun while at home. Cooking together is a great way to enjoy bonding time while exploring new food.

All the Ideas

This is why you're here. Up next is a list of ideas for the lunch box. These are the main dishes, so pair them with a fruit and veggie or fruit and fruit, then add some snacks.

Coco Chanel is famous for saying, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off."

Well, this is Yaffi saying, "Before you leave the house, look in the lunch box and add another snack." It's better to play that boomerang game than to have a rumbly tummy during school or activity hours. Kids will regulate their appetite and eat the amount their body needs.

  1. Mini pancakes
  2. Oatmeal in a thermos
  3. Dry cereal (send with milk or have them buy milk at school—be sure to include a bowl and a spoon!)
  4. Muffins
  5. French toast sticks
  6. Quesadilla (you can add veggies to the quesadilla, or simply serve them on the side)
  7. Bagel with cream cheese (Trader Joe's bagels provide some good nutrition)
  8. Sandwiches… PB; cream cheese and jam; egg salad; cucumber, veggie, and cream cheese
  9. Wraps… sandwiches, but in a roll!
  10. Egg muffins
  11. Veggie plate with hummus and pita chips
  12. English muffin with a spread
  13. Deconstructed tacos: send corn, beans, and whatever else you like in small containers. The child puts it together.
  14. Make your own pizza: from an English muffin or tortilla
  15. Chicken nuggets with hummus (trust me, you'll never go back)
  16. Mini burgers
  17. Chicken soup or lentil soup in a thermos
  18. Hard-boiled eggs with cheese and crackers
  19. Fish sticks with guacamole
  20. Kebabs! Lunch meat with cheese and veggies or veggie kabob with hummus dip
  21. Pasta—check out fun shapes
  22. Pasta salad—just cook pasta according to the directions and add a splash of soy sauce, sesame oil, and a pinch of salt
  23. Snack lunch: Larabar, crackers, cheese, and berries
  24. Tuna croquettes
  25. Veggie burgers
  26. Ricotta cheese pancakes
  27. Pepper boats—stuff mini sweet peppers with tuna, egg salad, beans and cheese, or another filling
  28. Bean and cheese burrito
  29. Grain salad with lunch meat: tabouli or quinoa salad, for example
  30. DIY Lunchables: pita or crackers, cheese, veggie slices, something crunchy on the side
  31. Smashed chickpea sandwich
  32. Lettuce wraps
  33. Lunchmeat flowers
  34. Chicken salad in a lettuce boat
  35. Baked oatmeal muffins
  36. Macaroni and cheese
  37. Homemade Ramen in a thermos
  38. Tortilla triangles with spread
  39. DIY yogurt parfait: Send a bowl or cup of yogurt, granola, and chopped fruit—they put it together
  40. Energy bites and veggie sticks
  41. Pasta with meat sauce served in a thermos
  42. Homemade pasty filled with leftovers (like a Hot Pocket)
  43. Taquitos
  44. Grilled cheese
  45. Nut butter and banana "sushi"
  46. Chicken pasta salad
  47. Baked egg rolls
  48. Strawberry and cream cheese sandwich
  49. Pizza roll-up
  50. Dumplings—These are a part of so many cultures! Samosas, pierogies, or potstickers! Consider spraying with oil and cooking in the air fryer for a better lunch box-friendly texture.
  51. Cachapas! Venezuelan corn pancakes filled with cheese
  52. Tomato soup and grilled cheese
  53. Broccoli Pesto Pasta
  54. Frittata
  55. Veggie fried rice
  56. Baked falafel with pita and tzatziki
  57. Breakfast burrito
  58. Panini with favorite fillings: cheese, meat and cheese, veggies and cheese
  59. Pizza cupcakes
  60. Fruity Nut Butter Pitas

Some of these meals can be prepped ahead of time, while others can be made the night before.

Trading and Trashing Food

There is only so much you can control as a parent. When sending your child into the cafeteria, you know that other kids are bringing the spoils of their own parents' lunchtime battles. That might include food not commonly served in your house. How can you stop your kid from trading?

Easy: Don't. Pick your battles. Don't pick this one.

In Ellyn Satter’s classic Divison of Responsibility, the parents determine the

  • What
  • Where
  • and When

…of the meal. What is served, where it is served, and when it's served. The school schedule takes care of the Where and When. That leaves the parent with the sole job of packing the food.

While most schools have a "no-share" policy regarding food (allergies and whatnot), they won't be able to stop every under-the-table transaction. And it's ok. Unless you're dealing with allergies or religious/ethical dietary restrictions, give your child the space to explore.

Allergies and Religious/Ethical Dietary Restrictions

Allergies are up, and so is veganism. These can get in the way of normal food-related socialization at school, but it's essential to maintain family values and pass those on to the kids. Where is the middle ground?

Ask your child if there is something they have seen in the lunchroom that looks delicious or interesting. Maybe they can't have the corn dogs prepared by the kitchen staff but could enjoy a homemade or store-bought version that fits within family values.

Kids like to feel strong and independent. If your family subscribes to a religious or ethical path that puts boundaries on food, take time while at home and in your community to build up your child's understanding of those choices and why they are valuable to your family. Your child will feel a stronger sense of belonging when their values are comfortable and familiar. Spend time with others who share those values and associated food guidelines. Using these opportunities for connection will make those isolating times feel much less important.

Don't Overthink It

You as a parent have limited control over school lunch. Make it easy on yourself and easy on your child. Take a lot of the pressure off, and save the food experimentation for a more familiar (and less loud) environment. Choose a lunch box that works for you and fill it with love.

Preschool and Kindergarten Lunch | Best Lunchbox for Kids | Healthy Snacks for Kids | Best Water Bottle for Kids | Best Vitamins for Kids | Best Probiotics for Kids | Best Melatonin for Kids | Best Thermometer for Kids | Best Deodorant for Kids | Best Sunscreen for Kids

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