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How to Pack Lunch for a Picky Eater

It’s one thing to feed your picky eater at home, but it’s a whole new challenge when it comes time to pack a lunch for preschool or kindergarten.

I remember my son’s first year of preschool when he wasn’t even two years old, and that was when his picky eating first set in. Foods that he used to love- he would no longer touch. His lunchbox would come back home with half or less eaten, and I felt like I wasn’t doing my job as his mom.

Notes would come home telling me which foods he didn’t like, and suggesting that I probably shouldn’t pack those anymore.

pack lunch for a picky eater

So I began packing the same few foods over and over. I felt like that was my only option since those were the foods he would actually eat. And it made me feel better when I wasn’t getting so many notes that basically told me he didn’t like any of the food I made.

And even though I knew a lot about picky eating, I felt kind of helpless when it came to my own child. I wanted someone else to tell me what to do, honestly! My husband reminded me that the few foods I was packing were healthy foods, and I didn’t need to stress so much about it.

Now that we’re a few years down the road, it’s much easier for me to look back and know what I want to tell my previous self about packing a healthy lunch for a picky eater.

What I would tell my previous self about how to pack a lunch for a picky eater

  • Lead with the familiar: lunch away from home can bring on stress and anxiety for your picky eater. It’s going to really throw them off to open their lunchbox and find something new in there. 
    • Action item: make a list of the foods your child typically eats and likes. Make sure to include these foods, even if you feel like they’re not necessarily providing a balanced meal or aren’t really healthy. The first step is making sure they have SOMETHING to eat so they’re not going the whole day at school without eating.
    • You can slowly incorporate new foods (in a way that’s not too overwhelming), which I’ll get into later. 
  • Make small changes to foster variety 
    • One sure way to reinforce picky eating is by serving the same foods every single day. That’s not what we want to do. Even if your little one’s accepted food list is very small, you can still make small changes to increase their openness to new foods. When they get used to foods being different, it helps open the door to new foods (eventually!). Here are some things you can change:
      • The way you cut the food
      • The brand (say, store brand applesauce pouch vs Motts)
      • Variation on the same item: for example, a different type of bread, a different flavor yogurt, almond butter vs peanut butter
      • If your child is prone to getting upset when you make changes like this, start just by changing the appearance of the food by cutting a sandwich a different way, or slicing fruit in a different shape. Changing the flavor of something can be more advanced.
  • Include a fruit or veggie
    • Find a way to include a fruit and/or veggie every day. Even if it is the same one every day sliced different ways. It can be fresh, frozen, dried, freeze dried, or canned. There are lots of options- find one that works and make it routine to include a fruit or veggie with lunch time. 
  • Include new foods in small portions
    • You don’t have to completely avoid new foods in their lunchbox, but if you are going to serve something new, I’d make it a small portion that’s just a taste. This way it’s not overwhelming, and it’s more of an exposure to that food vs. something that you’re expecting to fill them up. You may want to show them while you’re packing what you’re putting in so they know what it is when they see it at lunchtime.
  • Know it’s okay if they don’t eat their whole lunch
    • There are a million reasons why they may not eat their whole lunch and usually it is not a big deal. Don’t get discouraged when this happens and don’t stop serving certain foods just because they come home uneaten. You can take a break from serving a food for a week or two and try it again. 
  • Get their input
    • This doesn’t mean you ask them, “what do you want for lunch?” Because they’ll likely say, “goldfish!” But you can give them choices. Would you like pear or plum? Would you like jelly or honey? This helps them feel more in control of their food choices and can reduce the anxiety they feel when they see the food they chose when lunch time comes around.
  • Include nutrient boosters where you can:
    • In my Healthy Packed Lunch Guide I show how to “Pump up your PB&J” to boost the nutrition, since that’s typically an accepted food for most kids. (And I give nut-free options too.) I also have a big list of my top healthy “throw and go” options to put in lunchboxes that are toddler-approved. If you’re feeling like you need more healthy ideas of what to put in the lunchbox, check it out here.
  • Don’t comment on what they did or didn’t eat
    • This is huge. You don’t want to overly focus on what they ate. Avoid asking them first thing when you pick them up what they had for lunch.
    • When you unpack their lunchbox, you can take note of what wasn’t eaten, but don’t comment on it to your little one. If you say something like, “oh I guess you didn’t like the strawberries,” it draws too much attention to it. They may just not have felt like eating them that day, maybe they were full before they got to them, maybe they ran out of time, maybe they just weren’t that hungry to start with. It’s impossible to guess and at this age they really don’t know the answer most of the time. Don’t give up on a food just because it comes home uneaten sometimes.
  • It’s okay to pack foods you wouldn’t consider healthy
    • Everyone starts somewhere, and you do not need to feel bad if most of the foods your little one likes are not ones that you would think of as being healthy. Really. Making sure they have something to eat at lunchtime is your first priority. We can work on food selection later.

What tips have you found helpful in packing a lunch for your picky eater?

If you’re feeling like you don’t know where to start with your picky eater, check out my starter guide here.

Don’t miss your chance to make packing lunches EASY this year

Grab a copy of my Healthy Packed Lunch Guide (yes it will work for you if you’re at a nut-free school!) here.

healthy lunch guide


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Kacie Barnes holding an apple
Hi, I’m Kacie!

I’m a mom of two and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. I offer e-guides and e-books (go to my Shop page), workshops, brand partnerships, and nutrition counseling. Check out my blog for nutrition and feeding tips for your little ones.


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