Are you new to packing lunch boxes for your preschooler and don’t know where to start? Then I invite you to join me, a fellow newbie to the lunch box world! Let’s have some fun learning all the ins and outs, making lots of mistakes along the way, and tackling the challenge of packing nutritious lunch boxes that our children will actually eat!
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Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect From the Start
I’ve been packing lunch boxes for about 3 months now for my 2.5 year old son. He goes to preschoolschool twice a week for 5 hours, and he really seems to be enjoying his time there! He’s learning a lot of English too, which motivates me to be even more intentional about speaking to him in Korean!
I want to start sharing his lunch boxes here every 2-3 months or so! It will be a neat way for me to keep track of my journey as a lunch box packing mom. It will also be helpful for future reference when I’m short on time or ideas. By doing so, I hope you’ll walk away with some ideas and inspiration that you can incorporate into your lunch packing game!
I will be honest with you. I felt extremely overwhelmed during the first month mainly because I put SOO much pressure on myself. I thought, if my son is going to be away from his mama bear, his lunch boxes better be nutritious, delicious, adorable, easily transportable, safe…did I mention adorable? The avocados cannot brown, bread cannot get smushed, and I must do everything to keep the veggies from becoming soggy!
Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet, here’s what I want to say. If you’re just starting your lunchbox packing journey, don’t feel like you have to have all your ducks in a row. Just start right where you are. As you feel more confident and ready, continue making SMALL tweaks along the way.
As with everything in life, starting is the hardest part because you just don’t know what the heck you’re doing. But once you overcome those fears and anxieties, things WILL start to fall into place. And you’ll become an expert in your own right!
How to pack a healthy lunch box for preschool
Top 4 things to consider:
- Food safety
- Child’s food preferences
- How much time they have to eat
Not every lunch box has to have all 5 major food groups represented, but I encourage you to aim for at least 3. It’s important to incorporate some source of protein, healthy fat, and/or fiber to provide the long-lasting energy that they’ll need.
Here’s my formula for packing a well-balanced lunchbox: Protein/fat + fruits/veggies + carbs
What about sweets?
While I believe it’s important to have a sweets policy in place, I haven’t been packing many “fun” foods in my son’s lunchbox at this time. That’s because his lunchtime is limited and his tummy is still tiny. I don’t want him to fill up on the not so nutritious foods.
He’s also perfectly happy with fruits so I’m using that to my advantage. As he continues to grow and becomes more aware, I will for sure come up with a game plan (will definitely share when that time comes!)
Again, not every lunch box needs to be the gold standard in nutrition. Do what you can with the resources you have to fuel your child’s mind and body.
Lunch Box Food Safety Tips
- Keep cold foods as cold as possible and hot foods hot as possible. The danger zone is 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Get an insulated, soft-sided lunch box (my favorite!) and use at least 2 cold packs (one on top and one on bottom of lunchbox). You can also include a wrapped frozen water bottle Store in an insulated bag to help keep it cold.
- You can also freeze water bottles. Fill it about 1/4 full and lay on its side to freeze. This is especially great for those with narrow openings. In the morning fill it to the top with water and pack alongside the lunch box!
- Prepare cooked food (e.g. chicken, vegetable, pasta) ahead of time so that they’re chilled in the refrigerator (make sure it’s set at 40°F or below)
- Keep cold foods in the refrigerator until the last minute before packing
- Put the most perishable foods right next to the ice pack
- Freeze foods like sandwiches, muffins, fruit, squeezable yogurt tubes, applesauce containers, etc. to keep the food cold. Test at home first to make sure they thaw by lunchtime.
- If packing hot food, use an insulated container. Fill it with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the piping hot food
- Follow hygienic food preparation methods. Wash your hands before packing. Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, countertop, etc. with hot, soapy water to avoid cross-contamination
- Don’t reuse disposable packaging, like sandwich bags. Better yet, opt for reusable bags and containers
- Toss any perishable leftovers. It feels so wrong to throw away food, but it’s not worth the risk
You can find more safety tips here.
The questions and anxieties I had right off the bat and that so many of you shared with me:
- Is this too little or too much food?
- Will my child eat ok without me?
- What if the school doesn’t warm up the food? How will my child?
My Personal Experience
My son’s school does not reheat food and at this point, the thought of packing a hot lunch seems overwhelming. And so I’m going to start with cold lunches first.
You’ll see in the examples below of lunch boxes with dinner leftovers that are normally eaten warm. While it may seem strange to you to enjoy some of your leftovers cold or at room temperature, I encourage you to shift your mindset a bit. You’ll find that they taste just fine without being reheated. Yay to more options!
I quickly learned that:
- I need to err on the side of packing more than less (follow your child’s lead!). His lunch boxes have been coming home empty every single time, and I definitely don’t take this for granted!
- he eats just fine without me
- he doesn’t mind if everything’s cold
Lunch Box Packing Strategy
Here’s what I’ve been doing. Perhaps you can start implementing some of these as well?
- Make extra of whatever we’re having for dinner so I can pack the leftovers for his lunch the next day.
- Meal prep – have veggies and fruits cut up in advance
- Make the freezer my best friend – I have a lot of freezer-friendly and nutritious baked goods recipes here on my website as well as in my e-cookbooks, and I’ve been very intentional about building up my freezer stash. That way, I can simply pull them out of the freezer, thaw in the fridge, and add to his lunchbox!
- Dedicate a whole refrigerator bin just for the lunch boxes. That way pre-sliced fruits, veggies, cheese, dips, etc. will all be in one place and you don’t have to search the whole fridge. Do the same for the freezer too! It’s these little things that can really make a world of a difference.
- Have you tried making a large batch of sandwiches and freezing? Brilliant! I need to try ASAP!
- Make sure there’s always some type of protein and or fat along with colorful fruits/veggies for lasting energy. I’m hopeless when it comes to food art, but using cookie cutters to make veggies fun and exciting as you see here? That I can do!
- Here are more sanity saving tips
Now, you may see these pictures and think, “that’s way too much food.” And honestly, I think that too a lot of times as I’m packing. But then I see his lunchbox come back empty. That tells me I’m on the right track.
How much to pack?
It depends on your child! Notice eating trends. If you’re finding that more food returns home than is actually eaten, then try packing less.
While my son seems to prefer seeing abundance, your child might get really overwhelmed by seeing a lot of food. In that case, seeing smaller portions may actually encourage them to eat more.
Also, consider their eating habits. If they normally eat 1/2 of a sandwich at home, don’t pack a full-size one. If they don’t like to see too many choices, then keep things simple.
Preschool Lunch Box Inspirations
Left: chickpea pasta (eatbanza) with sesame oil + turkey beet meatballs + roasted kabocha + raw cucumber and cherry tomatoes + golden kiwi
Right: Egg veggie pancakes (with raw kale, grated carrots) + steam roasted cauliflower (with curry powder) and carrots (w/Italian seasoning) + pineapple + avocado
Left: leftover beef stroganoff (recipe in my one pot meals ecookbook) + raw zucchini and red bell pepper + mandarin oranges
Right: vegan turmeric coconut couscous (recipe in my one pot meals ecookbook) + quartered grapes and cherry tomatoes
Left: Asian turkey rice meatballs + carrot lentil bars (from my free cookbook) + raw zucchini and red bell pepper, roasted sweet potatoes (with pumpkin spice)
Right: pumpkin bean muffin + hard-boiled egg + broccoli + tomatoes + avocado + golden kiwi
Left: pasta with nut-free broccoli white bean pesto + roasted carrots & parsnips (cooked them together with cumin) + apple slices
Check out part 2 of healthy toddler lunch box ideas for more tips and ideas!
How to freeze and thaw leftovers?
I mentioned in my game plan that my freezer is my best friend. I always like to make extra to make sure my freezer stash is always replenished.
To easily pull out baked goods one at a time, try the flash freeze method. For meals, freeze in individual portions so you can easily thaw in the fridge the night before packing.
Follow these tips to save money, reduce food waste, keep food safe, and retain the quality, nutrients, and flavor of your leftovers!