Best School Lunches For Picky Eaters

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You want to know the best school lunches for picky eaters. I’m right there with you. This can be a battle that seems never ending in our home with 3 growing boys.

Lunch time can be a nightmare for parents. Most kids are picky eaters, and many don’t like the food that’s being served in schools. This article looks at the best school lunches for picky eaters, and offers some tips on how to accomodate your picky eater at home.

Best School Lunches For Picky Eaters

Are you packing a school lunch for a picky eater? Getting your child to eat healthfully is a struggle for many parents. In this slideshow, Johns Hopkins pediatric dietitian Meredith Thivierge offers school lunch tips for picky eaters to help you prepare meals with the vitamins, minerals and nutrients your child needs to grow and succeed in school.

Whimsical school lunch arrangements.

Make Lunch Fun

Children, especially younger children, can be influenced by how the food looks. Fun shapes and bright colors may grab their attention and encourage them to take a bite. You don’t have to spend a lot of time carving cartoon characters out of bologna. Just take a few minutes to arrange the lunch neatly, add a personal note or use a cookie cutter to shape a sandwich or slice of cheese to add visual interest to the meal. “If the food looks fun and appetizing to you, there is a good chance your picky eater will also find it appetizing,” Thivierge says.

An illustration of the components of a healthy school lunch.

Sneak in Foods to Cover All Food Groups

You may have to get creative to make sure your picky eater’s lunch covers the five major food groups: fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy. If your child is allergic to or intolerant of specific foods, it may be worth talking to your pediatrician about a multivitamin or supplement. If dietary restrictions are not an issue, you can try sneaking in foods your picky eater refuses to eat. “Blending cauliflower with mashed potatoes or adding spinach to a fruit smoothie are a few ways parents can trick their children into eating healthy foods,” Thivierge suggests. She also advises asking your child why they dislike certain foods. If they simply don’t like the texture or look, this can sometimes be remedied by trying different cooking techniques.

A mother and son garden together.

Involve Your Children

Picky eaters, and children in general, are more likely to eat something if they helped to make it. Participation gives kids a sense of ownership in the final product and helps them see exactly what’s inside that sandwich or salad they are having for lunch. You can involve your children at every stage of the process, from picking a recipe to food shopping and meal preparation. “Together you could create a list of foods your children enjoy and that you approve of and then have them choose from this list,” recommends Thivierge. This allows parents to remain in control while giving a child the freedom of choice.

A young boy picks at his food.

Avoid Introducing New Foods at Lunch

It’s important to keep introducing new foods to your picky eater, as it can take 10 to 20 times of trying a food before a child may start liking it. However, school lunch may not be the best time for it. Children tend to get distracted during lunch and often don’t have enough time to finish everything they have in their lunch box. They may start with more familiar foods and are more likely to ignore new items. Thivierge suggests introducing new foods at dinner when the whole family can encourage the child to try something new.

A mother and daughter grocery shop together.

Make a List and Change Up the Menu

Start working on your school lunch menu based on the foods your child agrees to eat. “It helps to make a list of all foods your picky eater tolerates, but it’s also important to find different ways to serve them,” Thivierge says. For example, if cucumber is the only vegetable your picky eater will stomach, try serving it with different dips or roll it up with lunch meats and cheese. The United States Department of Agriculture website has a variety of recipes created with input from school children to help you find new school lunch ideas. Changing it up is the key to keeping your child from losing interest in the few healthy foods they like.

A healthy school lunch featuring a pita sandwich, veggies and raisins.

Think Outside the Lunch Box

What do you picture when you think about a typical school lunch? Is it a ham and cheese sandwich, a carton of milk and an apple? Although there is nothing wrong with sandwiches, they can get boring quickly. Why limit yourself to traditional lunch foods? It’s perfectly fine to pack soups, salads, quesadillas and even breakfast foods for lunch. You could come up with theme days like “mac ’n cheese Mondays” so that your child knows what to expect. “And if your child wants to eat lunch at school, that’s okay too. Find a balance between school lunches and packed lunches and plan these meals together,” Thivierge says.

A family eats slices of watermelon together.

Be a Role Model

Children tend to mirror their parents. If you don’t eat lunch and instead snack all day, your child may start skipping lunch too. Or if you enjoy a cupcake before dinner, your picky eater may start filling up on dessert before they get to the healthy part of the school lunch. “Leading with a good example is important, especially when it comes to foods you as a parent may be picky about,” points out Thivierge. If you serve mushrooms to your child, yet pick them off of your own plate, your child may follow your cues.

An illustration of a girl running away from a menacing-looking stalk of broccoli.

10 School Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters

Dealing with a picky eater can be a frustrating challenge, but sometimes all it takes is a little creativity and ingenuity to spark your culinary imagination! We’ve compiled 30+ mix-and-match school lunch ideas to help you build the perfect lunch for your picky eater!

My big boys went back to school last week, and this year they are both attending school all day long. That means that this year I get the dubious honor of preparing school lunches for not just one, but two picky eaters each day. Lucky me?

In order to make my life a little easier, I sat down with these guys and compiled a list of all the foods that they might be willing to try at lunchtime. Naturally, they don’t agree on 100% of the foods on the list (honestly, they only agree on about 5% of them!), but at least it’s a start for those days when I’m running out of ideas! I thought it might be worthy of sharing if you also find yourself staring vacantly into the pantry before whipping up the gazillionth almond butter and jelly sandwich of the year. Variety is nice.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Now, before I start listing the foods, I know that some of you are going to say “This isn’t a list for PICKY eaters!” or “MY kid won’t eat half of the things you have listed on there!” Bear in mind that this is not a magical list that is suddenly going to make your child stop being a picky eater. It is simply a bunch of different easy lunch ideas that you may not have considered or tried yet. It is intended to inspire you and your child to try something new and to potentially spark other ideas that your child will agree to.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed with a picky eater, it can be super helpful to look at a large list of options that might encourage and inspire you to break out of the rut of the serving the same three foods all the time. Kids can be fussy eaters in many, MANY different ways (all three of my boys are very picky, and there are only about five foods that all of them can agree upon – I wish I was kidding!), so there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the picky eater situation. Different foods are naturally going to appeal to different kids, so find the ones that your child responds favorably to and develop different variations that you can try out. Continue to offer your child new foods on a regular basis along with your good old standby options, and hopefully, you will soon be able to introduce some new alternatives into your lunchtime routine!

MAIN DISHES:

  • Turkey and Cheese Tortilla Wrap
  • Ham and Cheese Bagel
  • Peanut Butter (or Almond Butter) and Honey Sandwich
  • Cream Cheese and Cucumber Finger Sandwiches
  • Cream Cheese and Jelly Tortilla Wrap
  • Chicken Nuggets and Dipping Sauces
  • Pasta – Ravioli, Tortellini, or Spaghetti with Sauce of Choice
  • Hard-Boiled Eggs or an Egg Salad Sandwich
  • Turkey & Cheese Crescent Rolls (or other meat/cheese combinations)
  • Quesadillas or Quesadilla Tortilla Rolls
  • Deli Meat and Cheese Kabobs
  • Simple Breakfast Burrito – Scrambled Eggs, Cheese, and Bacon in a Tortilla
  • Macaroni and Cheese
  • Healthy Muffins (Banana, Apple, Zucchini, Blueberry etc.)
  • Chicken Kabobs with Rice Balls
  • DIY “Lunchables” – Deli Meat, Cheese, and Crackers
  • Peanut Butter & Banana Graham Cracker Sandwich
  • Taquitos
  • Mini Burger/Turkey Burger Sliders
  • Breakfast for Lunch – Waffles, Pancakes, or French Toast
  • Egg Rolls & Potstickers
  • Build-Your-Own Mini Pizzas – English Muffin, Pizza Sauce, Cheese, and Toppings
  • Grilled Cheese Sandwich Sticks
  • Bagel Dog or Pigs in a Blanket
  • Calzones/Pizza Pockets
  • Fruit Nachos – This Way OR This Way!
  • Mini Bagels with Jam, Cream Cheese, or Nut Butter
  • Pizza Quesadilla
  • Fruit and Cheese Kabobs
  • Pinwheel Sandwiches
  • Pita Bread and Hummus

SIDE DISHES:

  • Applesauce
  • Fruit – Strawberries, Bananas, Grapes, Blueberries, Melon, Pears, etc.
  • Veggies – Carrots, Celery, Broccoli, Bell Peppers, etc. with a Side of Ranch, Peanut Butter, or Hummus for Dipping!
  • Whole-Grain Goldfish
  • Cheese – String Cheese, Babybel, Cheddar Cubes, etc.
  • Pretzels
  • Raisins or Dried Fruit
  • Dry Cereal
  • Crackers – Graham Crackers, Ritz, Saltines, Club Crackers, etc.
  • Yogurt
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Popcorn
  • Nuts – Almonds, Pistachios, Cashews, etc.
  • Veggie Straws

Dressing up your lunch options as “cute food” can also help encourage picky eaters to try new foods. Cute food is a TON of fun, but it doesn’t have to be a ton of work!

He hates anything that’s green, contains seeds or isn’t fried…and don’t even get us started on textures. If he’s a picky eater, chances are the lunch box is a point of major contention. Luckily, we rounded up nine delicious recipes he won’t be able to turn down.

RELATED: 11 TASTY VEGETARIAN SCHOOL LUNCHES IF TURKEY ISN’T YOUR KID’S THING

picky eaters turkey wraps

BAKED BREE

TURKEY AND ROAST BEEF STRING-CHEESE WRAPS

No condiments, no crusts, no leaves. Just how she likes

vegetable spring rolls

RAINBOW SPRING ROLLS

Fruits and veggies taste way better when they’re wrapped up in rice paper and served with dipping sauce.

owl bento box

OWL BENTO LUNCH BOX

Way more fun than ham and cheese on white.

pbj waffles

PB&J WAFFLE SANDWICHES

Because he’s always asking if he can have breakfast for lunch.

kid friendly pasta salad

KID-FRIENDLY PASTA SALAD

She’ll be so busy scarfing it down, she won’t even realize it’s whole wheat.

cucumber sandwiches

CUCUMBER CREAM CHEESE SANDWICHES

Crusts need not apply.

taco salad jar

TACO SALAD IN A JAR

Number one mom award, right this way.

sandwich kebabs

SANDWICH KABOBS

Her friends will be so jealous.

meatball dippers

BEEF AND VEGGIE MEATBALL DIPPERS

Shh, these babies are packed with kale. Don’t tell.

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