Feeding a picky eater can be exhausting.  Meal after meal, they reject what you offer and miss out on chances to get the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.  

Packing a lunch that they’ll actually eat can be an especially big challenge.  There’s limited time to eat, plenty of distractions, and the kid across the table always has something more appealing.  Plus, you worry they won’t take a single bite and will be starving for the rest of their school day! 

Sound like you? If so, you need the Picky Kids Lunch Formula, so you can get endless lunch ideas for picky eaters!

With this formula, you’ll get endless ideas that are specific to your child and you’ll be on your way to packing lunches filled with variety and exposure that are eaten on the regular! Read on to find out how!

5 Basics of Packing Lunch for a Picky Eater

Before we get into the details of the Picky kids lunch formula, it’s important to consider some basics! These are some best practices regardless of what you decide to pack.

1. Get Input From Your Child

When You Pack

It can be helpful to involve your child in deciding what to pack by giving them a small choice. For example, would you like apple or pear today? Peanut butter on bread or a tortilla? This way, they can feel like they’ve had some control, but not so much control that they opt for a lunch of a single favorite food!

When Your Child Comes Home

It’s good to get information from your picky eater on the other end of the process as well. Take a look at what came home and find out what they have to say about it.

Maybe the pretzels were stale after being packed the night before in a bento box or the raspberries were crushed and got juice all over other foods. These foods could be favorites, but weren’t eaten due to very specific circumstances.

Don’t rule anything out without finding out what happened. Sometimes it’s just a matter of an easy adjustment and they are good to go again! And even when the reason is simply – ‘I didn’t want to eat it;’ it’s OK to pack it again in the future. Repeated exposure is a necessary part of helping picky eaters!

2. Pick a lunch box that suits your picky eaters’ preferences

There are a million lunch boxes for you to pick from; how do you narrow it down to one?  Start by looking for a lunch box that fits what the school requires AND makes sense for how your child likes to eat . 

Does the school require everything to be disposable?  Maybe pack of brown bags and a fresh box of zip top bags is all you need. 

Does your child prefer just two to three foods in a sitting?  A simple Easy Lunch Box could be perfect for an entrée and two sides. 

Perhaps, a small bit of many foods is very appealing to your picky eater?  The Cinco LunchBot might be the perfect match! (Personally I love all things LunchBots. I’m not sponsored by them, I just actually love them and buy them for my family.)

Maybe your child likes more “snacky” foods that can be combined in a single container like a trail mix. There are plenty of non sandwich lunch ideas for picky eaters that go well in a Lego Brick Lunch Box.

3. Consider time

Lunch is often short and kids need to eat efficiently. It can be done, but many kids need to learn to do so, so be especially aware of this in Kindergarten or when your child starts in a new school/classroom.

To help them have the most time to eat, you can pack foods that don’t need to be opened or prepared. For example, you can partially open anything with a wrapper (string cheese, straw for a juice box, etc.) or crack the seal and close things in bottles (yogurt smoothie, pouch, etc.)

You can also consider packing foods that are easy to eat, so your child has the best chance at eating as much as they want and not feeling rushed. Consider a yogurt smoothie over a cup of yogurt or a cup of mandarin oranges over a clementine that needs to be peeled, for example.

Little changes like these could be the difference between your picky eater feeling rushed and overwhelmed versus relaxed and able to eat.

Packing lunch for a picky eater - 5 basics to consider.

4. Get some tools to make food fun

Let’s keep it real.  I am not suggesting that the lunches you pack for your picky eater are the most beautiful and Pinterest worth meals ever.  You very likely have many other priorities in life, and it’s OK if this is not one of them. 

However, with that said, a little bit of fun goes a long way.  If you are packing something new or a food that is not so loved, consider giving it a boost of fun.  A cutout shape, crinkle cut, food pick or fun presentation might be all it takes to make new food less intimidating.  

I don’t recommend worrying about the “fun factor” when making foods that your child already likes and reliably eats. Save the extra effort to help them build positive associations and engage with new foods.

5. Have a plan

Creating a full-blown meal plan for packing lunches is not necessary, even for the pickiest eater.  However, a general game plan, or as I like to call it, a lunch “formula” can help you avoid staring at an empty lunch box at a total loss of what to pack! 

I even recommend taking it one step further and writing down some ideas within the formula to get you started and even help with grocery shopping.  This little bit of planning is the true key to turn a simple list into endless lunch ideas for picky eaters!

6 Components of the Picky Kids Lunch Formula

Having a lunch formula can help you easily create loads of lunch ideas for your picky eater without much thought or effort.  The formula has components to meet growing kids’ nutrition needs, and considers what is actually going to be eaten by a picky eater. 

Additionally, it includes a new food for exposure, but done in a thoughtful way to keep it low stress!  

1. Fruit OR Vegetable

Pack what’s going to be accepted and eaten when it comes to fruits and veggies.  Compared to other fun packaged foods that are common in lunches, kids can easily leave fruits and veggies untouched.  Give them the best chance by packing one they like. 

Both fruit and vegetables provide an opportunity for important nutrients, so you decide what to include, and rotate through as many as possible.  If you’ve got a kid that enjoys many fruits and/or veggies, pack more.  But at a minimum, include one, even if it just fits into the exposure category (keep reading for more on that).

2. Fat AND Protein

Time between eating can get long for kids in school and that means they might be getting spacey and losing focus, when they are supposed to learning.  Avoid this hunger by packing sources of fat and protein to keep them fueled and focused.

3. Fiber

Fiber works along with fat and protein to help kids feeling full, satisfied, and able to focus. It’s definitely worth keeping in mind when you are considering what to pack!

4. Bonus Nutrients

If you’re feeling like your picky eater might not eat some of these lunch formula categories, it’s OK.  Seizing the opportunity to add bonus nutrients can help. 

This includes any small additions that can be easily mixed in or added to other foods.  Some examples include: seeds, crushed foods, shredded foods, and more.  Basically anything you can sprinkle on or in other foods.  Many of these overlap with other categories, making it extra helpful!

5. Satisfying Crunch

Packing lunch for a picky eater isn’t all about what they should eat.  What they’ll actually eat and enjoy matters too.  Many picky eaters love crunch and it is a really satisfying component of a meal for them. 

Adding crunch to a picky eater’s lunch, not only helps them feel seen and heard as far as their preferences, but also can act as a gateway for eating their whole lunch. 

Many picky eaters need a food they really enjoy to feel motivated to start eating. Then, once they do, they’ll move their way through the other foods available.  Crunchy foods serve as a great gateway.

6. Exposure Food

It might feel scary, but including something small in your picky eaters’ lunch that is new or disliked can play an important role in building comfort with that food. 

A great way to do this, is to put a tiny portion in its own compartment or container, so it’s not touching other foods.  This gives picky eaters the chance to look at it, maybe poke it with a utensil and most importantly learn to accept that it’s OK to just be near it.  Basically, it’s not going to jump out of the box and bite them! 

Even if they have no forward movement in touching or interacting with the it, food exposure is still one small piece of the puzzle to help them expand their accepted foods in the long term. 

For more help with expanding the variety your child accepts, check out the Mastering Mealtimes Membership. This affordable program walks your step by step through proven strategies that help picky eaters try new foods.

6 components of the picky kids lunch formula - fruits or vegetables, protein and fat, fiber, bonus nutrients, satisfying crunch and exposure

How do I use the Picky Kids Lunch Formula in real life?

The best way to start doing anything new is to have a plan! 

Take a piece of paper and fold it so it is divided into six sections.  In each section, list the lunch formula components numbered 1 through 6 above.  Take a few minutes to put ideas in each that work for your child.  If you can find 5 ideas for each category, you’re all set to mix and match for an entire week!

The time spent now will pay dividends in the long term, when you can pull components together for a lunch in a few minutes each day without using much brain power.  With a bit of repetition, you won’t even need your cheat sheet!

Here’s a few ideas to get you started:

Fruit OR Vegetables

You know these, but here’s a reminder of all the ways you can present even just a few fruits and veggies your picky eater likes! 

  • Fresh/raw – cut into various shapes such as strips, rounds, matchsticks, cubes, etc.
  • Cooked – with fat/spices (an option common for vegetables, but don’t forget fruits can be great when cooked too!)
  • Pureed – applesauce, dips
  • Canned
  • Dried
  • Freeze dried
  • Frozen

Also consider including a few that you are working on exposure and building comfort! This may be the category that it’s helpful to add a fun component!

Fat AND Protein

  • Full fat yogurt or Greek yogurt, smoothie, milk, cream cheese
  • Cheese stick/slice, Babybel, spreadable cheese (Laughing Cow)
  • Nut/seed butters – peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter, cashew butter
  • Whole or crushed nuts/seeds – walnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans, pepitas, sunflower seeds, cashews
  • Salads with mayonnaise – chicken, egg, ham, etc.
  • Meat – beef, chicken, pork, chicken nuggets, deli meat, etc.
  • Tofu – cooked with oil or used to make a sauce, dip or pudding
  • Beans/legumes – canned beans that you’ve rinsed, inside quesadillas, hummus or other dips
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Pea crisps

Fiber

  • Nut/seed butter – peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter, cashew butter
  • Whole or crushed nuts/seeds – walnuts, peanuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans, pepitas, sunflower seeds, cashews
  • Beans/legumes – canned beans that you’ve rinsed, inside quesadillas, hummus or other dips
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grain “bread” items – bread, bagel, tortilla, wrap, pita, cracker, muffin, waffle, pancake
  • Whole wheat or lentil/legume pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Popcorn
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Pea crisps

Bonus Nutrients*

  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp hearts
  • Wheat germ
  • Ground flax seeds
  • Ground nuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Shredded cheese
  • Crushed freeze-dried fruit/vegetables
  • Crushed fortified cereal or whole grain crackers

*Many of the seeds and crushed items are great inside a sandwich or on top of yogurt, dip and pudding.  Cheese is great on vegetables or inside sandwiches.

Satisfying Crunch

  • Pretzels – vary shapes/sizes
  • Animal crackers/cookies/graham crackers
  • Dry cereal or granola
  • Roasted chickpeas/peas
  • Pea crisps, crackers
  • Chickpea puffs
  • Parmesan crisps
  • Freeze dried fruit
  • Nuts

Any crunchy “snack” food is fair game! This list offers some things kids typically enjoy as well as some options that are particularly nutrient dense that kids are also often willing to try.

Exposure

List some foods that you’d like to introduce to your picky eater or ones that you have been offering at other meals, but they still need to grow to like. If you need more support with how and why exposure is a part of helping picky eaters, join me inside the Mastering Mealtimes Membership!

You can do it!

Check out all the overlap in the categories of the Picky Kids Lunch Formula!  With a handful of foods, you can still meet so many nutrient needs for growing kids, include foods that satisfy and taste good, and work toward expanding to new things!  

Once you’ve made your list, hang it on your fridge so it’s handy when lunch packing time comes around (Every. Single. Day.)!  For more inspiration using the Picky Kids Lunch Formula, follow Kim on Instagram @kids.food.exposure.dietitian and tag me when you share your efforts!


Some of the links in this post are affiliate links.  That means On Your Table LLC gets commissions for purchases made through links in this post.  As an Amazon Associate, On Your Table LLC earns from qualifying purchases.  All opinions remain my own.

Kim Slack is a Registered Dietitian, Quality Improvement Professional, Parent Coach and founder of On Your Table, LLC.  She coaches parents on feeding strategies and parenting styles that support children to learn to eat a varied diet.  Kim has helped countless families have happier, calmer mealtimes and grow competent eaters.  Kim also has 2 boys of her own at home.  Learn more about her from her about page.

Helping picky eaters starts with EXPOSURE!

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