Packing Daycare Lunches 101

I find few things as overwhelming as packing lunches for my toddler’s days at daycare. I used to feel the same exact way when I’d pack my own lunches when I was working full time as a nurse. Luckily, this isn’t nearly as stressful or strenuous mainly because she only goes to daycare 2 days per week and I’m not nearly as exhausted as I was back then. Lately, I feel like I’ve got it down to a bit of a science and I thought I’d share some tips for anyone who may be struggling. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way. 

1. Plan your menu

Before I do anything, I take a sticky note and write out what I’m going to pack. When my daughter first started daycare I was told she would need a lunch and two snacks. So, on her first day, I sent her with a small container of beans and rice, some blueberries, and some scrambled eggs. I was later informed that she would actually need 2 morning snacks as well as 2 afternoon snacks. This seemed ridiculous to me, but I went with it.

Low and behold, my little lady ate all of her food and came home starving on her first day. The amount of food I send her with always seems like way more than necessary but I try to just roll with it. If there’s anything left over in her lunch that still seems edible, I try to feed it to her when she gets home to minimize the amount of food we throw away. I know she likes to snack throughout the day and as she grows her hunger demands are growing with her. 

So, now that she requires 4 snacks and a lunch entrée, it just seems like a lot to think about at once. Writing it all out really helps me. Here’s an example of what I usually pack her:

  • Snack 1: Oatmeal with cooked apples
  • Snack 2: Scrambled egg
  • Lunch: Rice or pasta with peas and/or shredded chicken
  • Snack 3: pretzels/crackers with sliced cheese
  • Snack 4:  Berries and tangerine

2. Break it up

I’ve found that any way I can break up the work load and do small parts, one at a time, it reduces the stress and overwhelming feeling of doing it all at once. For example, my daughter loves oatmeal and eats it everyday so I usually make a big pot of it in our Instant Pot and this lasts for a few days. So, when I go into packing her lunch, I’ve already got a container of oatmeal prepared so that’s one less thing to think about and all I have to do is portion it into a smaller container. When I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll cook up some apples and throw them in there too because I know she loves it. 

Another way I break up her lunches is by scrambling a few eggs in the morning before I drop her off, she’ll eat some of it with her breakfast before we leave and I put the extra into a container to count as one of her snacks. This just seems to make my life easier since it’s one less thing to think about the night before. Plus, I can always count on my daughter waking up bright and early around 6:30 so we have plenty of time in the morning to prep a few things before her drop off time of 8AM. 

It seems like leaving a few easy, smaller tasks for the morning of helps break it up but I wouldn’t want to save it all for the morning, since that would backfire and make me even more overwhelmed. By having a small task left for the morning, I don’t feel like I have a lot hanging over my head. 

3. Accept *some* nutritional compromise 

Alright, I’m not sure what other parents do, but I have a hunch that there’s some simple hack to packing toddler lunches that involves lots of processed, packaged, and/or frozen food. This is just my guess, but I make this process a bit more challenging on myself by cooking fresh food for my child. In the beginning, I would send the occasional baby food pouch but I didn’t feel like it even made things much easier and I felt like I was compromising nutritional value and spending unnecessary, additional money. 

Although I strive to send nutritious meals for my daughter, I’m realistic about what she’ll actually eat. In the beginning, I would always try to send nothing but healthy food, but she wouldn’t eat it all! I’ve decided that it’s okay to compromise a bit because it’s important that you send food that your kid actually likes to eat. 

I can’t help but think about it in the context of my own experience. Back when I was working as a nurse I often would pack super healthy meals so that I had no choice but to eat healthy and often I felt disappointed and unsatisfied. On the days when I knew I had a delicious sandwich or one of my favorite snacks like cheese and crackers I was excited for my lunch, and I walked away feeling satisfied and happy. 

I think it’s just all about finding a balance. I don’t think we should feed our kids junk, but a certain amount of tasty food within reason is definitely okay. I’ve made my daughter some healthy muffins in the past that had minimal sugar or were naturally sweetened but they were still tasty and she loved them. I was also reluctant to send her to school with sliced cheese and pasta or rice because I know these aren’t super-nutritious foods and I worried she would get addicted to them, but I know they’ll make her happy and keep her tummy full. I continue to offer healthier foods at home and sometimes she goes for them and other times, not so much. Remember, no diet is one-size-fits-all.

Also, I have to point out that I’m lucky to be a *mostly* stay at home mom who only works part time and has the time and energy to put this much effort into my little one’s lunches. I realize not everyone has this option. But I do think you can make the time to pack healthy yet satisfying lunches for your baby if you plan ahead and take the right steps. 

What are your hacks for packing toddler lunches? Share your favorite toddler recipes and snack ideas in the comments! 

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