Toddlers (12-36 months)

25 Easy Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kid's Lunch

Disclaimer: Please note that some of the following links include affiliate links. These do not cost you more money, but help Veggies & Virtue continue to grow and offer you fun free resources like this post. For more on my disclosure policy, please visit my legal page here. As always, all opinions are my own.

 

I know a lot of us parents struggle with how to include veggies in our kid’s lunch box without defaulting to baby carrots and dip each day. While that is a fine option, older kids may get burnt out of that offering and younger kids likely can't (safely) crunch their way through it.

That's why I have created this list.

With 25 ideas for how to include a variety of vegetables in each lunch box, you could literally offer a different option each school day of the month! I know this list will help to spur on some new ideas, get you out of a "what to offer" rut, and help your family shop for some fun new offerings this school year.

If you haven’t already, be sure to also grab my FREE Lunch Packing Cheat Sheet. I share 30 options for veggies at lunch!

 
 

25 Easy Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kid's Lunch

10 Effortless Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kids Lunches

  1. Frozen Peas: any kind will do; no need to buy organic (based on EWG clean 15 here)

  2. Grated Carrot Straws: You can grate your own, or buy them premade like these

  3. Freeze-Dried Veggies: We love these ones by Karen’s Naturals

  4. Kale Chips: Make your own or buy premade ones like these for a less perishable option

  5. Bell Peppers: Buy the large ones and cut into shapes or with cute punch out cookie cutters. Or, buy the mini bell peppers!

  6. Sugar Snap Peas "Peek a Boo Babies": As shown here.

  7. Canned Corn: Buy an organic, no salt added option like these ones.

  8. Grape Tomatoes: Skewer with grapes or cheese on a small kabob stick or mix with pre-made mini mozzarella balls for a simple kids caprese salad.

  9. Cucumber: An easy option you can cut in sticks or circles!

  10. Celery: Include thin sticks of celery with peanut or nut-free butter and raisins!

 

5 Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kids Lunches with Baked Goods

Based on feedback from Muffin Club, I know MANY families said they enjoy muffins mainly at breakfast or as snacks. However, tucking a veggie-packed baked good is an easy-to-eat way for veggies to be offered in lunches as well. I like to include these options in addition to a more obvious form of veggies when we have them baked and ready!

  1. Carrot Muffins: These are a staple in our house and the most popular recipe from Muffin Club!

  2. Zucchini Muffins: This recipe offers a subtle yet sweet way to add in a little added veggies.

  3. Pumpkin Donuts: These can be enjoyed year round as a tasty, veggie-packed treat to add in any lunchbox.

  4. Sweet Potato Muffins: These Sweet Potato Muffins with Crunchy Flax topping are a tasty way to tuck some added veggies into a muffin form! Plus with ways to reduce the amount of sugar or omit the gluten (if needed), I found these ones my family as a whole could really enjoy.

  5. Hulk Muffins: Don’t knock these til you try them. Such a simple way to add in some spinach to a lunch!

 

5 Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kids Lunches with Leftover Veggies

Have veggies that might otherwise go to waste but don’t necessarily look (or smell!) good in a lunchbox on their own? Try these ideas to repurpose!

  1. Spinach Quesadilla: Have spinach that is getting wilted? Add it to these and serve warm at home or in a thermos or an insulated lunchbox like this.

  2. Fried Rice: Sick of sandwiches? Add those straggling peas and carrots to your child’s favorite fried rice, or mix in some riced cauliflower and send it warm in a thermos.

  3. Frittata Cups: Have veggies that went untouched on your child's plate the night before? Add them to a egg frittata recipe or serve them up as mini egg muffin cups. These broccoli egg quiche cups are great!

  4. Soup: Have veggies that come back untouched from the day’s lunchbox? Consider storing them in a mason jar in the fridge (assuming they are still edible). Then, toss them into a soup like minestrone or many others like these!

  5. Smoothies: Do you have a little extra veggie smoothie from today’s afterschool snack? Include in a pouch or leak-proof squeeze container. These are two great squeeze containers for leftover smoothies by Squeasy Gear and WeeSprouts. Click here for more smoothie ideas.

 

5 Ways to Include Veggies in Your Kids Lunches with Cooked Favorites

I know a lot of parents and kids wish they could have warm, comforting favorites sent for lunch -- especially as the school year progresses and weather starts to cool down. We love using our OmieBox for this, but you can also use a simple, small thermos that you already have separate from your child’s usual lunchbox (like those shared here).

  1. Hidden Veggie Mac n Cheese: Get that go-to orange color of mac and cheese with the perks of packing in REAL veggies! This is a good recipe to try!

  2. Spaghetti: I love spaghetti sauce as a flavorful, family-friendly staple for getting veggies in like this recipe. Add to whole grain or bean-based noodles, or put on top of zoodles for even more veggies.

  3. Tomato Soup: this is perfect to serve with a side of grilled cheese.

  4. Tater Tots: These options tend to be a toddler favorite for their soft texture and starchy taste. Consider baking up some of the more natural, nutrient dense "tots" or buying pre-made ones like Alexia sweet potato puffs here, Dr. Praeger’s Kale Puffs here, and Don Lee’s Veggie Bites here. You can serve as a side to a leftover slider, natural hot dog/sausage, or other preferred foods!

  5. Pizza Sauce: There are so many great variations to make a more nutrient-dense pizza option at lunch. Make ahead a veggie-loaded sauce like this one to freeze in an ice cube tray so you can pop out one mini pizza’s worth when needed! Serve on a cauliflower for extra veggies!

 

So there you have it!

Plenty of fun ways to get different veggies in your kids lunch this school year! Maybe you rotate through different combinations each week based off of what you have on hand fresh or have time to prepare. Then, rotate to include other options in upcoming weeks so your child continues to get exposed to veggies in all their many forms!

If you are stuck on what to send in your kid’s lunch, don’t miss the effortless options and yet endless variety of Combination Cards - on sale now.

In the lunch deck of Combination Cards, you get 30 ideas for each food group, as shown in the image here plus examples for veggies to include in each of the lunch Combinations.

How Much Protein Does My Preschooler Need?

One of the major requests I hear when it comes to "what to pack for lunch" stems from parents (and kids!) wanting ways to pack enough protein without always defaulting to a deli sandwiches or meat (which many kids consider too stringy).

What many parents don't realize though is how much protein their kids actually need each day. Would you believe it's not that much (by most adults standards)?

That's why this post will address not only the amount of protein children need, but also how easy it is to get the recommended amount through easy-to-include items that aren't sandwiches or straight meat. This post will also touch on another key nutrient parents need to pay just as much (if not more!) attention to when packing a nutritionally well-balanced lunchbox!


The timing of school's meals and snacks are becoming more and more concerning to parents. Especially in elementary school and thereafter, parents recognize that their kids may have large gaps between when breakfast is offered at home, lunch is given at school, and snacks after school can even be offered.

As we look at little kids appetites and intakes, the timing of meals and snacks becomes even more important. With smaller stomachs, young kids can't "fill up" the same way their older sibling or later teenage self might do. Instead, they rely on regularly spaced meals and snacks plus an age-appropriate offering of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to sustain their energy levels and meet their nutrient needs.

While fruits and veggies are vital to each kid's nutritional health and well being, the fiber from them alone won't keep kids as full as fat or protein will. So let's review what kids need from a nutritional standpoint with protein and fat and then address some bologna-free options for how to get in protein and fat at lunch time.

protein packed lunches.png

 

How much protein does my child need?

Most parents assume "a lot." The reality is though, it isn't as much as we assume. That's why I want to give you a bit more info on the nitty gritty math behind it so you can feel more comfortable calculating the average amounts that are adequate for your child.

Calculating Protein Needs (in grams)

The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) for protein needs in kids is 1.1 g/kg/day for 1-3 year olds and 0.95 g/kg/day in 4-13 year olds. Since we don't use the metric system in the US, this equates to roughly 0.5 g/lb/day in 1-3 year olds and 0.43 g/lb/day in 4-13 year olds.

Multiply this amount of protein by your child's weight, and you get the average amount of protein they need to meet their protein needs. For a 26-pound two year old, this would be 13 grams of protein per day. For a 37-pound four year old, this would be 16 grams of protein per day.

If you divide that up between three meals and two snacks each day, that's about 3 g of protein per meal or snack (which is less than a single scrambled egg, cheese stick, or 8-oz glass of milk!).

Calculating Protein Needs (with an acceptable range)

Since no child, especially picky eaters, eats a predictable and consistent amount from day to day, another way to look at protein needs is by considering an acceptable range, known as Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (or AMDR). This range of AMDR's for "macronutrients" (protein, fat, and carbs) helps give parents the peace of mind over how much of their child's diet should be made up of that macronutrient.

In the case of protein, children ages 1-3 years old have a AMDR of 5-20%. This means of all the calories your child eats in a day, 5-20% of them should be in the form of protein. So what does this equate to? For an average toddler (ages 1-3), they need an average of 1,200 calories a day. That means an appropriate range for their protein intake would be 15-60 grams of protein per day (based off of 4 calories/gram of protein)

 

How much fat does my child need?

One of the reasons I even share about the AMDRs above is to show the relative percentage of protein young children need compared to fat.

In working with several families, I know many parents are hyper focused on getting their child's protein needs met. However, very few parents realize that their children need over twice the amount of fat per day that they do protein.

Let's look at the calculations again, this time in terms of a child's fat AMDRs.

Calculating Fat Needs (with an acceptable range)

Children ages 1-3 years old have a AMDR for fat of 30-40%. This  means that for an average toddler (ages 1-3) who needs an average of 1,200 calories a day, they need 40-53 grams of fat per day (based off of 9 calories/gram of fat).

 

What exactly does this look like?

Now that you have learned how to do the math for how much protein and fat your child needs each day, you are probably wondering how the grams of protein and fat translate to real life?

Great question. That's where we get to talking about "servings," and how many "servings per day" it usually takes for a child to meet their nutritional needs. For an average toddler eating 1,200 calories per day, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises the following number of servings for each food group:

  • Fruits: 1 cup
  • Veggies: 1.5 cups
  • Grains: 4 ounces
  • Protein: 3 ounces
  • Dairy: 2.5 cups
How much protein does my toddler need each day?
 

Since ounces and cups still aren't as straight-forward as seeing what an actual kid eats, there are some great resources available to show you what a serving of fruits, veggies, grains, meat, and dairy actually looks like this one:

DGA servings.jpg
 

What are some real life examples?

For some help putting this all into practice, here are 10 simple examples of ways to offer proteins and fat at lunch -- no sandwiches nor sweat required! A summary of these options are included at the bottom of this post.

edamame (2).jpg

Edamame packs 5 grams of protein per 1/4 cup!

BYO Nacho.jpg

Build Your Own Nachos with bean based chips + one cheese slice pack 8 grams of protein!

chicken drumstick.jpg

A 1.5-ounce skinless chicken leg + 1/4 cup of quinoa salad packs 12 grams of protein! 

white beans.jpg

1/4 cup of beans + 2 tablespoons of green peas packs 5 grams of protein! 

lara bar.jpg

A fruit and nut bar packs 6 grams of protein! 

protein options.jpg

1-ounce of smoked salmon packs 7 grams of protein! 

salami annd cheese skewers.jpg

1/2-ounce of uncured salami pieces + 1/2-ounce cheese stick + 1/4 cup of hummus packs 12 grams of protein! 

waffles.jpg

1/4 of a high protein waffles pack 5 grams of protein!  

yogurt.jpg

1/2 cup of Greek yogurt packs 11 grams of protein!

avocado sandwich.jpg

One slice of smashed avocado and chickpea toast packs 6 grams of protein!

 

Summary

For any of you skimmers out there, here is what you need to remember from this post:

  1. Kids ages 1-3 need 5-20% of their diets made up of protein. This equals an average of 0.5 grams protein per pound of body weight (so a 26 pound two year old needs 13 grams protein).
  2. Kids ages 1-3 need 30-40% of their diets made up of fat. This equals an average of 40-50 grams fat per day.
  3. Kids can get protein from a variety of foods including both plant- and animal-based options. Some kid-friendly lunchbox ideas include: edamame, cheese, chicken, quinoa, beans, green peas, fruit and nut bars, smoked salmon, uncured meats, hummus, breakfast for lunch, yogurt, and sandwiches.
  4. Kids can get fat from a variety of foods including both plant- and animal-based options too. Whenever possible, focus on plant-based fats or those that are rich in omegas (like those found in salmon, walnuts, tuna, and hemp and chia seeds).
  5. Mix up what types and amounts of proteins and fats you offer your children each day! This not only helps prevent food jags and picky eating, but also promotes variety to help your kids get the nutrition they need.
 

Want more tips on how to pack a lunchbox? Grab the FREE printable below.

7 Ways to Keep Your Child Seated Through Meals

Whether it be on my live workshops or through parents submitting their inquiries, one of the most common questions I get asked is how to get squirmy kids to stay seated at the table.

Does this sound familiar?

"I have issues getting my 4 year old to feed himself.  He is easily distracted and just won't sit down and eat his full meal. In the end, he will only finish his plate if my husband or me feed him ourselves. How do we get him to take a few more bites on his own before he is halfway out of his seat?"
"Lately, my 2 year old twins will get in their booster seats, be all ready to eat, then barely touch their plate and say "all done!" and want down. I don't want to pressure them to eat, but then I don't know if I should just be allowing them to suddenly decide they're done without eating much. Any advice with this?"
"My 3 year old son wont even sit down unless he loves whats being offered. How do I get him just stay seated?"

No matter the age or gender of your child, wrangling kids to "just sit and eat" is no small feat.

That's why in today's post, we are going to talk about how to get your child to both sit AND stay seated, how to set them up for success in the process, and what you as the parent can do to maintain a Division of Responsibility at meal times with even the squirmiest of eaters.

7 Ways to Keep Your Child Seated Through Meals

7 Ways to Keep Your Child Seated through Dinner

1. Don't seat your children until it is time for the meal.

This will help them to not be waiting for the meal in the only five minute window you may get with them to actually stay seated and eat. Instead, be as prepared as possible when it comes to meal times. Have a gauge on when the meal is truly "almost ready," and then engage them in a pre-meal routine like washing hands and finding their seats. You can also include them in helping with meal time routines in other ways like carrying over silverware, napkins, setting the table, or even any final food prep based on their ages and abilities.

2. Be clear about expectations.

Don't feel bad telling your child(ren) that meals are not only about eating but also about togetherness. This helps them to learn their are expectations for them at meal time and you will help them adhere to those boundaries. Share with your child that you expect them to join their siblings and/or family for meals whether they choose to eat or not.

Then, be sure they are also well aware of the expectations after meals. If they get up from the table, the meal is over. Gently remind them that if they get hungry again after getting up, they will need to wait until the next planned meal or snack. This helps them to learn the boundaries of structured meal and snack times (while also giving you the opportunity to reinforce them). A set pattern for meal and snack times encourages kids to become more discerning before bouncing out of their seats. By reminding your child(ren) of the message that the kitchen will be closed until the next meal or snack time, kids learn to eat when food is offered (because grazing later will not be allowed). Again, this helps them to learn the cause and effect of what happens when they prematurely get up from the table.

If I get out of my seat --> The meal is over --> I won't get to eat again until the next meal or snack

3. Be realistic about how long they should stay seated.

Most kids can handle 2-5 minutes seated at the table per year of life. If it is a meal they're not into, it's usually on the lower. If it is a meal they are more fond of, they will usually stay a bit longer to allow them more time to eat and enjoy it. For a two year old, that means you can expect them to sit for 5-10 minutes. For a 3-4 year old, 15-20 minutes is a reasonable amount of time to work towards them being able to stay seated.

Remember that this can take some work, however. If your four year old struggles to sit at the table for more than five minutes, you will need to work your way up to a longer stretch using some of the other tactics covered here.

4. Don't use pressure as a tactic to get them to stay.

Even parents who are committed to using a Division of Responsibility in feeding approach can fall prey to pressuring their child to eat as a tactic to keep them seated. This creates new issues besides just wanting your child to sit through a meal though and is highly discouraged. Remember that the goal is not for your child to clean their plate of take X number of bites of XYZ food. You are training your child in valuable life skills and helping them to succeed in the social etiquette of a meal, so that as they grow older they can politely participate in more family meals and outings.

5. Practice in the peace of your own home.

If eating out with your child is an issue, consider working on the flow of a meal at home. Play pretend in a toy kitchen or using children's dishware at the dinner table. Let your child pretend to be the server and you as the guest, then trade roles. Role model the behaviors you expect your child to do at meal times and then reinforce how your family is to behave while at restaurants. Home is the perfect place to practice. There is no pressure to perform and your demeanor as the parent is much more relaxed during "pretend" than at a usual meal or outing. By using pretend food, this also allows you to positively reinforce the meal time behaviors you want your child to repeat using plastic, mess-free food!

6. Probe their curiosity to buy a little bit of time.

If your child says "all done" almost immediately after they sit down, try to get them "over the hump." Initially, they are testing your boundaries to see if you will allow them to leave the table. Once you have reinforced the expectations at a meal (that they will stay seated politely), redirect their attention and energy to help them succeed at staying seated. Talk about the learning it foods that have been offered and yet not yet tasted or touched. If your child has already decided s/he is finished eating, don't pressure any "polite bites." Instead, try to get them to learn the other foods by asking probing yet non-pressure questions like: which one is softer, your raw carrot or cooked green beans? What do they smell like? Do they smell the same, or different? What color is your chicken? Do you see any spices or sauce on it? Do the spices/sauce seem sweet or salty (almost always gets them to at least lick it) and so on.

Do this in a fun and conversational way. This turns a "sit your bottom in the seat and eat!" statement and forced feeding environment into one that emphasizes a positive feeding dynamic of togetherness and exploration, even if little gets eaten.

7. Make sure they are seated properly.

Often as kids get too big for a highchair, they transition to a chair that is too big for them. Consider using a booster that allows their feet to rest on the chair also, or put a stool under the table that their feet can rest on. These added areas of support can really help kids maintain better meal time behavior and thus eat better. Additionally, consider keeping your children strapped in to either high chairs or boosters for as long as possible (ideally until about age three). This helps keep age-appropriate restraint in place, which once removed (or no longer used) is harder to reinforce strap-free. For more information on how to properly position your children for meal times, the best resource I have found on this subject can be found here.

If you are looking for age-appropriate booster seats or transitional feeding chairs, consider this Right Height Chair (by Regalo) or a more full-sized style chair like this one from Stokke or this one from Svan (Amazon affiliate links).


Establishing a New Normal

By taking the lead on how you approach your child's constant attempts to get up from the table, you can quickly establish a new normal. There is no need to chase your child down, beg them to take another bite while they're half way out of their chair, or taking a plate into another room to feed your child in front of the TV. Instead, it is up to you to find productive tactics that aid in the establishment of a positive feeding environment -- none of which is occurring when we can't get out kids to sit still.

So try the above approaches and let me know how they work!

If your child still throws up a fight, politely excuse them and remind them that that type of behavior is not allowed at the table. Don't get wrapped up in their drama, but calmly redirect them to another area and continue with the meal. If you establish the boundaries and stay consistent with what, when, AND where meals are offered, they will learn how to live within those age-appropriate and loving limits.


Want to be informed on more helpful info like this?

Join the hundreds of other parents in the Veggies & Virtue community for a once weekly newsletter featuring the info you need to know.