How to Pack a Healthy Lunch that Your Picky Preschooler Will Eat

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You spent an hour lovingly packing a healthy, kid-friendly lunch for your four-year-old. Going for gold, and upon your daughter’s request, instead of packing her usual yogurt, you took the time to make her a tuna sandwich. Later, she opens her lunch bag in school and takes out her sandwich. “Ewww,” she exclaims, “I hate tuna!”

Yes, this is the very same tuna fish that she requested – no, begged for – this very morning. She puts the sandwich back in her bag to be found, untouched and spoiled, by you that evening.

Sound familiar? As a teacher and a parent, I’ve seen it many times. The good news, though, is that this scenario is a minority occurrence. Most of the time children do like the food they bring to school – even the healthy snacks.

Why then is so much of it returned home uneaten or half-eaten? It doesn’t have to be. You can reduce the amount of wasted food in your preschooler’s lunch box by shifting your mindset with these tips:

Reconsider how much to pack

You usually know very well which foods your child likes at the moment. The real problem with many young children’s lunches is that they contain too much food. Consider that:

  • Pre-schoolers have small tummies and can only eat a small amount.
  • Many children do not have the patience to sit and eat for long periods of time.
  • You know how you use your lunch break to run errands, and just grab a quick bite during the day? Your child does the exact same thing at school, eating a minimum and maximizing on play time with friends.

Most preschoolers are satisfied with only three to four foods in their lunch. More than that is distracting. Your child will pick at the different options, leaving over nibbled food he will never touch again, guaranteed. Experiment for yourself to find your child’s magic number.

Learn proper portion size

I have seen Threes take out containers with enough food to feed a grown man! Package serving sizes and nutrition guidelines are based on 2000 or 2500 calorie per day adult diets. Preschoolers eat far, far less! Even a large Four might only need 1400 calories per day.

Check out these eye-opening AAP recommendations for preschooler portion size. When given proper portions, children will actually finish their food. Really.

Yogurts are the worst offenders. Many small children can’t finish an entire 7 oz yogurt. Guess where the remainders end up? That’s right, the Greek yogurt with all that calcium, vitamin D, and protein, the one that cost a dollar a piece – lands in the garbage.

It’s better to choose a package designed for children like yogurt tubes or repack it yourself in a small container.

Know what NOT to pack

Small children don’t have the self-control to save treats for dessert. (Do you?) A child as young as an older Two can eat lunch independently at school. Once that happens, she will definitely eat that cookie first, and then (surprise, surprise) lose her appetite for the rest of her lunch.

Sure, as an educator I always try to capitalize on a teachable moment and encourage the children to eat their healthy foods first. Short of snatching treats out of his mouth, though, I can’t stop a child who has other ideas.

Also, don’t forget that drinks count. Juice boxes or sugary drinks are empty calories that fill up a child. Milk boxes have more nutritional value, but the calories add up, meaning that your child will eat less of other foods.

It’s not just you who will be happier when your preschooler’s carefully packed and costly lunches get eaten. Your little one will be better off with this arrangement, too. Even though they do it anyway, children do feel bad about throwing out food.

Even though they won’t eat if they’re not hungry, children would like to please their parents by finishing their lunches. Don’t pack harder, pack smarter. It’s a win-win for you and your family.


Esther is a teacher, writer and speaker with more than 20 years of experience educating all ages from preschool through adult. Esther is also the proud, but tired, mother of nine wonderful children and grandmother of two. In her spare time (!!) she likes to cook, read and is the CEO of a local non-profit food pantry.

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