Lunchbox Ideas for Picky Eaters – Make a YES List

Make a Yes List of School Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters

I try to keep my school lunchbox ideas fresh, healthy and full of fun for little ones. Some parents can take my ideas and run with them because they’ve been blessed by the Food Fairy. Their kids will eat anything! Some parents can take my healthy lunchbox recipes and adapt them because their kids will eat most foods, even if they have a few dislikes. But then there are the parents of extremely picky eaters… and they’re in the trenches breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to find healthy foods that their kids will actually eat. I get asked on social all the time, “But, Holley, how can I pack a healthy school lunch for my kids when they won’t eat X and they won’t eat Y and nuts are banned?” I feel for you, parents. My girls have given me more upturned noses than I can count. I wouldn’t label them extremely picky eaters, but they’re at least highly choosy.  

I have two pieces of good news for you. First, almost all kids have a few foods they love and you can build on that. With some patience and creativity, you can almost always create a week of balanced lunchboxes that even a picky eater will love. Second, picky eaters aren’t doomed to be picky forever. As you work to create enticing lunchboxes (and meals) your kid will try, you will slowly and steadily expand their list of go-to foods. 

Here are my 6 Favorite Lunchbox Ideas for Picky Eaters. 

Holley Grainger Lunchbox Ideas for Picky Eaters

Try these out and see if you can go from “yuck” to “yes.”

  1. Let Your Child Choose. Sure, if it were up to my children they would have chips, cookies and maybe some strawberries for lunch every day. As a mom and dietitian, I know that they aren’t going to get the fuel they need when they aren’t eating a balanced meal. However, that doesn’t mean that your child still can’t help, regardless of their age. For younger children, go through each food group and give options…Cheese, yogurt or both? Turkey or ham? Carrots, peppers, or celery? Ranch, hummus or guacamole? For your older kiddos, let them use meal planning apps to help them choose. And let them help! Some kids feel more ownership of their eating if they’ve been allowed to plan, prep and package their own lunches. So let them get in the kitchen as much as is practical. This can be even easier if you prepare lunches the night before. 
  2. Make a “YES” List. Create a list of foods your child likes taking every food group into account. Force yourself to go beyond, “she only eats red fruit” or “he won’t eat vegetables” and find those foods that may not necessarily fit into the “lunch” category. Once you create your list, think about other ways to serve that particular food. For example, if your child likes potatoes, can you do homemade baked fries, roasted potato wedges, mashed potatoes, potato cakes or a baked potato?
  3. Branch out Slowly and Steadily. Once you have a food that’s a clear winner, try something healthy that’s similar. If your child loves melon, try mango slices. If apple works for them, try offering Asian pears. When turkey roll-ups fly, celebrate, put them on the YES list, and then try ham roll-ups next week. 
  4. Swap in Healthy Alternatives to their Favorite Treats. This tip acknowledges that almost every kid loves goodies of some sort. If potato chips are a favorite, try something that is also salty and crunchy but has a bit more nutrition to offer, like simple roasted chickpeas. If sweetened yogurt is a favorite, try mixing it half and half with unsweetened Greek yogurt or putting shaved chocolate or a few sprinkles on plain yogurt to make it feel more like a treat. 
  5. Just Add Dip. I’m often called out by parents questioning how I can label a lunchbox as “healthy” when it has ranch dressing in it. I always respond the same way, saying that if a little bit of ranch means that my child will use it as a dip for grilled chicken, lettuce, carrots, and cucumbers, then I’m totally fine with it because they otherwise wouldn’t have eaten those foods. Identify “vehicle foods” like this (ketchup, hummus, guacamole, etc.) and don’t be ashamed to include them in a lunchbox. Better dipped than dumped in the trash!
  6. Try other Vehicle Foods. For some picky eaters, it’s all about the texture. For others it’s the taste (especially bitter tastes, which are stronger on young taste buds). Some foods are great at hiding foods with rejected tastes or textures. If your kid loves soup, spaghetti, muffins or smoothies, see if you can puree, chop, or otherwise tuck in fruits, veggies or even proteins that they otherwise wouldn’t eat. A quarter avocado slides right into a berry smoothie almost undetected, upping the healthy fats in a picky eater’s diet.

See How to Make Your Own “YES” List of Lunchbox Ideas for Picky Eaters


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Make a Lunchbox Yes List for Picky Eaters from Holley Grainger

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