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school lunch ideas for picky eaters: tips, resources, and lunchbox inspiration

school lunch ideas for picky eaters: tips, resources, and lunchbox inspiration

Feeding a picky kid is tough. You might feel frustrated and alone, but you aren’t. In fact, a study following 120 kids until age 11 revealed between 13 and 22% of them were considered picky eaters at any given point in time. And 40% of parents reported a “picky eating” problem that lasted more than two years.

So, before we go any further, breathe. You haven’t done anything wrong. Kids are just notoriously difficult to feed. 

Somehow, as parents, we’re expected to create school lunches that are healthy and delicious, according to the world’s harshest judges, all while bearing school policies in mind (i.e., my kid loves peanut butter… but she can’t have it at school). To help you out, I’ve compiled school lunch ideas for picky kids along with tips and resources to maximize your chances of easier mealtimes. 

tips for packing a picky kid’s lunch 

Let’s be honest—I’m a parenting writer with experience trying to feed a picky kid. Not a magician. I hope you find new inspiration here, but it’s probably most helpful to equip you with some tips and strategies for making these lunches your own. Here are four tips for packing a lunch for a picky kid: 

use safe foods + variety 

Incorporate 1-2 “safe foods” in each lunch. These are foods you know your child will typically eat, prepared in the exact way your child enjoys them. For example, I know my picky kid will usually eat these things:

  • Strawberries (sliced) 
  • A banana (that she peels herself)
  • Hummus
  • Guacamole
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • “Yellow” cheese 
  • Peanut butter
  • Yogurt 

a child eats from a yellow lunchbox containing a sandwich, yougurt, an apple, berries, and cucumber slices

You’ll notice there’s no meat on the list, and a lot of creamy or soft textures—and that’s okay! I’ll put a variety of foods in her lunchbox, so she’s always offered meat and vegetables alongside safe foods. You might also notice I said she’ll usuallly eat the items on this list—sometimes, she decides she doesn’t like strawberries, despite only wanting strawberries for a week straight. If you’re in the same boat, the general recommendation is to play it cool, not force your child to eat the food and to try something different (yes, I know that can be frustrating). 

 While this list is personal to my child, having your own list handy can help you quickly plan meals and account for sudden changes in preference.

have fun with a bento box

Packing a bento box lunch can help picky eaters in a few different ways. 

First, bento boxes are well-equipped to serve a variety of foods. If you purchase a brand that features leak-proof compartments (like for kids!) that’s even better. I don’t have to tell you how a picky kid might react to watermelon juice leaking onto a cracker (but just in case: that would be a disaster). 

Second, some parents find they can coax picky kids to eat their lunch with character-themed bento boxes or by theming the whole bento box by holiday or color. 

an open bento box with a sandwich shaped like a pig's face and an orange shaped like a pig's face

  • Read more about bento box styles like this

    make your food together

    Get your kids involved with making their dinner. A bit further down, I include a suggestion for a flatbread pizza lunch. This is one of my favorites because my daughter and I make the pizza ahead of time together. She chooses the toppings, and she gets excited about eating it. 

    use “lunchbox only” foods 

    Some pediatric dieticians suggest serving “lunchbox only” foods. By setting aside a special fruit or snack (that your kid loves!) so they’re for “school lunch only,” you drum up excitement for mealtime and keep kids interested. 

    kid’s lunch ideas for picky eaters 

    You’ll see two categories of lunches below. First, I feature cold lunches, because I know it’s often most convenient to serve a school lunch cold. Then, I feature some meals that are not a sandwich, because I often hear from parents of picky eaters how they wish they could incorporate more variety. This second set of lunches can be served at varying temperatures, and I suggest using something like an insulated food jar to keep warm food at the right temperature. 

    There are three ways to use these two lists of lunches: 

    • Find a suggestion that contains one of your child’s safe foods, and gather inspiration from the other items in the lunch. 
    • Find a meal that interests you and substitute one of the items with a safe food.
    • Find something completely new to try. I’d recommend serving new items at home first to see how they are received. 

    cold lunch ideas for picky eaters

    bagel with cream cheese

    When my child yelled, “I like bagels!” I put them on my weekly grocery list and never looked back. You can serve them with cream cheese or avocado spread and include a side of pepperoni for extra protein. Add in fruit, vegetables, and a fun treat. Kid-friendly fruit and veggie options can include:

    • Strawberry slices
    • Banana
    • Apple slices
    • Berries (blueberries, raspberries, etc.) 
    • Grapes (sliced lengthwise into quarters if your child is four or younger)
    • Sliced cherry tomatoes 
    • Cooked peas and carrots 
    • Grated carrots 
    • Corn

    hummus with pita bread, apple slices, and veggies

    Hummus has been a winner in my household since my daughter started eating. Serve with pita bread, apple slices, and sliced vegetables (refer to the list above for ideas!). If hummus is a “safe” food, you might have some success with your picky kid dipping cucumber or carrot slices in the hummus—especially when they get to choose between a variety of dipping items.

    classic sandwich

    You often can’t go wrong with a sandwich. If your picky eater is averse to meat (like mine is), you could try pimento cheese or, if your school allows it, peanut butter/sun butter and jelly. Serve with yogurt, berries, and sliced cucumber and carrots. 

    Tip: Use a silicone lunch pocket to keep sandwiches fresher for better texture!  

    a silicone lunch pocket containing a sandwich

    build-your-own lunchable 

    DIY lunchables are a hit in my house because our picky kid feels in control. Pack crackers, cheese, and pepperoni. You might try persuading your picky eater with a condiment or dip, like jelly. Side items can include a fruit like strawberries, yogurt, and your choice of vegetable

    peanut butter with fruit and crackers 

    If your school allows peanut butter (or sun butter), it can be a great protein-filled staple. Give your child dipping options with apples, strawberries, and crackers. My child went through a phase where she wanted peanut butter on a plain tortilla, and that was fine with us. 

    Include a vegetable to try (e.g., grated carrots) and a treat, like a muffin. 

    picky kid school lunch ideas that aren’t sandwiches

    flatbread pizza

    We love flatbread pizza, because our daughter can help prepare it, and it’s a relatively healthy option. Let your kid help roll out the pastry dough, spread the sauce, and pick the toppings. You might even be able to include a favorite vegetable or protein. 

    Serve with fruit and yogurt. 


    I’m not sure why, but soup became a safe food when my daughter figured out she could drink it. We give our soups fun, creative names (like “strong soup”), which might help younger kids. Use an insulated food jar to pack a tomato or chicken noodle soup. 

    Serve with pinwheels, fruit, and crackers. 

    tomato soup in an insulated food jar next to an orange

    tortellini pasta 

    Tortellini pasta is a cheese-filled noodle, which can contain other fillings like spinach if your kid is up for it. They’re easy to cook and delicious with a bit of olive oil (or nothing at all). After they’ve been cooked, they still taste good chilled. 

    Serve with a side of meat (this community member used chicken wings, but you could pick a safe food), strawberries, and a vegetable. If you use an avocado as pictured here, be sure to spritz it with some lime juice to keep it fresh. 

    a bento box filled with tortellini noodles, avocado, and chicken wings

    DIY quesadilla 

    Just like the pizza, quesadillas are great options for getting your kids involved. Let them pick the fillings and have them help with the cooking. Serve with a side of black beans, and a fruit and vegetable of your choosing.

    resources for parents of picky eaters 

    Resource groups, education, and professional guidance can all provide helpful support for parents of picky eaters. Here are some resources to check out: 

    meet for kids

    Nothing beats the for kids lunchbox when it comes to serving picky eaters. Founded by two moms that get it, these bento boxes feature leakproof compartments, including a compartment large enough to hold a whole piece of fruit. Plus, you can rest easy knowing they’re BPA and phthalate-free. I’d keep talking, but I’d rather you just click below to see them.

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