Real Food Lunch & Snack Ideas

I started making Penelope’s lunch this summer when she went to preschool summer camp for the month of June.  I was excited back then and I am even more excited now that she is back in preschool.  Making lunches just fits with my personality.

It’s something to plan, create and organize.  I like thinking about what I am going to pack for her that is both healthy and interesting.   I love the assembly line process of it, just like I do with my slow cooker freezer recipes, and the satisfaction of the end result.

I realize she is still very young and later I may want to stab my eye out with a spork if I see another lunch box, but right now it’s fun.  And later when it possibly becomes a chore for me, I will remind myself that each lunch I make for her is full of nourishment and love and worth the hassle.

So here are my best tips so far:

I make her lunches twice a week.  On Sunday, I make three lunches and then on Wednesday I make two more.

Each lunch has at least one protein, usually two or three, since one of them is for her morning snack.  And a couple of servings of fruit and veggies.  And usually one gluten free cracker type thing.

I use a bento box style lunch box and love to make everything look pretty and tidy.  The OCD in me, loves this part.   And bento boxes are perfect to hold finger foods that are easy for toddlers and kids to eat by themselves.  There are a million different Bento Boxes on the market, LapTop Lunches is one of my favorites, they have been around a long time and I actually used to sell them at my yoga studio/eco friendly boutique.  I ended up choosing one from Pottery Barn Kids with plastic and stainless steel bento boxes because I am sucker for polka dots and monograms.

Something to make the lunch more enticing and fun is to include dips.  Any and all types of dips, not just ketchup. Think almond butter, guacamole, hummus, etc.  Penelope is not huge on dips, except guacamole, but most toddlers are all about dips.

I include lots fruits and vegetables.  Penelope loves fruit and veggies, thankfully.  If she had her way, she would eat fruit all day long. I have to regulate her fruit intake because, after all, fruit is sugar, and although it’s natural, sugar is sugar, so fruit does the same thing to your blood sugar levels as a cookie.  All the fruit and veggies I buy are organic and/or locally grown.  If you can’t afford to buy real food, check out this post.

For the protein, I mostly use leftovers.  Like if we had steak on Sunday night, steak is what she gets in her lunch.  Really wrap your head around serving what you cooked for dinner instead of trying to come up with “lunch specific” items.  I think this is the biggest thing to make lunch packing easier.  Penelope is great at eating things cold or room temperature.

I also send her with a big container of raw milk.  I like Life Factory’s glass bottles (with the sippy cup spout) for her lunch box milk.A lot of days she will only drink her milk and maybe one item from her lunch box while she is actually at preschool, and when I pick her up she will eat the rest in the car.  So, as long as she is drinking raw milk, I know she is filling up on nutrients to get her through the end of the school day.  I never give her juice, but I give her a little fruity kombucha a couple of times a week at home.  I am not against fresh, raw, homemade juice, but even then it should be a very special treat so they know that milk and water are the only liquid options.

Go grain free.  We are not 100% grain free but we limit our grains as much as possible.  Penelope is not fully allergic to grains, but is very sensitive to grains.  Thankfully Penelope has never been much of sandwich eater, but if your kid loves a grilled cheese or peanut butter sandwich, choose a sourdough bread or one where the grains are soaked and sprouted first.   If you are buying a sourdough bread, be sure to ask if it was made with a real sourdough starter or if it is just white bread with sourdough flavoring, you want the real deal of course.

By the way, I am not against things that come in a package for lunch.  For breakfast and dinner, Penelope gets a homemade meal so I am not going to be a crazy person about lunchtime.  Homemade from scratch is always “best”, but there are plenty of  ”next best ” or “good” products out there. Some of the packaged food that in the “good” quality are organic, grass fed, nitrate free hot dogs (and peel the skin). Gluten free, wild-caught fish nuggets, organic mozzarella cheese sticks, HappyYogis dried yogurt bites.  I also like Lara Bars and Lite Way Organic ProBug Kiefer.  I am ok with a little bit of organic, pasteurized dairy, but 90% of her dairy intake is raw.

I do not send her to school with a smoothie.  For a smoothie to really be nutritious it needs to have a raw egg and fresh yogurt or keifer in it.  If it is just fruit-based one, with no egg or yogurt, it’s too much sugar and you might as well of sent them to school with a cookie.  Her smoothies are an after school snack so I can prepare the egg and yogurt and she can drink it immediately.

Some protein ideas:
sliced beef roast
cubed chicken breast
steak fajitas
hard boiled eggs
slices of cheese
meat, leftovers, or slices of turkey, hotdogs, etc.
bacon, sausage
fried egg or quiche
canned tuna or salmon
beef jerky
homemade chicken or fish nuggets
mini hamburger patties
nuts, almonds, pecans, cashews (if your school allows nuts to be brought in)

If you must put in a sweet, try to make it a homemade one like my chocolate covered almonds or my grain free sweet potato chocolate chip cookies (I have been baking up a storm this summer, so I will have some more recipes soon!).  I haven’t put a sweet in her lunch yet, but I do give her a homemade sweet at about once or twice a week.  And at school, she gets one chocolate chip when she goes on the potty (organic, fair trade, that I bring in-and Thank God her teacher is so cool and accommodating and doesn’t think I am weirdo).

Here are some more natural sweet ideas:
Fermented Fruit Leather
Dried fruit (these are very high in sugar so go easy)
Chocolate chips
Coconut flakes
raw honey packs (I know the woman who started this company, she is fantastic and her product is awesome)
chocolate mousse made from avocado, cocoa powder, honey, salt and vanilla extract
Homemade, grain free baked good

Here are a couple of other blogs with posts with great lunch ideas:

Cultures For Health

The Perfect Chocolate Chip (minus her bread recommendations)

100 Days of Real Food

Hope my post gave you some tips and guidelines to start working toward healthier lunches.  If your kid would balk at some of these options because they are addicted to Tyson chicken fingers or goldfish, then just start with one new item at a time and slowly introduce them to real food.  Or you could go cold turkey, and say this is your option for eating, period.  If you don’t eat it, you don’t eat (which is our dinner tactic, Penelope is almost 3 and 35 pounds, if she goes to bed hungry I don’t care anymore, she has to learn).

If you have any questions, please let me know and I am happy to help!



About the Author

Hiya! I'm Stephanie. Mama and Baby Love is all about helping mothers on their own personal health and healing journey and enjoying life along the way. You can learn more about me and what I'm all about. Sign up for my newsletter for more tips, info and inspiration!


  1. Love these ideas. My teenaged daughter packs her own lunch but I am a slacker in advanced planning for lunches. She’s reading over my shoulder and she perked up at the steak fajitas suggestion. She also says she really likes that these are all foods that let her “graze”. A little bit of this and a bit of that. Just the way she likes it. So I now have a teen excited about packing her lunch who is motivating her Mamma to be a bit more prepared with food stuffs. We bow to your awesomeness.

  2. Great ideas :) I still have 2 years until my 3 year old will be in full time school but I am SO looking forward to packing lunches too!

  3. I have a much messier personality than Steph and yet I also love the idea of packing lunches in a tidy, cute little box. It really is so satisfying, regardless of OCD tendencies. I also always loved getting new school supplies and organizing everything for the first day of class. I still love walking through office supply stores. Weirdness. Anyway, for the grain free folks, here are two more resources I really like:

  4. Does your daughter have a way to heat it up or just eat it cold. I’m concerned about meats not being at a safe temp

  5. Hi! I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog. I’m not even entirely how I stumbled upon it to begin with but it has been a big inspiration for me. I’m a college student and do not have any children at this point in my life, but I love all your posts! It encourages me to learn more about being healthier and leading a more natural life. Thank you!

  6. This is excellent! I just shared it on my personal FB page and my school’s facebook page (I’m the admin so it will show up in people’s feeds). Thanks for the great ideas!

  7. What are these wild caught fish nuggets you speak of?

    • lol. I can’t think of the brand name right now and we don’t have any in the house, I will text you a picture of them the next time I am at New Leaf. They are in the far left corner of the freezer section, kind of where the applegate farm chicken sausages are.

  8. Thanks for the great ideas! I would like to start testing these items out for dinner with our toddler. She attends daycare full time where they are fed full hot meals daily, so dinner is my only meal that I cook for her. I have a really hard time getting Kynslei to eat vegetables. I have tried hiding them in casseroles, but I realize now that she tends to try more food if it is separated out. Is this a toddler thing or what? Lol! She will however eat raw zucchini sticks :-). Thanks for this post!

    • Kaci – I have noticed that my daughter (3 years) will eat her veggies when there are not a lot of other things on the plate for dinner and when she doesn’t get bored during dinner and start thinking of more fun things she could be doing! For example, the other day, it was just she and I for dinner and she was having a hard time finishing her broccoli. Since I’m not much of a talker, after I finished eating, I grabbed a book to read to her while we sat at the table. By the end of the book… low and behold, the broccoli was gone. :) Good luck with the veggies!

    • For the record, (according to child development courses and discussions with other mothers) every toddler goes through a picky stage as their taste buds develop. In fact, most children until about the age of 5 have their taste buds tuned away from vegetables because their primary nutrient sources should be meat, fat and breastmilk. Little tummies can’t digest vegetables (or grains, nuts, beans, legumes, etc.) very well. The only way to appropriately deal with it is to retry the declined food every couple of weeks until their taste buds develop. I agree with Steph’s choice not to cater to the pickiness with special foods because they can get used to the entitlement of always getting just what they want. My 24 year old brother in law, living on his own, still has entitlement issues with food!

      • I worry that Penelope is picky because my breast milk wasn’t good enough and she didn’t get good enough gut flora from me, but I am pretty sure I have just been blessed with the most stubborn child on the face of the planet and saying no to food now that she is older (when she used to eat oysters and pate!) is her way to showing her independence and I have to just ride it out.

  9. The thermos you use – does it keep the raw milk cold? I’ve been considering sending raw milk for my daughter’s morning snack, but I wasn’t sure if it would stay cold. Thanks!

  10. I’m so glad I came across your site. My 14 mo old daughter goes to Mother’s Day out once a week at church and has to have cold lunches that she can feed herself. I’ve REALLY been struggling on what to send with her. Luckily, she’s not a picky eater and has no allergies that we know of yet, but nonetheless I’ve been at a loss for protein options for her. Excited to look more at your crock pot recipes too. I’m pregnant and due in about 5 weeks, so I plan on getting some meals prepared ahead of time. You are a lifesaver!!

  11. Your last line about going to bed hungry made me laugh out loud! We’ve had to do the same thing, because at 3 years and 5 months our daughter is 44.5 lbs (and 3′ 6″ inches tall). Since she turned 3, she’s tried to be a picky eater, but we know better! We were there when she was gobbling up broccoli and asparagus and mango salsa and all kinds of goodness between the age of 5 months and 3 years… :)

    • Ha! Happy to hear that, I love to make people laugh! I figure, if she looses a couple of pounds at this point it’s ok! Since she was a baby, I have been so neurotic about her weight gain, but I finally feel like she is solid and now is the time to start teaching her that what I cook for dinner is the only option. I ain’t no short order cook. :)

  12. Wow. I think we are twins. My little one gets much the same foods. Although, my little love is gaged up about cheese and yogurt. I think I’ll try the packaged Kefir squeeze thingies. I’m hoping the bright colors will create a wow factor for her. Haha. Thank goodness for raw milk! ;). And thanks for your post!

  13. why do you choose lara bars over the other kids organic bars out there? also, what is the brand of the wild caught GF fish sticks you have found, I haven’t been able to find any anywhere!

    • Penelope likes Blue Horizon Wild fish. I like Lara bars because they don’t have any dairy or grains in them. Just a couple of ingredients. I wish they soaked the nuts (cashews, almonds, etc) that they used and then they would really be perfect!

  14. Lovely post. But why peel the skin off the hotdogs? Choking hazard? Or something nasty in them?

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