It was all so easy at first, or at least a much tidier affair.
Feeding little ones in the early days can sometimes be as simple as sitting down for a nursing session.
Our pediatrician recommended beginning to introduce solids foods at around 4 months of age, starting with that first mushy baby cereal mixed with breast milk.
And after that, the fun was on…
Except for that, it hasn’t always been fun, and it certainly isn’t always easy.
In my experience, as a mom to a toddler and a little one getting ready for preschool, one kid’s appetite and attitude about eating can be completely different from another’s. And yet, still, everyone has their picky days.
It can be frustrating, sometimes, to even have a positive attitude, to keep the whole thing a pleasant experience for all involved, especially when you’re making three meals and two snacks every day and watching as a large fraction of it ends up in the trash, or on the floor.
I’ve been crafting some mealtime strategies, myself, such as thinking like a toddler when cooking (and grocery shopping), picking plates with pockets for separate meal elements, and keeping it all simple.
So fret not, and make feeding time fun again with these 20 easy lunches that even the pickiest kids will eat.
20 Pizza Party!
My husband and I have a funny little inside joke / catch phrase of sorts: “It’s pizza.”
This developed over the years as we realized that there wasn’t really any such thing as “bad” pizza, and that everyone — everyone — likes that bready, cheesy, saucy goodness. I mean, come on: It’s pizza!
No joke, I think one day amid watching our older baby, sitting and barely picking at her own food, we handed her part of a slice, and watched her hungrily gobble down what was one of her very first “real people” foods.
And so this is one mom trick I frequently bust out, but I don’t spend the money on ordering in.
Trader Joe’s (and surely other stores) sells premade doughs, or there are of course the already baked crusts. (I’ve even used sliced bagels or English muffins.)
Slap on a jarred sauce, some cheese, and whichever toppings you like, and in 10-15 minutes, you’ve got a meal.
19 The Classic
Okay, folks, I said the meals in this list would be easy (and easy to love), not that they would be the most inventive or creative ones in the world…
So don’t give me any grief for bringing up something I had actually somehow forgotten to bust out when my own toddler needed a better way of getting some more protein in the daily diet: the one… the only… the peanut-butter-jelly sandwich.
I don’t always use jelly. Sometimes it’s just wheat bread with creamy peanut butter spread on it and folded in half.
We like raspberry jam around my house, or strawberry, so often opt for that rather than the grape goo if we do use a jam of some sort. (I let my little ones pick whether they want it included or not.)
Add some grapes (sliced small if you’ve got toddlers) or baby carrots, and you’re golden.
It’s a classic for a reason.
18 Making Fiber Fun
Pretty much anything that I can buy in whole grain I do.
And one of the very easiest things to cook – so easy that it was one of the first things both my husband and I learned to make for ourselves when we were kids – is, of course, pasta.
Find fun shapes, if you can, and if your little ones haven’t been diggin’ the penne, why not try a corkscrew shape, or some little shells?
My little ones go through phases of either liking or lumping red sauce, so I always give them the option before dumping a jarred variety over the whole pot.
Sometimes, it’s just some butter and maybe a bit of garlic salt or parmesan that suits their fancy.
Little cherry tomatoes sliced or diced and sprinkled with a bit of sea salt make a scrumptious (and nutritious) side, and canned chicken can be stirred in for some protein.
17 Get Cheesy
Having mentioned the pizza and the PBJ elsewhere in this article, we now must, of course, include that other classic: mac and cheese.
The boxed variety is of course about as simple as it gets, but we’ve found that making the dish from scratch isn’t that complicated, either. You can even skip making the creamy roux and just melt some pre-shredded Mexi-blend cheese over the noodles of your choosing.
A classic to accompany this would, of course, be cut-up hot dogs. We like chicken sausages in my house, or even frozen meatballs heated up in the oven (more on that later…).
16 As Simple As Hitting Start
I grew up eating SO many of these…
See, you take a tortilla. You sprinkles shredded cheese – jack or mozzarella might be sort of a the classic, but any cheese will of course do – on it.
You fold it over, or slap another tortilla on top.
Microwave that thing for like a minute, and the dish is done.
If your kid likes this one, he can start making it for himself as soon as he’s old enough to, like, open the refrigerator.
I know kids can have mixed feelings about guacamole, but it might be a good venue for trying that, too, or even just some sliced or mashed avocado – a nutritional wonder.
Serve with canned beans or stick in some chicken for some protein.
15 The Variety Plate
This is my own dad’s term for what he would feed me in my younger days.
You basically just put a little bit of whatever you have around in separate little piles on a plate, or even use one of those nifty toddler plates with little-divided pockets for each little item.
When I was growing up, we had one that was – no joke – shaped like a 3D airplane and had a bunch of little pockets in the top to serve this and that little snack.
This is pretty much what I feed my kids at least once or twice every single day.
Sometimes it’s sliced salami, sliced or cubed cheddar cheese, and toast triangles. Strawberries, chicken bites, and microwaved frozen vegetables might work, too.
It’s keeping it all very simple and keeping all the elements separate so little ones can just nibble a bit of whatever looks tempting — and maybe even ask for more of something!
14 The “To-To”
One of the first “real” foods my first little one ate, as in not just little bits of this or that or mushy baby foods, was what she quickly began to call, quite adorably, the “to-to.”
At first, she was tempted to try the frozen or restaurant varieties that she saw her Dada eagerly nomming, and then we realized that a pack of tortillas, a bag of mixed shredded cheese, and a can of refried beans could pretty much achieve the same outcome.
Having a little-wrapped package as a meal can be really fun for kids, versus a plate of foods before them that need to be eaten with a fork.
And yeah, burritos are just delicious!
13 Flatbread ‘Pizza’
Thank you, Trader Joe’s, for your genius in one day providing me with a sample that would inspire my toddler mealtimes for many months to come.
One day, while pregnant with my second baby and grocery shopping with my first, then one year old, we happened past the sample stand in the grocery store and were given what they were calling a sort of “pizza.”
It was naan bread, a flatbread that can be purchased in a bag just like a loaf of bread, topped with tomato-basil hummus and cheese and heated for a few minutes in the toaster oven.
First of all, as I said earlier, it’s pizza. But I love that the garbanzo beans in that hummus sneak some awesome protein in there. And you can even just microwave it!
12 Heart-Shaped Anything
It was easy for me to forget that kids eat first with their eyes, too. I’d become pretty used to eating within a certain time frame and not caring much about “presentation” when it came to my own lunches, and then I became a mom.
I realized that making something look fun could essentially trick kids into loving it, and gobbling it up.
And so at least every few weeks, I give my little ones a valentine. It’s made of toasted bread with butter spread on top of it, and instead of scissors, glitter, and glue, my crafting supplies are a toaster and a cookie cutter.
They flipped out with excitement when I first decided to give this a try, and are still super pumped to receive their “heart toast!”
You can serve wheat toast with some other simple protein, like scrambled eggs, and some fruit on the side, or even use the cookie cutter to cut any type of sandwich.
If hearts aren’t the thing for your kids, how about a cookie cutter shaped like a dinosaur, a train, or a mermaid?
11 The Sneaky Grilled Cheese
My clever husband came up with this one. And honestly, it’s something he likes to eat himself, too — so even better!
“Grilled cheese” pretty much means “childhood” for many of us, and if you don’t know how to make one, well, let’s just say it’s as simple as slapping some bread and cheese into a buttered pan.
But this is no ordinary grilled cheese… Oh, no… This is the sneaky version.
Ditch the white bread for wheat bread (try to avoid anything with oats or nuts on or in it at first if you’ve got a really picky eater), or try something exciting like sliced sourdough for a special treat.
Either before you put on the second slice of bread as the “lid” and grill the sandwich or after the cheese has already been melted, stick some canned or leftover grilled chicken in there… Now that’s winning at mom-ing…
10 Having A Ball
I keep trying to get away from buying anything prepackaged or prepared at the grocery store – mainly to save money.
But I just keep coming back to this one because it’s become such a favorite and such staple around my house, and it’s just so darn easy.
It’s the frozen meatball, and my little ones, even during their choosier eating periods, gobble them right up. It is like THE way I get my kids to eat meat.
Not being a ravenous meat lover, myself, I totally get how the texture is easier to approach, versus regular old meat.
Having the breadcrumbs and seasonings mixed in there makes the flavor and consistency quite nice, and I just cut the meatballs up into little pieces for little fingers to grab or spear with a fork.
You can offer dipping sauces such as marinara, ketchup, or BBQ on the side, and serve with something else that’s fun and easy to crunch and munch, such as fresh peas still in the pod.
9 Wheels On The Bus
My kids go through phases. Sometimes, bananas are the most delicious thing in the world, the thing I can count on them eating even when they won’t eat anything else, while other days, they outright refuse.
I found that when they are going through this period of intense banana hatred, simply changing the way I offer the fruit to them often fixes our little problem (the problem being that they won’t eat this super cheap and nutritious food that I always have ready to grab on my counter).
Sometimes they want to hold it in the peel themselves and eat it just like mommy and daddy. That worked well when they were really little.
Other days, though, slicing it up into cute little “wheels” does the trick, and my toddler calls the spoonful of peanut butter I serve alongside it a “lollypop.”
As they get older, I’m going to try serving it all together on wheat bread in a sandwich.
8 Rice Is Nice
In my experience, kids just really love rice. There’s something very approachable about those lovely little grains, steaming pleasantly with a simple yet tempting aroma. Mmmm… carb-y deliciousness. Add some butter or cheese, and oh, man… What’s not to love?
I’ve decided that white rice is just fine sometimes, but the whole grain variety sure stays with you longer. It takes a little longer to cook if you do it in a pot on the stove, but I know for a fact that there are frozen varieties widely available that take like three minutes to warm up in the microwave.
So you’ve got rice, one of the easiest and yummiest basics ever, as your opener, and from there, the skies the limit…
Scrambled eggs or chicken can be mixed in or offered on the side, and the same goes for broccoli, peas, or bell peppers, which can be steamed, sautéed, or roasted.
7 The Breakfast Burrito: Not Just For Breakfast
Although I admit to purchasing many of these from order-at-the-counter restaurants, particularly during college, there are actually few things that are simpler to make.
It’s the breakfast burrito, and if you think these bad boys are just for breakfast, think again, my parental peeps.
Scramble an egg or two in a pan, going light on the seasoning, if any.
Warm a large tortilla (you can even use wheat!) in the microwave, put the eggs inside, add cheese, and you could stop there… or add a handful of hash-browns you grabbed from a bag in the freezer and then heated up, a few tater tots, or some rice leftover from last night’s dinner.
Dude, I’m making myself hungry…
6 Teeny Weenies
It cracked me up to see how excited my little one was to get to sample some cocktail weenies at a neighborhood potluck party we went to not too long ago.
Sometimes, all you need is just something that’s new and exciting. Surely any eater can identify with that, picky or not!
There on the table, in one of those disposable tin catering pans, was a whole mess of the little baby hotdogs, heated in some sort of barbeque sauce – simple as that.
But the stuff of an old-school potluck block party can quickly become an exciting and tempting treat to a little one, and mine kept asking for more and more.
I think part of the excitement was surely getting to stab each one and eat it off of a toothpick – so I’ve used that trick for many foods at home since.
Why not serve some similarly tiny potatoes, baked in the oven or just cooked in the microwave, on the side?
It’s a meal in miniature!
5 Pretend Meat
Some kids, I’ve found, have a harder time than others warming up to the whole “meat” thing. Again, I totally get it.
I’m not a vegetarian or anything, but I tend to eat meat more occasionally, and sometimes have trouble getting past the texture of this or that fat or gristle, the appearance of it, and sometimes even the idea of, like, eating an animal.
Even if you are 100 percent carnivore yourself, you might consider offering the vegan or vegetarian option for your little one.
We like the “Meatless Meatballs” from Trader Joe’s, but there are surely all sorts of patties, nuggets, “sausages,” and balls available out there.
I offer some whole in that neat and interesting little sphere, as well as cutting some up in little bites that are easy to grab and shovel into hungry mouths.
Any old side will do, such as cooked veggies, apple slices, pineapple chunks, nectarine pieces, cubed cheese, or you-name-it.
Ketchup for dipping might turn even the most skeptical eater into a true meatless meatball believer.
4 Do It Like The Deli
Sometimes, I’ve found, it’s sort of going out on a limb that really gets you the best results with getting young kids to eat, actually.
I never would have though, really, that toddlers would go nuts for tuna salad.
I didn’t dare try to old-school sandwich filling, with all its mysterious textures and smells, myself, until I was, like, a teenager, as I recall.
But now I love it and just crave it sometimes, so without overthinking it, I scooped a bit onto my little one’s high chair tray while I was making my own lunch.
“Tuna FISH!” she now calls out excitedly when she sees what’s coming at mealtime.
I suspect that she enjoys that my version includes a LOT of sweet relish.
There’s a pro tip: Kids (mine, anyway) LOVE pickles.
3 Roll With It
I don’t know about you, but I really love classic deli sandwiches.
Where I’m from, that means something as simple as some sort of yummy bread, mayo, mustard, red onion, sliced tomato, perhaps some pickles, cheese, and sliced turkey. This is perhaps one of my very favorite foods in the entire world.
But in my experience, something with all those elements all stacked up together, hiding one under another, is a bit too much to manage or even really approach for very young kids.
And so I serve a deconstructed sandwich.
The turkey can be rolled up in attractive little bundles. Small pickles can be served on the side, or little cucumber “coins.”
Sliced cheese and sweet mustard might also be part of this petite platter, and your little one can use her fingers to sample whatever looks good.
2 Getting Toasty
I remember talking to my family’s pediatrician about toddler diets and dining one day and mentioning that I don’t eat a lot of meat myself, and I that I wanted to be sure that my little one got adequate protein.
My child wasn’t quite old enough to munch on a handful of roasted almonds as I tended to do.
That’s when the doctor mentioned something I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already been feeding her every week: “There’s always peanut butter!” he offered up.
It’s a classic for a reason.
Sure, there’s often a decent amount of fat and salt involved, but also protein. It’s tasty, it’s creamy, it’s cheap, and it’s as easy as opening up a jar and grabbing a knife.
I like to do toasted wheat bread with PB on top for my kids lately, any time of day. You can serve it alongside a handful of raisins or some dried apricots grabbed from the pantry, or that old classic: celery sticks.
1 Playing Picnic
It’s summer time, so I’ve got picnics on the mind, and the other day I quite happily found myself gathered around on an actual picnic blanket and sharing this meal with my family.
But I’m also going to make it again and eat it at home, or pack it and take it out to the park or the zoo.
It’s as easy as throwing an ice pack in a cooler, and it can all be made ahead and simply pulled out of the fridge, ready to eat.
For pasta salad, I do boiled corkscrew pasta (tricolor is the classic, of course), olive oil, parmesan cheese, and whatever else is around, be it sundried or fresh tomatoes, maybe some diced salami, some black olives, shallots, or whatever sounds good.
Kids can eat whichever elements of it that they like, and each ingredient sort of imparts flavor to the others as it sits refrigerated overnight.
Hard-boiled eggs are as easy as putting eggs in a pot, covering them with water, bringing to a boil, and then letting them sit in the hot water with the flame off for like 7 minutes.
Sure, they might pick out and eat only the olives one time, or only nibble the whites of the egg, but in no time they might be gobbling it all up just like you are!
Sources: This one mom’s experience.