#38 - School Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters & Kids with Feeding Difficulties

Aug 20, 2023
#38 - School Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters & Kids with Feeding Difficulties

Hello! Welcome back to Episode #38 of the Food Explorers Podcast. Back-to-school is officially in full effect over here in South Florida. And we are definitely starting to embrace the Fall season. I don’t know about you, but I am always ready to start Fall a bit early. I’m not the biggest fan of summer, because i much prefer cold over the heat. So I am all about getting excited for the magic of winter and fall. 


I know many of you up north may not be as excited about this, because it gets super cold, but for us - Winter is our most enjoyable season weather-wise. For all my parents here, I’m sure you are excited to get some time back during your day.


Alright, so today’s episode is all about packing school lunches. This is episode #3 in our back-to-school series. If you haven’t listened to the first two episodes in this series I recommend you pause this one and go back - there is so much GREAT information in those episodes. They are episodes #36 and #37 of the Food Explorers Podcast. 


Which brings me back to today. School lunch ideas for picky eaters & kids with feeding difficulties. 


If you’re new to me, I did want to talk about this term picky eater for a second. It’s not my favorite term - I think it connotes that a child is choosing to be difficult, when in fact the majority of the time there’s something going on in a child’s body that is making eating challenge.


Unfortunately, that is the search term on Google, which is why it is in the title here - to help more parents find and locate the information they need. 


Back-to-school can be particularly triggering for parents of children with feeding challenges. You may feel like you have a hard enough time getting them to eat at home, let alone sending them lunch in a box that will be sitting for hours. 


But I’m here to tell you that there are options. They are foods that do better in lunchboxes, and simple tweaks you can make to help them be better set up for success at school. 


Let’s stop for a second and really delve into why school lunches can be hard for some children:


  1. It’s a different environment: School can be overwhelming for some kids. Especially children who have a sensory avoidance tendencies - meaning they get easily overwhelmed by sounds, light, touch, etc. A busy cafeteria, or even a class eating in the classroom together may be a challenge for this child. There’s so much going on, and it can make focusing on food challenging.

  2. The texture and taste of foods can change when they sit in a lunchbox for a prolonged period of time: I think this is probably the one that is the most impactful for children. Food is usually the best texture and taste when we eat it right after making it. But when it sits in a container with ice for hours, it starts to sweat, get a little soggy, and the color may even change. For example - think of an apple. When you cut it, it’s initially really crunchy. But if you leave it chopped and put it in the fridge, you take it out and it’s brown, the color has changed, and it even tastes different. For most of us, we may not love it, but can still eat it. But for a child who has very strong food & sensory preferences, this can lead to total refusal to eat the food. Which means they may not eat at school, be hungry and crabby, and have a hard time learning.

  3. Fine motor skills: Something we often don’t think about when packing lunches is the actual packaging that we use. Children with sensory processing challenges also often have difficulty with fine motor skills. These are the tiny muscles that move in the hand. This can make opening packages very challenging. And if your child can’t open a package, they can’t eat the food - especially if they’re embarrassed to ask for help. This happens more than you think.

  4. Different people presenting food with different rules: Honestly, this is going to depend on the grade. With older kids, there’s not as many food rules, but with younger kids there is a lot of influence from the teachers and cafeteria staff on how to eat. While you may not use pressure in your house, the staff may be pressuring your child to eat vegetables first, or certain types of food. This can lead them to feel stressed and upset at mealtime. 

On the other hand, it’s not entirely uncommon that a child eats BETTER at school. I hear from parents all the time who are confused as to why their child hardly eats at home, but is eating vegetables, and proteins, and different types of new foods at school. Let’s talk about why this can be:


  1. Role modeling: One of the really cool things about eating at school, is that all of your friends are doing it. In our modern society, many families don’t get the opportunity to sit down with their family and eat meals. Instead we serve children their food alone, often in front of the TV, and then the adults eat later. But role modeling is one of the most impactful ways to help kids eat new foods. Because they watch you enjoy a food, they see that it is safe, and it can help them become curious and open to that food as well.

  2. Less pressure: Sometimes, kids are more open to eat at school because there is no one pressuring them to do so. As we talked about a second ago, at some schools kids feel more pressured due to the rules, but other times kids are left to eat what they choose. Because there’s less pressure kids may feel more open to exploring and eating, versus at home with us because we’re constantly staring at them or trying to make them take a bite.

  3. Boundaries and rules: Sometimes boundaries and rules can be beneficial to eating. For example, if all kids are expected to remain at the lunch table until the period is over, children may be more prone to eating vs at home where they can get up and run around more. An example of this is that at school, you get your chance to eat your lunch and snacks at scheduled time, and if you don’t, you’re going to be hungry. Often at home, schedules are more flexible and kids tend to graze or eat smaller amounts. At school, they know if they miss this scheduled time to eat, that they are going to be hungry.


Now that we’ve covered why school lunches can be both challenging and helpful for eating, let’s talk about strategies that can help promote eating at school:


  1. Always pack a safe food: It can be really tempting to try and pack only what you want your child to eat, in hope that they will be so hungry they’ll eat whatever they have. Unfortunately, this isn’t a useful strategy. Most of the time, children will protect their body if something doesn’t feel good for it, and the discomfort of hunger won’t outway a food they’re not ready to eat. Instead, a more useful strategy is to pack 2-3 safe foods that your child will predictably eat, and help keep them full. Of course, I always also love including a small amount of a new, or more challenging food as well.

  2. Involve them in choosing their lunchbox: Choosing a lunchbox is exciting! And being excited about opening their lunchbox is the first start. Research has even shown (1) that kids are more likely to eat a food that contains their favorite characters on the wrapper, so hopefully we can carry this over to their lunchbox too! 

  3. Using multiple containers or divided lunchboxes: I’m personally a big fan of planet box. And I say personally because I use a planet box to pack my lunch. What I really enjoy about this is that it’s divided containers within one lunchbox. This way, my foods don’t comingle and touch. This can be really helpful for kids with feeding challenges, who worry that food will be tainted if they touch, or if the texture is changed by touching other foods. For example - strawberries may make goldfish more soggy.

  4. Let your child know what’s in their lunchbox that day: Predictability is key when it comes to children with feeding challenges. I love the idea of either having your child help you pack the lunch and place the containers, or showing them the lunch the night before so they know what to expect. You can also have them choose 1 or 2 items to put in the lunchbox and help get them excited.

  5. Easy to open packages: As we discussed earlier, make sure that your child is able to open their containers independently. If not, make sure to discuss with the teacher and request assistance.

  6. Look up lunchbox hacks: It’s amazing what people have tried and come up with to help the texture of foods stay the same while sitting in a lunchbox. For example, I recently tried a chicken nugget hack where you add a paper towel to the container, to help it stay crunchier. While it wasn’t 100%, the chicken nugget was significant crunchier than when it’s placed in a container alone. I just started a lunchbox series on Instagram @DrSamGoldman, so if you’re not following me yet, I recommend you head over so you can test out some lunchbox hacks with me!

  7. Discuss sensory needs with your teacher: If your child struggles to eat lunch in the current environment, make sure to bring this up to the school. Often, schools are able to make accommodations like allowing a child to go to lunch a bit earlier, and eat in quiet. Or, sitting at a specific table that helps them feel more comfortable. Tune in to your child’s sensory needs and consider what would promote a better eating experience for them.


But even with these strategies, I know that you may be at a shortage of ideas for exactly what to pack for lunch. Especially since you may have forgotten after being off for a summer!  


When it comes to meals, I like to think of the big three categories to pack. These categories are 1 protein, 1 fruit or veggie, and 1 carbohydrate. I also like to have in my mind to pack something with fat to help keep their bellies full throughout the day. In addition, my goal is always to have at least 2 safe foods.


First, let’s talk about the foods that we commonly think about packing for lunch, but get stuck on. As we go through this list remember, your child might not be eating these foods yet, but this is a fantastic time to start introducing new foods at home and practicing them, so we can build up to adding these foods into the lunchbox.


Sandwiches - so when most parents think about packing lunch, sandwiches are the ones that come up first, that parents just WISH they could pack. But maybe their child goes to a nut-free school and PB & J isn’t allowed, and that’s the only type of sandwich your child eats…then what?

We forget that there are SO many types of sandwiches, and I really suggest you think outside the box here. For example, some sandwiches that we don’t think of include:

  • Cheese sandwiches
  • Sunbutter sandwiches - or even if your child doesn’t like sunbutter, you can also try granola butter. Granola butter is awesome, I keep it in my house all the time because we love it so much.
  • Nutella sandwiches
  • Cream cheese sandwiches
  • Turkey or deli meat sandwiches
  • Avocado sandwiches (this pretty much avocado toast but placed between two pieces of bread)
  • Jam sandwiches - there’s even now chia jam available in Whole Foods that will add some protein into there
  • Egg salad sandwiches 
  • Tuna sandwiches 


As you can see, there’s a TON of options for sandwiches, we just need to think outside the box a bit. Now, do all of these sandwiches contain all the nutrition you’re hoping for? Probably not. BUT, they are options, and they are a great way to start working your way towards more nutrient dense alternatives. Plus, we can also start working on changing the breads, to more whole grain options to be a little more filling and contain a bit more protein.


On the other hand, maybe your child will only eat 1 type of sandwich and they want that exact sandwich every single day. That’s great that you found something they will eat. HOWEVER, when a child will only eat the same food prepared the same way every single day, we do worry that one day they’ll get bored of it and just stop eating it entirely. 


In those cases, I love to find ways to create variety within the one sandwich a child will eat. But heres the thing. If you’re multitasking, come back to me here, because this is important.


***We don’t want to mess with a child’s primary source of nutrition. If the sandwich is where your child gets the MOST nutrition, we don’t want to mess with it. Because sometimes when we change up a food a child can loose it.


If this is the case, then you may want to start by trying to add another sandwich instead of changing up the one they love. So they still feel safe that their sandwich is unchanged.

Ok but some ideas for creating variety within sandwiches is:

  • Offering your child a food cutter to cut the sandwich into fun shapes (I like to start here, because often when we change the shape ourselves, kids don’t recognize or trust that its the same sandwich)
  • From here, I like to work on cutting it different ways. For example, one day triangles, one day a circle, one day 4 squares. 
  • Rolling it up and cutting it like sushi or pinwheels. 
  • Try toasting it vs leaving it untoasted
  • Using a wrap instead of bread
  • Using lavash


Again, be very careful with this. If your child predictably eats a food every single day, and we change it up, we don’t want them to loose it. So I would personally start by offering it along side their favorite one, and showing them that its the same thing. 


Ok, let’s move onto another category, pasta:


Pasta is one of those foods that tends to stay well in a lunchbox. And you have SO much variety you can offer here.


For example you can send: 

  • Pasta with red sauce
  • Pasta with meatballs
  • Pasta with butter
  • Pasta with white sauce
  • Pasta with parmesan cheese
  • Pasta with nut-free pesto
  • Pasta with olive oil & garlic
  • Pasta alla vodka
  • Pasta with spicy sauce
  • Bolognese 
  • Macaroni and cheese


And from here, you have SO many options to change the shape of the pasta. Changing the shape of pasta is one of my absolute favorite ways to help kids embrace variety. One day you can send shells, another day you can send macaroni, and on a third day you can send spaghetti. This helps keep the brain interested and decreases the chance of dropping foods.


On the other hand, maybe your child isn’t eating these typical lunch foods yet. Another option is creating your own type of bento box. Where we offer little bits of different foods.


Lets talk about some options that keep well in lunchboxes:


You can try

  • Rolled up deli meat
  • Fresh edamame - be aware this can be a choking hazard for certain kids
  • Dried edamame - this can be hard to chew and a choking hazard, so make sure this is safe for your child
  • Waffles with protein
  • Pancakes with protein
  • Cut up hot dogs
  • Pepperoni
  • Jerky sticks - assess for safety due to choking hazard
  • Hippeas - these are chickpea puffs that have some protein in them
  • Chicken chips
  • Soups with protein
  • Cooked tofu
  • Cooked or crunchy chickpeas - these can also be a choking hazard so assess for safety
  • Hummus
  • Granola bars with protein
  • Cereals with protein
  • Kodiak graham crackers
  • Cheese - specifically like string cheese and those babybell cheese because they keep really well
  • Yogurt, or yogurt pouches
  • Hardboiled or scrambled eggs
  • Sausage links or patties
  • Oatmeals
  • Milk


How about Fruits/Veggies?

You can try

  • Freeze dried fruits and veggies - Can be a choking hazard for some kids, so be mindful
  • Dried fruits - these can be a choking hazard because they’re so chewy, so be careful with them
  • If your child can eat whole fruits, kids may be more open to eating them in those form 
  • Frozen fruits, so they dethaw through the day
  • Vegetable chips from the bulk section
  • Shredded carrots 
  • Raw veggies if your child can eat them 
  • Bear Naked gummies
  • Applesauce
  • Fruit/veggie pouches, like once upon a farm
  • Fruit cups
  • Hashbrowns
  • Smoothies - you can freeze these the night before, and then let them defrost
  • Try those lunchbox hacks I mentioned earlier, for example there is a hack for washing berries in vinegar so they keep better.

For carbohydrates, most of the time kids don’t seem to have as much difficulty with these, but some options to try are:

  • Graham crackers
  • Different types of rice
  • Different types of pasta
  • Different types of rolls or bread
  • Waffles
  • Pancakes
  • French fries
  • Cereals
  • And more! Again, think outside the box here.

I hope this gives you a starting point and some ideas to consider as we head back into this new school year. Keep your eyes open, and make sure you’re signed up for my email list, because I am working on a new resource for school lunches.

If you’re part of the Food Explorers Membership, this will be available for you to for free, otherwise you can purchase this separately! 


Thanks again for joining me for another episode of our back to school series. I’d love to know what you thought about this episode. Find me @DrSamGoldman and send me a DM to let me know if you loved it, or if you were hoping for more. I hope you’ll join me back here next week where we’ll be continuing with our back to school series and talking all about handwriting.


Talk soon! 



  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666317303549


***This post/podcast is not sponsored. The opinions and content of this blog/podcast are unique to the writer unless otherwise stated. No compensation is received for the links shared. All contents of this episode are based on our personal opinions and experiences.
Disclaimers: The information provided by SAMANTHA N. GOLDMAN, LLC (“we,” “us” or “our”) on theot4me.com, http://drsamgoldman.com , and http://samantha-goldman.mykajabi.com (the “Site”) is for general informational purposes only. The Site cannot and does not contain medical advice. Any medical information is provided as my/our personal experiences is not a substitute for professional advice. Accordingly, before taking any actions based upon such information, we encourage you to consult with the appropriate professionals. We do not provide any kind of medical advice.

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