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We Asked Daycare Providers for Their Favorite Lunch Box Ingredients — These Are Their Top 10

published Aug 16, 2022
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Credit: Faith Durand

Too much of my time and energy every day is spent figuring out what to pack my children for daycare. They need a morning snack, lunch, and an afternoon snack five days a week, and those foods need to check a lot of boxes: must be nutritious, something they’ll actually eat, and straightforward enough that tiny hands can handle with minimal assistance. I commiserate with fellow parents at the playground and birthday parties, and online. I’m even part of a Facebook group — What’s in your lunchbox? 🙂 — that bills itself as the place to get lunch inspiration. It has more than 320,000 members.

To make our collective mental load easier, I reached out to four daycare providers — including folks at my own kids’ daycare — to get their advice on what to pack for lunch and snacks. After all, they’re the ones who see what ends up in our little ones’ mouths (or on the floor). They shared some insider information about foods for even the pickiest eaters and items they stock (and some they avoid) in their own daycares. Here are 10 of their top picks — and a few they’d like to see less often.

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1. String Cheese

Every daycare provider I spoke with recommended string cheese and two specified Galbani and Polly-O brands. Barb Herstig, who has worked at multiple daycare providers in the Midwest, says, “Dairy is a great source of protein.” String cheese, in particular, is a good way to get that protein intake — and kids can’t get enough of it! From personal experience, my kids would eat string cheese for every meal if I let them. 

Buy: Galbani Whole Milk Mozzarella String Cheese, $8.69 for 12 ounces at Instacart

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2. Whole Grain English Muffins 

In terms of carbohydrates, all of the providers agree that whole grains are the way to go because they’re both filling and nutritious. These Thomas’ English Muffins are a staple in the kitchen at Belfast Area Children’s Center (BACC) in Maine. An on-site cook uses them as a base for a variety of toppings, explains Gina, an executive director at the daycare. They spread English muffins with cream cheese or peanut butter and use them as the base for mini pizzas. Plus, they’re a manageable size for little hands.

Buy: Thomas’ Whole Grain Multi Grain English Muffins, $4.79 for 12 ounces at Instacart

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3. Whole Wheat Tortillas 

Another versatile carb that was recommended, tortillas can be used to make pinwheel wraps or quesadillas with chicken, beans, or plain cheese. “I’ve seen parents cut the tortillas into fun shapes, like hearts or stars, to get kids more excited about the food,” says Barb. You can also make nut butter and banana roll-ups, a go-to snack at BACC and one Gina says the kids love.

Buy: Mission Original Whole Wheat Tortilla Wraps, $3.79 for 16 ounces at Amazon

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4. Yogurt 

Yogurt, like string cheese, is another dairy staple at these daycare centers. It’s good as a snack on its own or as a base for toppings, like granola or sliced fruit. The daycare providers didn’t have a specific brand preference, although Stephanie, officer manager and teacher at Education Station in New Jersey, says the kids often bring in Activia yogurts, while Gina stocks up on the Stonyfield Organic Probiotic Vanilla Whole Milk Yogurt for her kids.

Buy: Stonyfield Organic Probiotic Vanilla Whole Milk Yogurt, $6.09 for 32 ounces at Instacart

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5. Fun-Shaped Chicken Nuggets

Chicken nuggets are a tried-and-true source of protein for kids. Stephanie sees a lot of lunches starring Dino Buddies nuggets, and she packs them for her daughter as well: “She likes when I pack the alphabet nuggets because then she can spell out her name.” Bonus: You can buy them in bulk at Costco (last I checked, they were on sale too). Some parents choose chicken nuggets with no additives.

Buy: Yummy Dino Buddies Dinosaur-Shaped Chicken Breast Nuggets, $9.89 for 21 ounces at Instacart

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6. SunButter 

Nuts are a hearty and tasty snack, but many daycares don’t allow any tree nuts because of allergy concerns. If your daycare is nut-free, then sunflower butter is a favorite alternative for sandwiches or to send in as a dip. Almost every expert I spoke with called out SunButter as a top nut-free option.

Buy: SunButter Creamy Sunflower Butter, $5.98 for 16 ounces at Amazon

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7. Black Beans 

Black beans are an inexpensive and fiber-filled protein you can include in tacos, quesadillas, salads, or on their own as finger food for little kiddos. “Black beans are great for working on pincer grasps for babies over six months,” says Barb.

Buy: Brad’s Organic Organic Black Beans, $2.39 for 16 ounces at Instacart

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8. Fruit

The staff at these facilities like to see fruit included every day. “We try to make fruit a big deal here,” says Jasmine, a teacher at La Petit preschool in New York. While any and all fruits are welcome, Barb called out apples and oranges, explaining “anything that doesn’t need to be refrigerated is always nice for your snack bag.” This is particularly good advice if your daycare doesn’t refrigerate lunches

Buy: Envy Apples, $6.69 for 2 pounds at Amazon

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9. Fresh Vegetables 

Either cut up or in a salad, fresh vegetables like grape tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce are good additions to any lunch box — even if your kids don’t eat them at home. According to Gina, the staff gets kids to eat veggies and other things at the daycare, in part because they’re around their friends. “Encouragement plus peer pressure, even at the youngest ages, works,” she said. She also mentioned that adding unexpected ingredients to the veggie mix — like strawberries — makes for a fun surprise.

Buy: Grape Tomato Medley Mix, $4.99 per pound at Whole Foods Market

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10. Graham Crackers

Graham crackers are easy for kids to eat and you can also use them as a vehicle for toppings like nut butter or cottage cheese or a dipper for yogurt. For kids under one, Gina serves Nabisco Original Grahams because they don’t have honey in them, while the older kids get Honey Maid. In general, the consensus is kids love all kinds of crackers! Nabisco Wheat Thins and Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies are also big hits. “They’re not as salty as other brands, so some kids like Annie’s more,” says Barb.

Buy: Nabisco Original Grahams, $6.49 for 14.4 ounces at Amazon

A Few Things You Should Pack Less Often

  • Candy and cookies: The providers understand that you want to pack a treat, but cautioned that this will be a late-afternoon snack.
  • Foods that are extra messy: Tiny grains like couscous or quinoa, as it turns out, are Jasmine’s biggest pet peeve — not because the kids don’t like it, but because they make a big mess and are challenging to clean up. When possible, try to avoid super messy foods like these grains and also overripe fruit (think: really squishy raspberries).
  • Foods that need to be prepared: The reason for this is two-fold: Ready-made food is easier on the staff and it ensures that they won’t prepare anything wrong. “If you send in mac and cheese, for example, it’s better to go with something already prepared, versus pre-packaged microwaveable,” says Stephanie.

Don’t see your favorite on the list? Tell us about it in the comments below.