If you’re looking for toddler lunch ideas, bento boxes are an excellent strategy. They combine a focus on healthy food, visual appeal and a balanced diet1. They’re also a great tool for fostering healthy eating habits for your little one. Whether you need picky toddler lunch ideas or ways to break out of a lunchtime rut, learn how to use Japanese bento-style lunches as inspiration for your toddler’s lunch box.

What is a Bento Box?

Bento is a Japanese boxed lunch1. Traditionally, bento boxes had compartments to separate the variety of foods, which often included rice, vegetables and meat or fish1. Bento boxes are an important aspect of Japanese food culture, and they offer a wonderful model for healthy eating because they emphasize variety and nutrition1,2. Bento boxes are also often prepared to be visually appealing, which may drive interest in the food1.

What Makes a Bento Box Lunch Healthy for Toddlers?

Canada’s Food Guide explains that a healthy meal should consist of one part protein, one part grain, and two parts vegetables and fruit2. If you prepare a bento box lunch for your toddler inspired by the traditional bento box, it may be easy to meet the Canadian standard for a healthy meal1,2. With their traditional emphasis on vegetables and fruit, unprocessed foods and a balanced meal, the Bento box can help with fostering healthy eating habits1,2,3. You can use bento-style lunches as a way to teach your toddler about portion size and a balanced diet.

Toddler Bento Box Prep

If you’re ready to create your own bento box lunch for your toddler, there’s no limit to the lunch combinations you can put together. To help you stick to the Canadian standard for a healthy meal, we’ve compiled a list of possible items in each of the three essential categories: vegetables and fruit, protein, and grain. As you prep your bento boxes, you might mix and match ingredients from these lists while sticking to the recommended ratios for a balanced meal.

Vegetables and Fruit: 1/2 of Lunch

Lean most heavily on vegetables and fruit in your toddler’s Bento box with a combination of some of these options1,2,3,4:

  • Pickled cabbage
  • Sauteed bok choy
  • Steamed collard greens
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Steamed carrots
  • Baked asparagus
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Spinach
  • Sliced avocado
  • Sweet pepper slices
  • Cucumber
  • Celery
  • Low-sodium olive slices
  • Pineapple chunks
  • Mango slices
  • Unsweetened Apple sauce
  • Berry salad of strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries
  • Kiwi slices
  • Clementine
  • Sliced grapes

Protein: 1/4 of Lunch

Now, choose your protein1,2,3,4:

  • Dairy products, including yogurt and cheese
  • Hummus
  • Frittata or omelet
  • Flavoured tofu
  • Baked, skinless chicken
  • Hardboiled egg
  • Lean meats
  • Baked fish, including salmon and cod

Grains: 1/4 of Lunch

Finally, try these grain options in your toddler’s lunchbox1,2,3,4:

  • Whole grain rice
  • Rice noodles
  • Whole grain pasta
  • Whole wheat tortilla
  • Quinoa
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Oats
  • Legumes, including lentils, peas and beans

Toddler Bento Box Ideas

The fun of bento box prep is the ability to mix and match many elements to create a healthy, colourful, balanced meal for your toddler. If you need inspiration, here are a few examples of what you might include in your toddler’s bento box:

  • Rainbow. Serve all the colours of the rainbow with whole grain crackers, cheddar cheese, snap peas, sliced yellow pepper, and a fruit salad including strawberries, blueberries, clementines and purple grapes.
  • Soft Serve. Give your toddler a soft lunch of steamed broccoli and carrots, whole grain pasta in red sauce, and Italian-flavoured tofu.
  • Mediterranean. Reach for Mediterranean flavours with feta cheese, steamed wild rice flavored with balsamic, sliced olives and sliced cherry tomatoes.
  • Taco in a Box. Make a deconstructed taco with a fortified whole grain tortilla; black beans; baked, skinless chicken; sliced cherry tomatoes; sliced avocado; and a small amount of queso fresco.

Benefits of Bento Boxes for Picky Eaters

If you need toddler lunch ideas, bento box-style meals may be a good choice for your toddler, especially if you involve them in the prep3. In addition to the visual appeal of a colourful bento box possibly encouraging appetite, involving picky eaters in meal prep may help them overcome their choosiness and try new things1,3. Also, if your toddler has rejected a specific food in the past, it’s recommended to offer it again so they can gradually become more familiar with it3.3 Providing one or more new or not-yet-tried foods in your bento box toddler lunch may help your toddler eventually try something new3.

For more insights to help you on your toddler’s nutritional journey, including other ideas for working with a toddler who is a picky eater, see our toddler nutrition resources at Enfamil A+ Canada. As one more way to enhance your toddler’s nutrition, consider adding Enfagrow A+ Toddler Drink to their healthy diet.