Day Camp & School Lunches for the Picky Eater

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Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters

My son goes to a summer daycamp. He needs to bring a lunch and drink every day and I am out of ideas! He needs food that doesn't have to stay cold. He's allergic to peanuts, so pbj is out of the question, and he's not big on sandwiches. He'd really love to have lunchables every day, but I'm not about to fork over the money for them. Part of the problem is packaging. Things get smushed in his soft-sided lunchbox and then he doesn't want to eat them. He also is concerned about not eating anything that the other kids will consider "weird." Finally, I have about five minutes in the morning to put his lunch together, so it's hard to do anything too involved. Any ideas?
Becky L.

Ice Packs Allow for Lunch Options

I would invest in one of those small ice packs for the lunch box. One twist on sandwiches that my children love is to use flour tortillas for your bread, cream cheese can help hold it together and may be a little more stable than mayo. Fillings are any meat, cheese, veggie combos you come up with. Roll tight in foil helps keep their shape. How about pita bread with various fillings, also wrap in foil keeps it shape well.

We also did our own sort of lunchables by cutting cold cuts, cheese, etc. with cookie cutters. Do up a bunch a week at a time and add crackers.

Try cream cheese on celery with raisins for ants on a log, cut up fruit and veggies, sunflower seeds for snack, small yogurts if you can keep them cool. These are all ideas my daughter likes.

I would suggest learning to make up lunches the night before. With four children, I learned this saves a big morning headache.

My Picky Eaters Like These Lunches

To keep drinks cold, I use Amy Dacyzyn's tip. Pour about 1" of the drink into the drink container and put it in the freezer overnight. The next morning, fill the drink container the rest of the way. The frozen portion will keep the rest of the drink cold and will melt by lunchtime.

To keep foods from getting smooshed, you need unsmooshable containers. For the price of a couple of Lunchables, you can instead buy some small Rubbermaid or Tupperware-type containers with lids, just the right size for individual portions of food.

Some easy ideas for what to pack:

- Turkey, meat, or cheese cut into "sticks" or cubes
- Carrot sticks or baby carrots with dip
- Crackers or bread
- A piece of fruit or some applesauce
- A couple of cookies or graham crackers


My kids, ages 7 through 14, like to take "burritos" for lunch. We spread flour tortillas with a mixture of refried beans and salsa or taco sauce, a few olives and shredded lettuce and roll them up. Sometimes we start with a little sour cream and add chopped tomatoes. Cut each one in half and put in a baggie. You don't need to fold the bottom edge over. The refried beans hold everything together. We make these the night before and store in the refrigerator. They're great the next day and keep nicely in a lunch bag.

Finger Foods and Fun!

For day camp, I give my daughter lots of finger foods, packed in reusable containers. Because the containers are sturdy, I can pack fragile food items.

Food ideas include fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, and sometimes lunchmeat. She doesn't like carrot sticks or celery, so she mostly gets fruit, not veggies. This time of year, fruits are less expensive, so she has had cherries, blueberries, grapes, bananas, and apples. I have given her small chunks of ham, with toothpicks for her utensils. Crackers and cream cheese make great small sandwiches. Sometimes I send boiled egges (or devilled eggs). Occasionally, I'll send sandwiches. I often surprise her with something like ONE piece of candy in the bottom of her lunchbag. I'd even try pudding or yogurt if the lunch would stay pretty cool. Unless the lunchbag gets HOT, many things that we've packed (like devilled eggs) have remained unspoiled.

Have fun packing that lunch! One day my daughter told me that everyone wanted to share her peanut butter balls. I sometimes pack a cloth napkin with her lunch. (Hers have animal designs on them.) Once she's old enough to read, I plan on frequently putting in cards and comic strips.


My daughter attended a Children's Morning Out for a couple of years. We packed alot of fruit. What about Beenie Weenies or small cans of fruit (more expensive but safe)? My daughter's favorite was a baggie full of Cheerios, raisins, sunflower seeds (we buy in bulk) and a few chocolate chips. Another thing you might try is freezing his juice in its cup the night before. Pack it the next morning, and by lunch time, it's thawed or slushy and very good.
Laura C.

The Non-Sandwich Lunch

As alternatives for kids who don't like sandwiches, try pasta salad (use an oil-based dressing rather than mayonnaise-based) or cooked pasta tossed with enough margarine to keep it from sticking together (pack some shredded cheese separately). Or try a couple of cooked chicken drumsticks, thinly-sliced meatloaf, cut into cracker-sized pieces, hard-boiled eggs, and even tuna salad or egg salad (if you can keep them cold enough) plus crackers or bread sticks or pita toasts or bagel toasts.

If your son likes pizza-flavored food, try pizza-flavored crackers or pack a small plastic container of Pizza Quick sauce, plus a thinly sliced bagel and cheese. Yogurt and fruit salads are also good for summer lunchs.

A Little of This...

How about a mini-smorgasbord made up of small portions of healthful, room temperature snacks? (I got this idea from the Tightwad Gazette. They suggest packing the portions in a clean egg carton for fun.) Pack raisins, crackers, carrots, granola, popcorn, etc. It might be novel for him once in a while.
Dynise B.

Take Your Pick

Here are some ideas that've worked for my daughter, who's almost 5. Many are easily prepared the night before, so all you have to do is grab 'em and go. Try "stick" lunches with carrot sticks, cheese sticks, celery sticks, and bread sticks, with some (homemade) ranch dressing for dipping. My daughter is amused that her whole lunch is sticks. Or try cream cheese, spread on a flour tortilla, then sprinkled with chopped olives (black or green). Roll it up and cut it into slices, so it'll look like pinwheels. Try crackers with cheese spread and a little knife he can use to spread it himself. Try apple and cheese slices. My daughter also likes cheese and apple sandwiches. Don't forget cold pasta salad. This can be really simple. Include pasta, a few veggies, some cheese chunks and a bit of Italian dressing.
Judy B.

Home-Made "Lunchables"

Rubbermaid makes a plastic lunch container with a double-decker design of little compartments that fit in a soft-sided lunch sack. It costs about $3 at our local Wal-Mart. Since each type of food gets its own section, it's "cool" like lunchables, and you save a fortune by putting in your own supply of cheese and crackers (basically all those little pre-fab kits contain). Try pretzels, cheese, some grapes and an oatmeal cookie or a bagel.

Be willing to let kids pick foods, within reason. (I try to focus on nutrition, rather than tradition.) "Build your own" sandwiches are more fun than regular and you can use a cookie cutter to make shapes of the bread (keep one of those zipper bags in the freezer with all the scraps until you have time/amounts for a recipe). Another big savings for us was to get into the habit of drinking water with lunch. I saved a few 12-ounce plastic soda bottles, which we keep filled with water in the freezer. It keeps the food cool and thaws nicely by lunchtime. If condensation is a problem, a washcloth wrapped around the bottle makes a nice cleanup for hands after lunch.

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Safe Without Refrigeration

Try cheddar cheese slices with crackers (saltines or whole wheat) and raw veggies or yogurt, fresh fruit, and mini-pretzels. Hard cheeses, yogurt, raw veggies and fruit can be left at room temperature for 4 to 6 hours and will still be safe to eat.


You mentioned things getting "smushed." Bagels are another idea. They are far more sturdy than sandwiches. Shop around for a good deal on them, and then slice them and put in individual wrappers in freezer. In the mornings, all you have to do is spread cream cheese on them and pop them in the lunch sack. (Cream cheese does not freeze well.) They are more expensive than bread, but my son likes them with just cream cheese, so I'm not using meat, cheese, mayo, etc., so I don't think it's any more expensive than a sandwich in the end. Also, my children like cold pizza, so whenever we have pizza, I wrap any leftovers individually and put them in the freezer, ready to stick in lunches on a hurried morning. Hope these ideas help!
Martha Z.

Share the Work

If your child is over the age of six, take some of the burden off yourself. I put a chart on the refrigerator, consisting of four columns that includes breads, protein, fruits/veggies, and treats. Under the proper heading, I list what is available for lunch that week or month. I let my child pick one or more from each group depending on his or her age. This can be done the night before, and then thrown together in the morning.

Here are a few simple ideas. Hummus (garbanzo beans, olive oil, lemon juice, and seasonings) is great in pita pockets, on crackers, or to add zip to a sandwich. It can be made in only a few minutes and inexpensively in a food processor for the truly frugal. In the place of ordinary bread, consider using pita bread, tortillas for roll-ups of all types, crackers, and rolls. Pasta, rice, and bean salads with oil and vinegar dressings in place of mayo make wonderful. Some of your leftovers from your evening may also pack well. Cook an extra chicken leg or slice leftover beef thinly and put in a sandwich of rolled up with tooth picks.

Make It Fun

As a father of three and a Diabetic, I believe in wholesome eating. However, I understand about not sending anything weird with him for fear of ridicule. How about making him some melon balls with watermelon, cantaloupe and other fruits? You can buy some pretty nice cookie cutters in all different shapes at dollar stores and cut the fruit up into different cool shapes. Make it fun. Also, buy fruit juices in those juice boxes and freeze them overnight along with the fruit pieces. In the morning, everything will be frozen and he can take them in a bag and they will stay cold all day until lunch. By lunch, they should be thawed just enough to enjoy. Maybe throw in a few of those small mini-muffins that you can buy 50 to a bag.
Michael M.

Different Breads

Lunch time in the summer can be tough. As vegetarians, we've had to be creative when it comes to lunches. One thing that my girls seem to like, and is easy for me to do, is trying different breads. For instance, we've had bagels and English muffins with jelly and that was a hit. Also, if your son is not allergic to other nuts, there are some great nut butters at the natural food store! Cashew butter, almond butter, etc. I spread these with some jelly on a tortilla, roll it up, and cut it into a few pieces. It looks pretty neat, and tastes good, too.
Kate D.

Homemade Goodies

Homemade goodies never come back home. If your son doesn't eat them, they make GREAT trades! I found this out the hard way. After asking my son how he liked the fudge I packed, he said he didn't eat any, but three other boys did and asked if I could send fudge everyday. As my children have gotten older, I find they tend to eat more if they can help pack. They come up with some great ideas.
Loretta J.

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