Finger Foods for Toddlers, Part 2: Lunch and Dinnertime Ideas


Kara, here.  This is part two of Megan’s series on feeding toddlers, which originally ran August 2009. 

This is part two in a series on Finger Food for little ones. Earlier, we shared some ideas on what to serve for breakfast and snacks to toddlers who are new to feeding themselves. Today, I wanted to extend the idea into lunch and dinnertime ideas.

Several of you mentioned in the comments that your little ones eat what you eat at mealtime, and I have to agree this is the easiest way to approach meal preparation! I also have to confess that when my oldest was a new eater, she absolutely would not eat meat in any form. (She’s still a reluctant omnivore).

Sometimes patience and a good perspective on the big picture are helpful when approaching how much and what kind of food your new eater is eating. When our second child reached the finger food age, I was better about serving her what the rest of us are eating and not freaking out if she doesn’t eat much. She almost always makes up for it later in the day or throughout the week.  Having said that, sometimes what we are eating just isn’t great for the new eater – particularly those who only have a few teeth!

And don’t we all love to hear what other families are eating for lunch? Lunch is the biggest culprit of food rut blues for me. How many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can one person eat?

Thoughts on Meals for Little Eaters:

Realistic Portions

Remember that toddlers don’t need a full serving, nor do they even need a half-sized serving in most cases. They have little tummies that fill up quickly! Start small and serve more if they are still hungry.

Accept the Mess

Mealtimes are meant to be sensory. Adults appreciate the smell and taste and texture nuances that eating offers. Toddlers want to experience these sensations, too, but this oftentimes involves a mess! Prepare yourself for this mentally as well as practically by employing full-length bibs, keeping wet washcloths closeby, and protecting the flooring with a drop cloth, vinyl tablecloth, or even a shower curtain.

Make Each Bite Count

Think about ways to combine foods to increase the chance of your toddler getting an (almost) equal amount of protein, starch, and fruits/vegetables in each bite.

We have enjoyed:

Quesadillas – These are a fixture in our home for lunches and dinners. The girls love basic cheese quesadillas, but you can certainly power them up with proteins like chicken and beans. I often shred carrots on top of the cheese before I cook them to get some veggies in each bite. Did you know you can make sweet potato and black bean quesadillas? Yum! Quesadillas can be cut into thin slivers for younger toddlers. I have even diced them into bite-sized pieces to serve those who are lacking teeth.

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches – This is another favorite lunch option for us. Grilled cheese offers another chance to get some veggies in – try adding diced tomatoes on the inside or stacking a few sliced tomatoes on top and securing with a toothpick (obviously not intended for younger toddlers).

Peanut Noodles – Each of my peanut-butter-loving children love these noodles! They are fun and messy and you can add as many different vegetables as you have on hand. When I make these for dinner, I make a double batch so that we’ll have some for lunch the next day. They are very tasty served cold!

Pasta – The combination possibilities for pasta meals are vast! Whole wheat pasta spirals can be tossed with butter and diced zucchini. Throw some beans or sauteed tofu into a bowl of ravioli . Mix peas into your mac ‘n cheese. Variations on the pasta theme rarely disappoint.

Pitas and Tortillas – Sometimes a simple departure from the traditional is enough to entice a hesitant eater. Pita bread and tortillas can be used for roll-ups or pocket-type sandwiches filled with proteins and veggies. (Once again, just slice down to a manageable size for younger toddlers.)

Further Resources:

Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron – Not just for making baby food! She includes many recipes for the toddler palette.

Toddler Cafe – Innovative and fun recipes coupled with gorgeous photography. – Helpful information plus sample toddler menus to help you get out of your rut.

The discussion in the comments section has proven once again that the Simple Kids community is full of wisdom! What thoughts do you have to share on the Finger Foods season of childhood?  What do your toddlers enjoy for lunch and dinner?

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  1. Other ideas that my daughter has liked: quiche, pancakes, bean and rice burritos, bagels and cream cheese, pita and hummus, guacamole with crackers or on a sandwich with turkey, and turkey meatballs. And of course, (homemade) mac and cheese.

    For kids who can’t have peanut butter yet, try sunflower seed butter. It’s great!

    We also make black bean and sweet potato burritos! Our recipe comes from the Moosewood Low Fat Favorites cookbook.

    • Good suggestions, Haley! Black bean and sweet potato burritos? I think my crew needs to try those, for sure! :-)

      (adding Moosewood Low Fat Favorites to our library list ….)

  2. Accept the mess! That is the best tip when it comes to meal times with toddlers. I was *not* always as easy going as I am now so when my kids started eating on their own … it was very stressful for me lol. Now I just go with the flow and have learned to accept that I need to do a couple loads of laundry everyday!

    The other things my kids love are pancakes, crepes, crackers and cheese, and soup with bread in it so there’s not so much liquid.

    Thanks for the great tips I think I will make quesadilas tonight :)

    • I agree Sherri! When I was re-reading this post one of the things that jumped out at me was Megan’s advice to accept the mess – something that, as a new mom especially, I wish I had taken to heart. I used to chase every dribble on my oldest child’s face and across the highchair and I’m afraid that took away some of the fun of mealtime, too. Going with the flow, as you say, and accepting a little extra laundry is a much better way to go :-)

  3. Thanks for sharing all of these meal suggestions. In addition to being super picky, my son (almost 3) has some extra eating issues. I’m always on the hunt for a great new healthy snack or meal idea for him. He loves cheese quesadillas, and I think I’m going to have try (again) to sneak some meat/veggies/beans in too. He also loves noodles (with butter, not tomato sauce), but perhaps I’ll try some PB noodles.

    I love your advice about accepting the mess. This is definitely something my husband and I still struggle with. Since our little one isn’t all that interested in food to begin with, he tends to play with his food more often than not. I just need to keep reminding myself that mealtime is a sensory experience!

    I’d also like to second your rec of the Super Baby Food book. That was the first book my son’s dietician recommended, and it is jam-packed full of good info for babies, toddlers and preschoolers.
    .-= Cara´s last blog ..5 Minute Hummus =-.

    • Cara, I find your blog SO inspiring and admire your creativity and determination in finding good foods for your son. You guys should definitely check out The Picky Apple (Cara’s blog) :-)

      Yes, mealtime is a sensory experience and about more than just food – I find that true in some ways for older kids and grown-ups, too.

  4. Thanks for the tips – I’ll be using all these ideas!

  5. Grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup is a favorite in my house. We’re all peanut butter lovers and I can’t believe that I’ve never heard of peanut noodles!
    .-= Tina@RideonToys´s last blog ..All Terrain Wagons – The Multiple Use Wagons That Perform =-.

  6. I second all of those menu items for toddlers- my 2 1/2 year old loves each of them. Another thing I do is make an omelette or scrambled eggs stuffed with cheese and veggies, like broccoli or chard. I cook it firm so it’s easy for him to pick up and eat. We also do homemade pizzas- an easy way to use up some of the veggies in your fridge!
    .-= The Sweetest´s last blog ..Electric Beet Hummus =-.

  7. Great ideas! Thank you. I was needing a food time revamp.
    Some favourites here:
    – grilled cheese sandwhiches, but go beyond tomato when adding vegies. we add mushroom, corn, peppers, anything. cucumber and tomato go in afterwards which helps cool them down quickly for eating.
    – pizza – you can put anything on pizza. we make our own bases too so its super healthy from scratch and good family fun.
    – pancakes – or maybe they are called pikelets. once again, i put all sorts of things in the mix: grated apple, grated zucchini, corn…
    – smoothies – great way to use up bruised fruit. i’ve got a good straw cup that bubs can manage on her own and can’t get the lid off!

  8. Sharee says:

    Some things I have served are:
    grilled cheese
    Pasta (alfredo sauce with shell pasta)
    Waffles or Pancakes with scrambled eggs and fruit salad
    French toast with steamed cinnamon apples
    Macorni and Cheese
    Vegetables with hummus dip
    Strawberries they can dip in yogurt and then granola (or eat separately)
    Apple cinnamon sandwitch (spread applesauce inside two slices of bread like you are going to make a pb sandwitch, spread butter on outside top and bottom and grill till toasted, then sprinkle cinnamon sugar on top…)
    We’re big on smoothies — can hid anything in a smoothie :) Get a lot of nutrition in there.. (can freeze for smoothie popsicles)
    Turkey meatballs
    Macorni and Cheese muffin (I don’t have recipe handy — probably can just google it)
    Hard boiled eggs (cut into “boats”
    Fish sticks


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