Easy, Healthy Foods to Pack for Baby at Day Care
Before long your little chewer-in-training will be eating from the day care menu with the big kids, but for now, he’s still learning to manage finger foods and chunkier solids. Wondering what to pack for day care? Aim for small portions and lots of variety. Each meal should contain up to one-quarter cup of a few different foods: two to three items for breakfast, three to four items for lunch and one to two items for a snack.
These healthy, low-stress child care foods will get you out the door fast in the morning.
Put leftovers to work
Leftovers make great foods for day care. What’s easier than something you already made? Plus, you reduce waste: Many babies eat only about 1 to 4 tablespoons of a few different foods per meal, so that little bit of ground meat that wasn’t quite enough to save for dinner is perfect for baby’s lunch protein.
Always think of tomorrow when cooking for today. Before serving your baby dinner, set aside enough for the next day’s lunch, cutting it all up at once. When freezing leftovers, portion them out in small containers you can grab on busy mornings. Dishes such as lasagna and chicken-and-rice casseroles freeze well and are handy when fresh-cooked meals aren’t available.
- Veggies: Pack frozen peas or other frozen diced veggies in a small container, and they will thaw by lunch. Mash or dice a ripe avocado, but wait until morning so it doesn’t brown overnight.
- Fruits: Choose individual cups of unsweetened applesauce and soft fruits (like peaches) canned in 100 percent juice or water, a banana or blueberries.
- Protein: Baby-friendly options include shredded cheese; cottage cheese; plain whole-milk yogurt; diced tofu; and canned chicken, tuna or black beans (pinched or smashed). Look for “no salt added” or “reduced/low sodium” canned foods.
- Grains: You can’t go wrong with iron-fortified infant cereal (ask your baby’s teacher to mix it with breastmilk, iron-fortified formula or water to a thick consistency), toasted oats cereal (look for brands with iron added and less than 6 grams of sugar or that have the WIC label on the shelf), crackers or small pieces of whole-wheat tortilla.
Tip: While prepackaged “baby yogurts” are convenient, they contain a lot of added sugar (and the American Heart Association recommends no added sugar before the age of 2). Since plain whole-milk yogurt is usually only available in a large tub, you can portion it out in individual containers ahead of time for a grab-and-go option during the week.
- Boil or steam fresh or frozen veggies such as broccoli, carrots or green beans.
- Microwave a sweet potato.
- Shop for small grains that don’t require cutting, looking for key words such as “10 minute,” “quick cooking” or “frozen steam in a bag.” Quinoa, whole-wheat noodles and couscous naturally cook quickly. Other good grain sources include brown rice, barley or farro.
- Chop a hard-boiled egg into small pieces.
- Cook split lentils. They cook much faster than beans, are as easy to boil as pasta and don’t need to be cut for baby.
- Cut up a toasted whole-wheat waffle or pancake. That is more than enough to add to baby’s breakfast or snack.
Tip: You can boil veggies and grains together in the same pot. They both boil in about 10 minutes.
Store-bought "stage 3" foods
- If you’re still buying jars or pouches, look for “stage 3” foods (meaning it has small chunks) or “textured” options.
- When purchasing prepackaged frozen baby tray meals, read labels and choose options with less sugar and sodium (salt). Looks for trays that include a side of veggies, or buy veggies separately.
- Baby “snacks” such as yogurt melts, pudding or shelf-stable yogurt cups are usually high in sugar. Skip those and shop outside the baby aisle.
Pick and choose from the day care menu
You don’t have to completely overlook the day care menu. Many programs will let you select items your baby can handle—helping you complete the meal with foods from home.
When reviewing a day care menu, look for items your child has eaten safely at home without an allergic reaction—and that don’t require a lot of prep work for the day care staff. Possibilities include unsweetened applesauce, canned fruit (packed in water or 100 percent fruit juice, not syrup), peas, rice and toasted oats cereal. If your child care provider is willing to help out (it never hurts to ask), get more variety by having the teacher cut some baby-friendly foods—things like green beans, whole-grain pasta or toast, and veggies—into bite-sized portions.