In the beginning of the school year, I am always filled with inspired lunch ideas for kids. But somewhere along the way, I start repeating things a little too often and everything goes haywire. Frankly, my kids start to rebel a little if they have too many days of the same sandwich, snack, repeat.
The goal of packing school lunches is to keep them amusing and appetizing through creative uses of ingredients they love, and having a list of ideas to refer to helps keep school lunches fresh and interesting all year. (Note to self: reread this list in a month or two.)
But first, let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of packing school lunches. Sure, we might still call them brown bag lunches but these days if you want to be greener, reusable containers and lunchboxes are the way to avoid excess lunch waste. But the benefits of using reusable containers goes beyond the environmental — they also protect food better and can keep it appropriately hot or cold (food safety rocks!). I look for sturdy containers with a good seal that keeps food in and everything else out. They also have to be simple for little hands to open, since lunchtime goes pretty fast these days.
This year I went a little crazy stocking up on reusable containers to ensure we have everything we need for the school year. We have a few days worth of reusable water bottles since we use them for both school and soccer — and my kids have been known to forget one (or four) from time to time. I am a big fan of the metal ones that close easily and don’t leak (A hint from my cousin Sarah: keep a baby bottle brush on hand for easy cleaning! It makes it so easy to keep them clean).
I also have a variety of storage containers for sandwiches, snacks and hot foods. Since I pack lunch and snacks every day, this allows for a lot of flexibility in what I pack. The thermos, for instance, is great for soups, pastas, warmed chicken parm (I cut it up at home so they can just dig right in), roasted potatoes and steak and so much more. The sandwich containers can also hold mini pizzas, cheese and crackers, fruit salad and mini kabobs. You get the idea. Just make sure that most are dishwasher safe (thermoses generally aren’t, but they are worth the effort).
The other great thing about using reusable containers? I never go to pack lunch and discover that we’re out of storage bags. Not that I would ever do that, right? Right.
Now, how about some lunch ideas for kids?
8 Flexible Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters
Parents tell me all the time how hard it is to get their picky eaters to eat. I remember when Will started kindergarten, one of his friends had a very short list of things she liked. That made it so hard for her mom, especially since several items were a no-go in our peanut- and tree nut-free school. In the end, she went with what she liked, and tried to pack it creatively.
As a parent, only you can know what your child will enjoy eating so I kept these ideas vague. Start with the list of things that your child is willing to eat and try spinning them in a new way so that you can send a fresh and exciting lunch every day.
- Simple sandwiches (such as ham and cheese, turkey and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, etc)
- Veggie dippers (sliced veggies such as cucumbers, sweet bell peppers and carrots with a dip like homemade buttermilk ranch)
- Fruit dippers (sliced or whole fruits like strawberries, blueberries, melon and pineapple with a dip like honey lime dipping sauce)
- Love kabobs (fill skewers with foods your child loves such as ham cubes, cheese cubes and pineapple cubes or leftover steak, boiled potatoes and grape tomatoes or an all-fruit kabob)
- Yogurt mix up to go (yogurt with cereal, granola or crushed ginger snaps and finely chopped fruit — packed separately so that your child can mix it up themselves)
- Rice bowls (hot rice topped with leftover veggies and chopped meat, if desired, packed in a thermos. Consider adding a sauce like a little teriyaki, soy sauce, barbecue or Sriracha — if your child likes hot things)
- Pasta salad (start with pasta, add in veggies, cubed meat like salami – if desired – and your child’s favorite dressing)
- DIY Combo lunches (like lunchables, but totally customized to your child)
5 Quick Lunch Ideas for More Adventurous Eaters
My kids eat just about everything, which I love. So strong flavors and a variety of textures are a-ok in our house. Still, they can get bored with lunch sometimes. These five fun ideas are a little different, but also fast and easy so you can whip up something a little different without a big time investment. Hey, who has time for a big time investment in the morning anyway?
- Mediterranean Tuna Salad
- California Turkey Club Wrap
- Jazzed Up Turkey Sandwiches
- Greek Chicken Salad Sandwiches
- Tomato Feta Summer Salad
10 Leftovers That Make Great Lunches
Another way to keep lunches interesting is to give leftovers a new life in your child’s school lunch. When you make a great dinner that your kids love, pack up any leftovers and send them for lunch another day.
- Lime Black Bean Salad with Shrimp
- Warm Farro with Roasted Artichoke Hearts, Tomatoes and Leeks
- Roasted Tomato, Basil and Chickpea Pasta Salad
- Creamy Black Bean, Red Pepper and Corn Salad with Avocado and Cilantro
- Toss Together Chorizo, Feta and Tomato Pasta
- Lemon Rosemary White Bean Dip with veggie dippers
- Autumn Vegetable Chili
- Tomato, Peach and Basil Salad
- Asparagus, Shrimp and Mushroom Pasta
- Roasted Cauliflower, Sweet Potatoes and Garbanzo Beans Over Rice
Packing Pizza for School Lunch
Oh, kids and pizza. Mine love pizza, but pizza day at school isn’t always a hit. Regardless, you can make any day pizza day with these make-ahead recipes for homemade pizza pockets and mini pizzas. Just whip some up on the weekend and pull some out as needed. You can refrigerate them if you plan to use them all in the next or freeze them and defrost as needed.
Over the summer, Betty Crocker asked me to create a series of pizza-related recipes that would be perfect for school lunches. After testing and retesting, I came up with six recipes that were hits with my kids and my teenage siblings.
Best served hot, these pizza pockets can be warmed up at home and transported in a thermos container. Or if a microwave is available, kids can heat them up at school.
- Beef Bacon Barbecue Pizza Pockets
- Steak and Cheese Pizza Pockets
- Pepperoni Pizza Pockets
- Hawaiian Pizza Pockets
- Barbecue Pineapple Chicken Pizza Pockets
- Bacon Barbecue Chicken Pizza Pockets.
For pizza lovers, these mini pizzas are also perfect for the lunchbox. Serve them hot or cold, as desired.
- Two Cheese Garlic Bread Mini Pizzas
- Pizza Bread PB&J Sandwiches
- Pepperoni Mini Pizzas
- Mexican Mini Pizzas
- Mediterranean Mini Pizzas
- Bruschetta Mini Pizzas
20 More Lunch Ideas from Around the Web
Looking for more perfect lunch ideas for kids? Check out these 20 delicious recipes from around the web.
- Asian Lettuce Wraps on Kalyn’s Kitchen
- Thai Basil Turkey Wraps on Steamy Kitchen
- Black Bean & Cilantro Lettuce Wraps with Yellow Squash on Green Lite Bites
- BLT Wraps on Recipe Girl
- Thai Garden Veggie Wraps with Peanut Sauce on Simply Healthy Family
- Thai-Inspired Turkey Mini-Meatball Lettuce Wraps on Kalyn’s Kitchen
- Deviled Ham Salad Sandwiches on Sweetnicks
- Turkey Baguette with Spinach, Artichoke and Sun Dried Tomatoes with Basil Dijon Aioli on Good Life Eats
- Bagel with Creamy Garlic and Vegatable Bagel Spread on Sweetnicks
- Bagel with Pumpkin Spice Cream Cheese Spread on Pinch My Salt
- Shrimp Salad with Dill and Cucumber on In Good Taste
- Barley Salad with Roasted Summer Vegetables on Eats Well with Others
- Warm Mediterranean Pasta Salad on Good Life Eats
- Honey Mustard Chicken & Veggie Pasta Salad on Dine and Dish
- Roasted Butternut Squash Salad with Apple Cider Vinaigrette on In Good Taste
- Baked Potato and Bacon Soup on Recipe Girl
- Tomato Zucchini Soup on Joy the Baker
- Red Lentil Soup with Lemon on Eats Well with Others
- Italian Sausage Soup with Tortellini on Handle the Heat
- Roasted Corn and Black Bean Soup on Dine and Dish
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. She is the author of four cookbooks including The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook and One-Pot Pasta, both from Rockridge Press. A single mother to a tween and a teen, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.