The start of school is here, which means many moms have returned to late nights and early mornings of packing lunches for our kids. Ask any kid or brown-bagging adult, and they’ll tell you just how boring eating sandwiches five days a week can be. No matter how you slice it, you can only eat PB&J and cold cuts for so long before you start craving something a little more exciting.
Of course, when you’re a busy mom trying to get multiple kiddos to the bus, keep up with extracurricular activities, and juggle your own work, finding the time to come up with fresh ideas for a packed lunch may not seem like a priority.
If brainstorming new meals keeps getting pushed to bottom of your ever-expanding to-do list, we’ve got good news for you. We spent some time gathering the best ideas for school lunches that don’t involve sandwiches, and here are the most delicious (and nutritious!) ideas we found.
1. Do you bento?
Technically, any lunch that has been packed in a box is a bento. But there is something uniquely fun about meals inspired by Japanese boxed lunches. They’re also a great way to encourage picky eaters to try new things and to incorporate healthy options into your kid’s school lunch.
The first step to packing a bento lunch is to find a container. You can spend a pretty penny on bento boxes online, like this leak-proof Bentgo box sold for just under $30. There are also some more affordable options, like the Amazon basics bento, which is sold in a set of four for less than $10.
Packing your box is where the fun starts. A lot of parents start with the basic rule of including a protein, a starch, a vegetable, a fruit, and a treat. This easy formula makes packing lunch as simple as checking things off a list. Here are few ideas for bento lunch combinations.
–Cold chicken breast (chopped into bite-sized pieces), steamed rice with a soy sauce packet, sugar snap peas, tangerine, and a fortune cookie
–Tuna salad, whole wheat crackers, sliced carrots, grapes, and a cookie
–Ham and cheese cubes, raisin bread slathered with almond butter, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and Fig Newtons
We’ve got a feeling that once you start building bento boxes, you’ll realize the sky’s the limit when it comes to selecting unique combinations of healthy lunch foods. You might just have a little fun, too.
2. Give yogurt a chance.
We think that yogurt parfaits should be the next trend to take the school lunchroom by storm. Although yogurt is typically reserved for a quick breakfast or a snack, it really has the makings of a solid foundation for a healthy meal.
Start with a high-protein yogurt without any added flavors. Greek yogurt can have as much as 18 grams of protein in each serving—exactly what a growing body needs to maintain adequate energy throughout the day.
Unless your child has specific directions from the pediatrician, full-fat yogurt is good choice for young kids because it is high in protein, contains the right bacteria to promote a healthy gut, and will keep them full so they can focus on their lessons instead of a rumbling tummy.
Top the yogurt with a heaping serving of fresh fruit. Pineapple, bananas, berries, or kiwifruit all taste wonderful in a parfait. Add toasted nuts (or nut-free granola if you’re working with allergies) and drizzle with a little honey to sweeten the plain yogurt.
Don’t forget to pack a spoon and throw in a baggie of chopped veggies for a well-rounded meal.
3. Fiesta in a Lunchbox
Another approach to adding a little variety to your lunch routine is to pick a theme inspired by a specific type of food or culture. Mexican-inspired foods make for a good packed lunch and can be prepped ahead of time for quick packing in the morning.
A Mexican lunch that’s especially favored by young kids is a cheese or beef quesadilla, which tastes just fine cold if your child doesn’t have access to a microwave. Add a side of black beans and chips and salsa. Carrot sticks or an applesauce pouch are easy to pack so you can incorporate another food group into this fun school lunch.
4. Let’s do blunch.
Everyone loves to punctuate their week with an extravagant brunch on Saturday afternoon, but let’s not forget how simple (and fun) packing breakfast for lunch can be. Planning ahead is the key to pulling this idea off.
When you cook breakfast over the weekend, make an extra portion or two of each dish. Throw together miniature pancakes for easy packing or bake an egg casserole complete with sausage, veggies, and cheese. When your busy Monday morning rolls around, you will be thrilled you have the basics ready to go.
The sides for a breakfast-for-lunch school meal can be simple. A squeezable yogurt, fruit salad, or a hardboiled egg all go great with breakfast foods and require low- or no-maintenance prep.
5. A Salad Even Kids Can’t Resist
Okay, we know what you’re thinking. Packing a salad in a school lunch isn’t going to go over well with most kids, but hear us out. Cold pasta salad is totally a kid-friendly lunch option. You can come up with your own combinations, but one favorite is rotini, chopped ham, cold peas, shredded cheddar, and ranch dressing topped with a small handful of sunflower seeds.
The key to making this the easiest meal you’ve ever prepped is cooking the pasta ahead of time. On Sunday evening, boil the rotini, drain it, and throw it in the fridge to cool overnight. In the morning, you can combine a cup of pasta with your chosen mix-ins and dressings in a lunch container. Throw in a banana, and you’ve got a complete meal!
6. A Charcuterie Lunch That’ll Make You Wish You’d Packed One for Yourself
Take a note from those fancy cheese and meat trays at the last party you attended and put together a charcuterie board–inspired lunch for your kid. Everything in this lunch can be eaten on the go, making this perfect for lunchtime, an after-school snack for a busy kid, or a working lunch for a mom on the go.
There is a lot of freedom in building a charcuterie lunchbox, but we’ve got a few favorite combinations to pass along.
–Salami, sliced Swiss, apple slices, walnuts, pickled beets, and crackers
–Prosciutto, goat cheese, toasted French baguette, dried cranberries, cashews, and a little spicy mustard
–Summer sausage, sharp cheddar, pita chips and hummus, banana peppers, and grapes
The beauty of a lunch of finger foods is that everything can be prepped at the beginning of the week. Slice the meat and the cheese and store in airtight containers, wash the fruit, and divvy up the nuts and dried fruits. The only thing you’ll need to do before school each morning is pack everything in to-go containers to send along with your kid.
7. Lunch on a Stick
Nothing says “fun mom” like throwing together some kabobs for your student’s lunch. It isn’t just about the fun, of course, because lunch on a stick is a great way to persuade your child to try new things. Load up a few skewers with savory combinations like chicken and tomatoes or cheese and celery, and don’t forget to include a fruit kabob or two as well.
You can send kabobs on their own, but hungry kiddos will love having a few sides, too. Hummus and carrots sticks go well with just about any variation of lunch on a stick, and pita bread slathered in peanut butter and honey goes great with fruit kabobs.
Our last bit of advice? Don’t get too caught up in the presentation. There are a lot of pictures of really gorgeous packed lunches on social media and blogs, from a panda bento to color-themed trays. These are so fun and cute, but they definitely aren’t the standard the rest of us should hold ourselves to. The real priority for the lunch rush is healthy and delicious food that is easy to prep each morning.