Simple School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love to Pack and Eat
Say goodbye to five days of PB&J with school-age charcuterie, pancake sandwiches, bento boxes, pepperoni roll-ups, edamame, trail mix and other kid-friendly fare.
It’s the perennial problem for every parent who sends their kids out into the world: What can you pack for lunch that’s easy, wholesome and—above all—something they’ll eat?
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a tried-and-true favorite, of course. They’re easy, inexpensive and don’t require refrigeration. But with 180 lunches to prepare over the course of the average school year, you’re going to need some other options. So we asked a mix of foodie parents—food writers, recipe creators, chefs, urban gardeners and culinary instructors—for some creative ideas.
From tasty sandwiches to edamame and bento boxes, you’ll find ideas to please even the pickiest eater that can be adapted to fit any budget.
Lunches Built for Speed
These days, children are often strapped for time in the lunchroom, as the pressure to eat and get out to recess means slower eaters miss out on the fun. My wife, Beth, and I have run into this with our youngest, who is a pokey eater to begin with, but when you add the social aspect of the cafeteria, fun conversation often eclipses eating.
Trish Clark is the owner of Pollination Gardens, a garden landscaping company, and has worked as an urban farmer and educator for years, including a stint at Local Matters. As a parent to six kids, she knows that lunchtime speed and efficiency are a must. “The key to having our kids eat healthy lunches is, they need to enjoy the food and be able to eat quickly,” she says. “Kids have sometimes only 10 minutes or less to eat.”
Pepperoni Roll-Ups or Pinwheels
Like many parents, my wife and I learned the school lunch routine when our boys—now 10 and 13—started full-day preschool. We quickly had to get creative, because most programs don’t allow foods such as nuts and nut butters due to allergy concerns. This eliminates the old PB&J standby.
Our boys love tortillas for tacos, quesadillas and burritos, and we learned to adapt those to school lunches. My wife takes the tortillas, gives them a thin coating of cream cheese, then layers slices of pepperoni or two big slices of turkey and rolls the whole thing tightly. You can simply slice it in half, or chop it into smaller, round bites. They pack easily, they’re not messy, and they’re fun to eat. When we send our boys with the rolls, we’re almost guaranteed a “clean plate.” We call them pepperoni roll-ups, although many know them as pinwheels.
Another idea: Use tortillas for a cheese quesadilla, cut into slices. It’s a sure hit, even when served cold.
Meat and Cheese Sammies
For many parents, meat and cheese sandwiches are an easy win for kids. Shawnie Kelley, a chef-instructor for The Mix at Columbus State Community College, often packs salami, ham or prosciutto with cheese for her stepchildren.
Lauren Culley, one of the owners of Fox in the Snow Cafe, says her oldest child prefers ham and cheese on a baguette with butter every day. “The ingredient list of what my kindergarten son will eat is very small, but we found that instead of white sandwich bread, he’d eat a baguette. Instead of Kraft Singles, he’d eat cheddar, and instead of deli meat, he’d eat ham,” she shares. “We get a whole baguette from our shops, butter and salt the inside, and put the ham and sharp cheddar on top. We cut it into pieces, and a whole baguette sandwich can be lunch for a couple days. It’s delicious and a little less processed.
“Don’t be fooled, though,” she adds. “We also pack him Goldfish crackers because he is still 5, and they’re delicious, too.”
The “Hidden Valley Sandwich”
Dilara Casey is a senior copywriter at Fahlgren Mortine who has a background in marketing for the restaurant industry. She says her kids, ages 8 and 10, created what they call the Hidden Valley Sandwich. “I have no idea how they named it that,” she says, “but it’s bread of your choice with mayo, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, and salt and pepper.”
It’s a Date
Dara Schwartz, the founder of Darista Dips, puts dates to work in her kids’ lunches. She says her oldest loves stuffed dates. “I slice it open and put almond butter, seed butter or tahini inside,” she says. “Sometimes, I dip them in chocolate.” Or, as an upgraded version of PB&J, she’ll create almond butter and date syrup sandwiches.
Breakfast for Lunch
Thao Thai is the managing editor of Cubby, the parenting companion site to Kitchn, a popular online food magazine. One of her daughter’s favorites is breakfast for lunch, such as chocolate chip waffles or pancakes. “I discovered sheet pan pancakes through TikTok,” she says. “My daughter prefers her chocolate chips melted on the pancake, instead of sprinkled inside of the pancake, for maximum chocolate coverage. So I make a pancake sandwich with a light chocolate filling. It feels like a treat, without being overly rich, and it’s a breeze to make.”
Stick the Landing
Courtney Rowland, the owner and recipe developer behind the blog NeighborFood, recommends using toothpicks to get children eating. “My kids are infinitely more likely to eat something if it’s on a toothpick,” she says. “Even adults can appreciate the appeal of picking up a cocktail meatball or cheese skewer at a party, and I love to bring that same energy to my kids’ lunches. Whether it’s rolled-up ham with a cube of cheddar, a piece of pepperoni wrapped around a ball of mozzarella or a wedge of watermelon sandwiched between two blueberries, if I can put it on a stick, I do.”
Charcuterie for the School-Age Set
Many elementary schoolers clamor for Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables, those premade containers of crackers, cheese and meats that let kids stack their own snacks. They cover three food groups, yes, but many parents prefer having a little more control over the healthfulness of the contents.
Thai says her family frequently makes charcuterie plates on the weekends, and those are an easy extension into weekly lunches. She also makes a kiddie ploughman’s platter for her daughter using a chunky baguette (Thai gets mini brioche baguettes from the grocery store), Babybel cheese and fruit.
Kelley and Clark recommend packing bento boxes; many youngsters enjoy crafting their lunches if they get to fill the little compartments. Try a mix of nuts like almonds or cashews, pretzels, apple or orange slices, grapes, blueberries, raspberries, carrots, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes or even a scoop of pasta salad. Kelley recommends splashing a little lemon juice on fruits such as apples to keep them from browning, and to peel or slice it to make it as easy as possible for kids to eat.
Go Green With Fruits and Veggies
We’re always looking for any way to work fruits and vegetables into our boys’ diets. Our 10-year-old, in particular, won’t touch most fruits, but he’s never met an avocado, edamame or slice of seaweed he hasn’t loved. Avocado doesn’t travel well in lunches, but cooked and shelled edamame makes an easy snack. We purchase individually wrapped seaweed packets in bulk from Saraga International Grocery.
Kelley says her 10-year-old stepdaughter has requested ramen noodles for lunch on a few occasions, and the solution is quite simple. “We’ve broken up a bag of ramen noodles into a thermos-like water bottle and just nuked the water and flavoring right before leaving for school and pouring it in, knowing it will be soft and likely cooled down by lunch,” she explains. “She takes plastic silverware and eats right from the thermos.” Kelley says she’s considering using the thermos for more soups and noodles as a hot-packed lunch option.
Aside from meat and cheese, it can be tough to find good sources of protein. Our younger son can’t get enough of black beans. We’ll strain a can to remove as much liquid as possible, then pack it in an airtight container (no one wants black bean juice dripping all over their lunch), sprinkle it with shredded cheese and send it with a fork.
Homemade Trail Mix
Trail mix is perfect as a snack or as a major lunch component. It covers a couple different food groups by using dried fruits, nuts and granola. Casey whips up her own trail mix using raisins, dried fruit mix from Aldi, mixed nuts and then a taste of chocolate—often leftover treats from Halloween, Easter or another holiday.
An Extension of Family Habits
One of the most successful tactics can be involving children in the process of creating their lunches. Favorite habits that are established at home carry over easily to the school lunchroom. Thai says she often makes her daughter lunches that are “quick and doable extensions of bigger family rituals.”
“Breakfast [pancakes especially] is a beloved family tradition,” she adds, “so it makes me happy to be able to give her a bit of that comfort during her school day, when she’s away from home.” Thai also includes a sketch of her daughter’s favorite characters in her lunchbox. “She likes being able to show her friends the character du jour, which always prompts conversation and connection among the kids,” Thai says. “I love that I can send a little bit of us with her at school!”
Kelley does the same for the 6- and 10-year-olds in her house. “I am finding the kids like to have some control over their lunches,” she says. “If they have a say as to what goes into their lunches, they will likely eat it all. We like them to feel as involved as possible.”
Pack Safe Lunches
When dealing with meats, cheeses and other perishables, the general rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is to keep items below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to food safety, and it’s usually easy enough to slip an ice pack into the lunchbox. But sometimes that’s not an option, especially when students must pack completely disposable lunches for field trips or summer camps.
You might be surprised what you can pack that doesn’t need to be kept cold:
- Pasta salads – especially those with an oil-based versus a cream-based sauce. Cook up macaroni, orzo or even quinoa and mix in a light dressing, chopped nuts or small slices of veggies.
- Hard cheeses – not all cheeses can be left at room temperature, but harder ones like cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss are safe.
- Cured lunchmeats – Most of these are stored at room temperature anyway, so they’re safe in lunches. Think pepperoni, salami or even jerky.
- Unpeeled fruits like apples, bananas and oranges.
This story is from the Spring 2022 issue of Columbus Parent.
Try this easy recipe by Courtney Rowland of NeighborFood. With five ingredients and six steps, you can’t go wrong.
1 puff pastry
8 all beef hot dogs (or 6 hot dogs, cut in half, for the mini version)
1¼ cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
Everything bagel seasoning
1. Allow the puff pastry to thaw until cold, but workable. On a lightly floured surface, roll the puff pastry out to a rectangle roughly 14 inch long and 9 inches wide.
2. Cut the puff pastry in half lengthwise and then in fourths (for the full hot dogs), or in thirds and fourths (to make 12 squares for the half hot dogs).
3. Sprinkle each square with cheese, then place a hot dog in the center lined up with the diamond tips.
4. Bring the two sides together and brush with the egg wash to seal. Brush the outsides of the puff pastry with egg wash as well and sprinkle lightly with everything bagel seasoning.
5. To bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the pigs in a blanket on top. Bake for 15-17 minutes, or until the puff pastry is golden brown.
6. To air fry pigs in a blanket, lightly brush the air fryer grate with a neutral oil. Place the wrapped hot dogs in the air fryer—do not stack them! Air fry at 375 degrees for 5-7 minutes or until golden brown.