It is possible to make a school lunch that you can also pack to work (even if both school and work are currently happening at home); just make some minor adjustments to these easy lunch ideas and you’ll have healthy meals both you and your kids will like!
packing a lunch—for yourself and for your children—can help you save money, eat healthier, and add some nice variety to your days, but it’s also the source of a lot of stress. No wonder the classic brown bag contents are so simple: a basic sandwich (hello, peanut butter and jelly), a bag of chips, a piece of fruit, and perhaps a sweet treat for dessert. It’s a school lunch formula that works, but it definitely gets boring after a while.Regularly
Luckily, there are ways to make healthy, delicious lunches that are more varied, pack better, and that both you and your kids will enjoy. There is some prep work involved, but most of it can be done ahead of time and integrated into your dinner making processes, so there’s no mad rush to slap together sandwiches amidst all the other things in the getting-ready-for-work-and-school routine.
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Grain bowls, grain salads, and whole grains in general are healthy, hearty, and endlessly customizable, so next time you’re making a dinner recipe that calls for couscous, quinoa, or other grains like rye berries, millet, or fonio, make a double batch (unless you’re likely to have lots of leftovers from the original recipe amount to begin with) and set some aside for the next day.
Do this before you add spices and seasonings if you want to flavor the lunch portion differently, then mix it with whatever you and your kids can agree on—some tomato sauce and roasted veggies, for instance.
If it’s not quite exciting enough for you, after you pack up the kids’ portion, add more kick to your own with garlic and pine nuts, red pepper flakes and lemon zest, chopped olives, or whatever else you love that they haven’t yet learned to appreciate.
Any time you bake, broil, or grill protein like chicken, pork, or tofu, make enough to have a little leftover and add that to your grain salads for extra flavor and heft. Toss it all together after dinner and in the morning, just grab the containers out of the fridge and put ’em in your lunch boxes. You can also toss in leftover roasted or grilled veggies.
Adjustments: Plenty of kids who won’t touch identifiable tomatoes will gladly consume tomato sauce, so if that’s your situation, puree the roasted tomatoes here and mix with the lemon vinaigrette before adding it to the couscous (but feel free to save some whole roasted tomatoes for your own portion, and maybe mix in some arugula, spinach, or sauteed kale).
Add sliced or shredded broiled chicken breast for a protein boost—and before cooking it, you can season your portion with as many spices as you want, while leaving your kids’ as tame as necessary. Get our Israeli Couscous with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Parmesan, and Lemon Vinaigrette recipe.
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Since some kids won’t go for grains, pasta salad is another good option. It can follow the same formula as above and accept pretty much anything you want to throw at it. Try a pizza-inspired pasta salad with chopped pepperoni and mozzarella, then add olives, peppers, and extra spices to your portion for something more like a muffaletta pasta salad. Or if your kids are no longer grossed out by green food (congratulations!), make a pesto pasta salad with plenty of vegetable add-ins. Then again, if they’ll pick around obvious pieces of veggies, blend some spinach in with the basil to add more nutritional value.
You can pack dressing in separate containers if you’re concerned about things getting soggy.
Bentgo Salad Container, $14.99 from Amazon
Meant for green salads, but works just as well for other things; the dressing container is removable and has its own lid so won't spill.
If your children haven’t quite gotten the hang of utensils yet, go for drier and chunkier options like this chicken and cheese pasta with edamame, which would still be good for you with some added seasonings, maybe in the form of a quick vinaigrette, and extra vegetables like sun-dried tomatoes.
Try It: Classic Pesto Pasta Salad
Adjustments: Mix in whatever you like (or have on hand) here, from meat to vegetables to cheese. Picky eaters can have it plainer, but to up the nutritional benefits, you might be able to swap in whole wheat or veggie pasta without complaint, since it’ll be swathed in sauce. If you go with long, thin noodles, try mixing some zoodles in with the pasta strands for a slightly sneaky veggie boost. Get our Classic Pesto Pasta Salad recipe.
Related Reading: The Best Gluten-Free Pasta Salad Options
Egg Salad, Chicken Salad, or Tuna Salad
Most kids are likely to enjoy at least one of the classic creamy sandwich salads, whether egg salad, chicken, or tuna—but if they want them plain, it’s easy to pack up their portion before jazzing up what’s left for you to take to work. Add capers, cornichons, and fresh herbs to a standard egg salad for an egg salad gribiche. Ditto tuna. Make a plain chicken salad and then doctor yours with tarragon, apples, and red onion, or just add some curry powder, raisins, and almonds.
An ice pack and an insulated lunch bag should be fine as far as keeping mayo-based mixtures safe even after being stashed in a locker for a few hours, but if you have your doubts, try replacing the mayo with other creamy elements (like avocado or hummus and tahini).
PackIt Freezable Lunch Bag, $19.99 from Amazon
This nifty, zipper-closure lunch bag basically has the ice pack built right in, and it comes in tons of fun colors and patterns (plus more sedate options too).
As far as serving any of these, while your kids might like squishy sandwiches, if you’d rather avoid that textural terror, pack the bread separately, or skip it entirely and bring crackers, pita wedges, and sturdy sliced veggies for scooping instead (or a base of lettuce in a separate container if that’s more your speed).
Try It: Roasted Chicken Salad Sandwich
Adjustments: If the sound of whole-grain mustard, almonds, cherries, shallot, and fresh thyme makes your mouth water but would make your kid’s pucker, the solution is easy. Just mix up a stripped-down batch of chicken salad to begin with, pack theirs, then stir all the grown-up additions into the remainder. To maximize efficiency, use leftover roasted or grilled chicken for this, or buy a rotisserie bird. Get our Chicken Salad Sandwich recipe.
edible works of art as some bento masters like to do, but the basic format is fantastic for assembling lunches that appeal to everyone. You can buy compartmentalized boxes in various configurations; this durable one is perfectly portioned for kids up to age 7, while these larger ones are also cheaper (and marketed as “meal prep containers”). If you need more compartments than your box boasts, use silicone baking cups to portion things out in the larger section.No, you don’t need to construct
You can use these to pack semi-composed meals—for instance, put a sesame noodle salad in the main compartment, and in the others, leftover pieces of grilled teriyaki pork chops, pineapple chunks, and crunchy veggies like bell pepper strips and snap peas (pro-tip: the fewer of each thing you pack, the more likely your kids will actually eat them all, even the healthy options they might otherwise skip).
If you’re ever pressed for ideas, just think of these as homemade Lunchables and pack the compartments with meat, cheese, and crackers plus fruit (deli turkey, cheddar cubes, Goldfish, and grapes may be great for the kids, but you can age it up to work for you too: think sopressata, aged gouda, and garlic-stuffed olives…).
Parents Magazine has lots of other great suggestions for bento box combos so you won’t get bored—as does Lala Lunchbox—and you can mix and match elements from all of them so they work for you and yours.
Bentgo Kids' Bento Box, $24.99 from Amazon
With leak-proof, unbreakable design, rubber edges, and large latches, this is great for younger kids.
Prep Naturals Glass Meal Prep Containers, 3 for $23.99 from Amazon
And these 3-compartment, lock-tight containers are perfect for older kids and your own work lunch.
Don’t hesitate to pack everything ahead of time either, including crackers; as long as the container is airtight, they won’t get soft or stale in the fridge, so you won’t need to scramble for them in the morning.
Related Video: How to Make a Veggie-Filled Kid Lunch
Header image courtesy of Claudia Totir / Moment / Getty Images