Whether you’re packing lunch for yourself or your children, you probably end up running out of ideas and getting bored with your lunches at some point. I know I have. The sandwich, cookie and piece of fruit idea gets stale pretty quickly. Using leftovers from your dinner expands the horizon a bit, but packing them can be a challenge. And if you don’t have access to a microwave (or refrigerator) you need to be conscious of food safety issues and pack things that taste good cold or at room temperature.
Check with your School about any Food Restrictions
Many schools have restrictions on what your child can bring to lunch even though your child may have no allergies. Peanuts (and peanut butter) are often prohibited as even the airborne particles can cause severe reactions in some people, but many schools ban all nuts. So make sure you check with your school or your child’s teacher when you start packing lunches to make sure you are following the current guidelines.
Here are few things I’ve done that my kids have liked. (I work at home so haven’t had to pack my own lunches for quite a while but I think these will work well for adults too!)
Lunch Packing Ideas if you have a Thermos
Having a thermos to keep things warm (or cold) can really expand your options. Of course, stews, casseroles and soups can be reheated in the morning and packed hot into your thermos. But expand your ideas a bit beyond that! Fill your thermos full of hot water while you’re preparing the lunch so that it preheats a bit. This will help keep food hotter.
- Bring a hot dog. Fill the thermos full of hot water. Heat a hot dog in whatever way you like (hot water on the stove, microwave, etc.) and slide it into the hot water. Seal the thermos. Pack a bun and whatever condiments you like separately, plus a fork to pull the hot dog out of the hot water.
- Make hot sandwiches. This is the same basic idea as the hot dog above, but think about hot meats for sandwiches. You can mix some barbecue sauce with leftover sliced pork or beef or chicken, heat it up, then send it in a thermos with a bun packed on the side. Alternately, save some gravy from dinner one night and heat that with the sliced meat.
- Macaroni and Cheese. Make your favorite mac ‘n cheese recipe and pack it in the thermos.
- Baked beans and hot dogs. Heat up some baked beans or pork and beans and a sliced hot dog if you’d like.
- Spaghetti and meatballs. This travels well and is always a hit with my kids. I would serve it one night for dinner and set aside enough for lunches in a day or two.
- Leftover ribs. I wouldn’t have thought of packing leftover ribs but these were a huge hit with my kids when they were younger. Add a slice of cornbread, some carrot sticks, and a piece of fruit.
Lunch Ideas for Regular Lunch Boxes or Brown Bags
Make your own “Lunchable.” My kids used to love the idea of those Lunchables but never really wanted to eat everything that was in one, let alone the cost was too high for a daily lunch. But if I packed up small crackers with some salami or turkey and some small squares of cheese, along with a piece of fruit, a cookie and a drink they thought it was great.
Use muffin liners to separate foods. Muffin liners work great to keep foods separated. You can use either paper ones or the silicon ones. Remember, the tighter you pack your lunch the less likely things are to spill about and get messed up.
Get creative with your breads. Rather than always using sliced breads for your sandwiches, use the same fillings but on a rolled up tortilla, in a pita pocket, with flatbread, on crackers, on a bagel or on an English muffin.
Grill a panini and pack it. Grill your favorite panini and pack it, to be eaten at room temperature. Ham and cheese, grilled veggies with or without meat, or a bit of turkey and chutney are some of our favorites. My kids also liked to make extra grilled cheese sandwiches on the weekend and freeze a few of them. The frozen sandwiches would thaw by lunchtime.
Cut your wraps into bite-size pieces. Whatever your packing, kids like it in small pieces it seems. If you make a wrap, cut in on the diagonal into 1″ slices. This works best if you can refrigerate it before slicing, so you might want to make them the night before, wrap in plastic and refrigerate, then slice in the morning.
Put cut fruit on skewers. This goes along with the bite size idea. Cutting fruit up and putting the pieces on toothpicks makes it more fun to eat. Alternately, make a small fruit salad and send it in a sealed container. (If you don’t want to buy a container, use a leftover yogurt container or something similar.)
Add a hard-boiled egg. I see the bento box folks peel the egg first and pack it, which makes it much easier on kids to eat. This is a great way to get some protein in the lunch.
Breakfast for lunch: pack some yogurt and granola. Either separately or mixed together, pack some flavored or plain yogurt and granola along with some fresh fruit.
Pancakes or French toast for lunch. You can spread a leftover pancake with peanut butter if your kids like that. Or pack a bit of syrup in a small container. It’s probably a good idea to pack a wet wipe with this for sticky fingers! Make some extra French toast and cut it in strips for easier eating. They can dip it into a small container of syrup.
Pasta Salad with Chopped Vegetables. Cook up some small pasta, add your favorite chopped vegetables, and either pack a small container of vinaigrette or dress the salad at home.
Thinking Outside the Box
While I don’t buy much prepared food, I do think you can explore options for lunches that can make your life a bit easier. Think about things like pot stickers, spring rolls, premade meatballs (they go well with all kinds of things other than spaghetti sauce!), frozen cut fruit that will thaw by lunch, falafel, and other things that you might reserve just for packed lunches to make them special.
The Mechanics of Lunch Box Packing
I used to like to create a little list of what the kids had to choose from and stick that on the refrigerator. I could add leftovers that became available. Also, creating a grid and having them pick one from each column (protein, vegetable, fruit, starch, dessert) keeps the lunch more balanced. Just Bento has a free printout of a lunch planning grid you can use.
Keep some small vegetables on hand that your kids can either eat plain or dip in some sort of dressing or yogurt. Sugar snap peas, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, edamame, celery sticks, and sliced red peppers are some of our favorites. If you have these ready to go in the refrigerator, you can grab some in the morning quite quickly.
Small ice packs are useful for keeping food cold. Alternately, you can freeze juice boxes or water bottles (empty a bit out first) and they will likely thaw by lunch yet help keep the food cold until then. Check out the USDA page of tips on food safety and packing lunches.
There are some great containers these days with smaller compartments, some of which are removable which gives you great flexibility. The one pictured to the left is a Lock & Lock 3.6 Cup Rectangular Storage with Trays I think (can’t remember exactly which I ordered). It has one larger and two smaller containers. I used it to pack some leftover chicken curry with rice, fruit and vegetable fritters.
Planning Ahead and Using Your Freezer
There are a variety of things you can cook or prepare ahead and freeze that make lunch packing go quickly in the mornings. My list includes:
- grilled sandwiches
- quick breads (apple bread, zucchini bread, etc.)
- small portions of leftovers
- sandwiches (Prepare the meat and cheese if using. Don’t freeze mayo though, use butter or skip the mayo. In the morning, pack sliced tomato, lettuce and other fresh condiments separately to be added at lunchtime.)
- meat pies
- slices of quiche
- French toast and pancakes
- cake cut into pieces
More Resources for Healthy School Lunch Ideas
Laptop Lunches sells an Americanized bento-type lunchbox, with separate containers for different foods. Whether or not you want to purchase something special, they have a fantastic page of lunch packing ideas and even a photo gallery of various packed lunch boxes.
The various bento blogs on the ‘net are another source of ideas. If you (or your kids) don’t want to go the full bento route, at least browse these blogs for some ideas on creative lunch ideas. Some of my favorites includes:
WebMd has a short article on brown bag lunch ideas.
About.Com’s Southern Food has a long list of recipes for packed lunches.