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Lunch Lessons: Thinking Outside the Box

Making school lunches. I know, most of you would rather stick a pencil in your eye than resign yourselves to packing lunches every day. I get it. When my son had an unexpected school closing during the second week of school, my first thought was, admittedly, “YES! One down!” This thought came prior to, “What am I going to do with him all day?”

Through the years, with the help of many people far more creative than myself, I have put together some lunch lessons that I hope you may find helpful. Keep in mind that each child is an individual; some kids can happily eat PB&J for lunch every day, some need variety and others are just plain overwhelmed by too many choices. Here are a few of the ‘lunch lessons’ I have learned:

The basics: We want our kids to feel nourished, strong and energized throughout their day. Here’s what’s going to help them:

Lean sources of protein: like beans, edamame, eggs, lean meats, yogurt

Healthy fats like 100% natural nut-butters (also a good source of protein), avocado, unsalted nuts & seeds (pistachios, almonds, cashews, pecans, chia, flax, sunflower seeds) and salmon (though this may be tough in an enclosed lunch box!).

Good sources of fiber and complex carbohydrates including a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa (also a good source of protein) & millet or breads made with 100% whole grains like wheat, oats, rye.

Including these will help keep your kids full and satisfied as well as provide sustained energy throughout a busy school day.

How to do it:

1.) Deconstruct. Deconstructed lunches are perfect for kids who do not care for sandwiches, find themselves with ‘soggy’ sandwiches or who just like some variety. Some examples include:

•Un-sandwiches: Rolled-up turkey on toothpicks (brands w/no nitrates/nitrites-Applegate Farms) and pita triangles. Pita triangles with hummus. Include sides they can build on or eat alone like avacado, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, pickles, apple or cheese slices. Inside-out sandwiches like turkey wrapped around a whole-grain breadstick.

•Un-Salad: Start with a base of greens and include sides like leftover roasted chicken, tuna salad, chickpeas, dried or fresh fruit, cut-up vegetables, nuts, hard-boiled egg.

•Un-Tacos: Pack beans & cheese, leftover ground turkey or your favorite ‘hot filling’ in an 8-10 ounce insulated Thermos. Include a Garden of Eatin’ taco shell, whole grain tortilla or tortilla chips and some of your favorite sides (avacado, tomatoes, greens, cilantro, salsa, Greek yogurt, olives).

•Un-Pizza: Whole-wheat pita bread, tomato sauce, grated cheese, toppings (peppers, olives, mushrooms). Keep in mind that the “pizza-style” Lunchable has over 100 ingredients!

•Un-Parfait: Greek yogurt (add fresh fruit, vanilla, agave, lemon zest), granola, cereal (high fiber, low sugar) roasted nuts/dried or fresh fruit.

•Lunch Kebabs- fruit, cheese, leftover grilled chicken, roasted vegetables, you name it, kebab-it!

2.) Include Old Favorites

•Quesadillas (black bean, corn & cilantro; cheese & spinach; avacado& cilantro) add side of salsa, tomatoes, corn, etc.

•Peanut or other 100% natural nut butter with bananas & honey, apples, mashed berries or no-added sugar jam.

•Pizza “roll-ups”- Whole grain or sprouted grain tortilla with tomato sauce, cheese, vegetable toppings.

3.) Try New Twists

•Apple & Peanut butter sandwiches

•Make PB&J ‘sushi’ by smearing the ingredients (and any add-ons listed above) into a whole-wheat wrap. Roll, cut and pack into ‘sushi’ size bites (my son loved this).

•Use a large, leafy green lettuce as your “wrap”. Romaine, bibb lettuce, collard greens and swiss chard work well! Stuff with hummus & mixed vegetables, savory vegetable quinoa, white bean dip and veggies or other fillings you enjoy!

•Spread nut butter, honey, & fresh fruit between two whole-wheat waffles.

4.) Include Hot Lunches. This is a great way to utilize leftovers! I have one kid who will not eat anything at room temperature and one who will be ‘that kid’ in college who eats “anything for a dollar!” Invest in a good insulated 8-10 ounce thermos. I pre-heat mine by pouring boiling water into the thermos and letting it sit while I put together the rest of the lunch. My ‘hot-meal’ kid maintains that all of his lunches have remained, at the very least, warm.

Hot Quinoa Pattie (served with marinara sauce on the side)


•Leftover rice & Chicken/Stir Fry/Pasta & Sauce

•Pork/Chicken BBQ & Brown rice

•Quinoa patties out of leftover quinoa

•Roasted sweet potatoes with cinnamon and maple syrup or roasted vegetables with lentils & savory spices.

•Bean/chicken/turkey chili & corn bread

•This oatmeal bake!

5.) Create A ‘Snacking Box‘. Often I pack a variety of little things in my youngest child’s lunch. The kid has the metabolism of a humming bird!

•The European: whole-grain crackers, cheese, fruit, nuts, a square of dark chocolate

•The Bento Box: vegetable sushi, steamed edamame, rice crackers, fruit, nuts

6.) Add a theme. I have talked about this with meal planning, the same goes for lunch. Themes are fun! Themes help you plan! Encourage your kids to create a theme/come up with a name!

Breakfast for lunch: “Wacky Wednesday” or “Freaky Friday”-Pre-make and freeze whole grain waffles, pancakes or french toast (you can cut these into ‘sticks’) and pack sides like Greek yogurt, Bare Naked Fit granola, homemade trail mix, or applesauce. Pack oatmeal in an insulated container with roasted walnuts, blueberries, 100% maple syrup and banana. Pack leftover frittata (great for cleaning out the fridge of wayward vegetables and perfect for breakfast, lunch or dinner) as seen in the first photo on this page.

Taco Tuesday: see Un-Taco listed above

Mambo Monday: Whole wheat/brown rice pasta salad with cucumber, beans, carrot, olives, tomatoes. Dress with olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt/ground pepper and your favorite spices.

Waste-Free Wednesday: Try to pack a lunch without any trash. Include a reusable napkin, a reusable water bottle reusable containers like these and silverware from home, if needed.

Finally, here are some general tips–some you may remember from Meal Planning 101–that may help:

Utilize a system. The Laptop Lunch system is what we have used in our house for about 5 years. I like the containers because they are a visual reminder of what I need to pack. Even if you don’t like the system, there are some great lunchbox ideas on their website. There are many other systems including: Lunchbots, Goodbyns, Lunchsense, and Packit. A good insulated food thermos is also key. They usually run @ $20 (I have yet to find one that is not made in China, however).

Have a plan. Make lunches the night before (heck, one of my friends makes three days’ worth of lunches!), utilize a crock-pot, have go-to recipes to utilize ‘left-overs’, freeze sandwiches–they will defrost by lunchtime, freeze home-made smoothies or applesauce in containers like these (I got this idea from–thanks Heidi!), or have a recipe swap for new ideas.

Get the kids involved! You have heard this before. Involving your kids means they’re invested. Create a list or menu and post it. Allow your child to plan the menu one day/week (they will be more likely to eat it!) Grow, shop, cook with your child. Last but not least, have older kids (gasp) make their own lunches! Not only are you giving them a life-skill, but including them in the process also means they are more likely to eat what they have helped make and plan.

Look for creative resources. Here are a bunch of sites I use for inspiration but remember that whole foods themselves are beautiful enough. If you are really interested in making your lunches stand out without much work, you can include silicone liners as dividers (the heart shaped liners in my pictures are from Target) or use some cookie cutters to make sandwiches more interesting. If spending the time punching out shapes of fruits and vegetables or taking a cookie cutter to your kids’ sandwich is going to put you over the edge, by all means don’t do it! I kind of look at it like home-made holiday cards. Yes, they are beautiful and creative, but if creating them is not a relaxing and enjoyable experience for you? Bag it. Yes, you have to make a lunch, you do not need to create more stress for yourself!

Making lunches is something we have to do at some point. It can be arduous and it may never be ‘fun’ but we can make it easier on ourselves by getting creative, planning, and coming together to use our most valuable resource: each other! After all, as quoted by Ron Atchison (okay, from a card I found at Trader Joe’s, but who cares?) “What are we here for, if not to help one another?” Let’s hear about some of the lunch ideas and strategies that work for your family!

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