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Back to school: Thinking outside the (lunch) box

Categories: Frugal Living, Hacking Life, Parenting, Uncategorized


You’d think that after a summer of packing five lunches every weekday, I’d have this what-do-you-want-to-take-for lunch thing down pat, right?


“What do you want in your lunchbox, Sweetie?” I asked my preschooler the other day. And, without even looking up from the picture she was coloring, she answered, “Something not boring.”

My lunch box dance is complicated by the fact that three of my five kids can’t eat gluten, and one of those three can’t have any dairy, either. So, for them, nothing involving wheat in any way, shape, or form. No pasta salads (rice pasta can be nasty if it’s not piping hot). No traditional sandwiches (gluten-free bread makes great toast, but crumbles into pasty bits after spending a few hours wrapped in plastic and stuck in a cubby or locker). And my youngest two kids’ preschool/daycare is a nut-free zone.

Here are five “main courses” that work for us. And by “work for us,” I mean that I can whip it together easily, often in advance, and they’ll actually eat it.

1.) Chicken salad. I’d get a family-size pack of bone-in chicken breasts on sale, roast them all at the same time, use some for dinner, and then chop up the leftovers and add whatever was in the crisper, with a little mayo or even salad dressing to hold it all together. (Favorite combination: chicken, diced apples, dried cranberries, minced sweet pickles, and chopped celery.)

2.) Chips n dips. Tortilla chips (the little round ones are sturdiest) with small containers of salsa, sour cream, guacamole, and refried beans. The guacamole was not so much of a hit though, surprisingly, the beans were. Who knew?

3.) Roll ups. Corn torillas don’t hold up well in a lunch box — they delaminate and go all crumbly — so I wrapped sticks of string cheese with slices of ham, turkey, and/or salami and called it good. (My non-dairy eating boy got salami spread with soy creamcheese and rolled up into little logs).

4.) Crackers stackers. A pile of crackers, a heap of cheese squares, and a bunch of little rounds of ham. You get bonus points for putting it into a divided plastic container and pretending you bought it at the grocery store. Variation: Cut everything into large sticks and sub pretzel rods for the crackers; for some reason, food is more delicious if you can wave it around like a baton before consuming it. Apparently.

5.) BBQ steak non-sandwiches. Leftover steak from dinner, cut into small, thin slices, and tossed with bottled BBQ sauce. Super easy. If only we ate steak more often!

Add a drink, something crunchy, something snacky, fruit, and a treat, et voila — lunch is ready to go.

And now I’m throwing the lunch box open to all of you. Busy chefs and non-chefs alike, please share your secrets. What do you pack in your kids’ lunch boxes?

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4 comments so far...

  • I’m going to try your chicken salad and faux Lunchables ideas!

    Here are some things I do:

    Rather than the nutritionally empty chips, crackers or pretzels my kids usually want, I put some dry breakfast cereal in baggies to go along with my kids’ sandwiches. (At least the cereal is fortified.)

    My kids also never get tired of dried mango. I was buying it in individual serving size bags, but am now buying in bulk from the produce store to be more environmentally friendly.

    My daughter doesn’t really like sandwiches so I sometimes throw a frozen MorningStar veggie corn dog in the microwave, wrapped in a paper towel, for 1 minute while I’m getting the rest of her lunch together. She reports it’s still warm at lunch time.

    And, I have replaced plastic baggies with waxed paper baggies, which we try to use more than once.

    My daughter often wants soup in her lunch during the winter, so I am looking for suggestions for a non-plastic thermos type soup holder, if anyone has found one.

    rb  |  August 14th, 2008 at 2:16 pm

  • I’m going to second rb’s rec for the Morningstar corndogs. I can’t vouch for the fact that they stay hot, but they sure are good.

    You know, I take the easy way out and just have them eat lunch at school. We are truly fortunate that none of us have any food allergies. I like the cheese stick wraps, though. That would probably go over well in my house.

    Leandra  |  August 14th, 2008 at 3:38 pm

  • These are all ideas I will be trying! My youngest, although not really picky, just doesn’t really like the “traditional” lunches. She ends up bringing leftovers from dinner, fruit, soup, pasta salad, etc. And always a small water bottle in addition to your juice box! :-)

    BlapherMJ  |  August 14th, 2008 at 11:16 pm

  • My little guy (kindergarten) only wants safe food (a basic sandwich / crunch item / drink). My daughter is being more adventurous and likes to mix things up — spaghetti & meatballs, ravioli, perogies, spinach/cucumber/grape tomatoes with Italian dressing, drinking yogurt, chex mix, lots of cut up fruit, pasta salad, chips, nuts (almonds), dried fruit, string cheese, cheese triangles, rice cakes. Every day is different.

    Grace  |  August 16th, 2008 at 1:39 am