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Back-to-school basics: Lunch edition

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After packing snacks and lunches every day all summer (and after years of packing camp-friendly gluten-free lunches for my step kids) you’d think I have this school lunch thing down. But even a veteran lunch-packer—indeed, especially a veteran one—can get stuck in a rut. And the beginning of the school year is a bad time to be languishing in rutsville.

It would probably be easier if I didn’t try to work around my kids’ food foibles (my youngest daughter doesn’t like sandwiches, for the most part, and if I pack an insulated container of soup or stew for her or for my pre-schooler, it’s guaranteed to come home uneaten). And I do kind of sort of long for the days when peanut butter and jelly was allowed at school. But here are 10 options that work for my family—and I’d love it if you could take a minute to share some of your ideas in the comments!

1.) Chicken salad. I 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. For my gluten-free family members, I wrap sticks of string cheese with slices of ham, turkey, and/or salami and call it good. (For those who can eat wheat, a flour tortilla is fine, but my kids tend to deconstruct their sandwiches anyway.)

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!

6.) Bag o’ snacks. Apple slices, peanut butter, dried fruit, nuts, carrot sticks, celery sticks, whole-grain crackers, and some low-fat string cheese fit the bill.

7.) Home-made happy meal. Chicken nuggets, a packet or two of ketchup, apple slices, and drink. Toy optional. An insulated container keeps the chicken warm until lunch time.

8.) Appetizers. If it can be passed on a tray during cocktail hour, some variation of it can work well in a lunch box. Think pot-stickers (we like Ling Ling’s, which you can find at Costco), bread sticks wrapped with ham, mini quiches, chunks of lunch meat and cheese strung on a skewer, sticks of veggies with dressing, and mini chicken meatballs are popular at our house.

9.) Macaroni and cheese. From a box or from scratch, depending on your kids’ tastes. You can stir in whatever you want to amp up the nutritional value (my kids have suddenly decided that tiny bits of broccoli are OK, but ham has fallen out of favor).

10.) A peanut-butter-and-jelly alternative. My sandwich-despising daughter will make an exception for homemade blackberry jam on soft, whole-wheat bread. My 4-year-old loves peanut butter, but his school’s rules do not; we substitute sunflower-seed butter (no nuts, tastes good) or even cream cheese.

A word on insulated containers: You can find cheap, insulated plastic containers in plenty of places, but after Thermos sent me a couple of their FUNtainers to test out, I’ll never buy the cheapie plastic knock-offs again. The FUNtainer food jars and bottles are made of stainless steel inside and out, which makes them easy to clean (and they don’t absorb odors, so your kid’s fruit salad won’t smell like chicken nuggets). The food jars ($15.99) have a wide mouth that makes it easy to fill, eat from, and clean; the 12-ounce bottles ($14.99) have a pop-open lid, built-in silicone straw, and a non-slip base. Both are dishwasher safe and come in several different kid-friendly designs (my kids were psyched to see Hello Kitty and characters from the movie “Cars”). You can find them at Target stores and online at and

What do you pack in your kids’ lunchboxes?

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5 comments so far...

  • Great ideas. We tend to fall into the pb&j daily rut!

    jennifer gray  |  August 22nd, 2011 at 2:33 pm

  • I like the idea of chips and dips (wonder if my kid would try the beans?)! And we do similar things as you — ham roll-ups, “snacks” as lunch, and Fun-tainers (chicken noodle soup or ravioli). It is hard when they’re picky, that’s for sure.

    el-e-e  |  August 23rd, 2011 at 4:18 pm

  • My sandwich hating picky eater likes the same thing every day. We do an un-sandwich. I pack a mini bagel spread with butter, in a separate container some sliced ham lunch meat, and then a couple of snacks. He eats it all gone most days. If I packed a real sandwich it would only come home half eaten, guaranteed.

    I just asked my 11yo if he’d like tortilla chips, salsa & a string cheese (for protein) instead of a sandwich in his lunch. I think I’m his new hero. Thanks for the idea!!

    ChristineB  |  August 27th, 2011 at 2:05 pm

  • What about hummus and pita chips or slices of pita bread (which I think is gluten free)? That’s one of my favorites.

    I am actually reading this for myself because I’m trying to save some cash brown bagging it to work, and I am not a big sandwich eater myself. We have peanut allergies and a no fish policy at work so my go to’s, PB&J and tuna salad, are not an option.

    Love the appetizers as lunch idea. I think I might pick up some spanikopita apps and treat myself to those for lunch. I’m also going to use the sunflower or almond butter trick for peanut butter.

    Susan  |  September 7th, 2011 at 3:44 pm

  • Jennifer Gray: Thank you! It’s so easy for fall into a rut…

    el-e-e: My little kids aren’t big on beans, but the big kids have been fine with them. Oooh, ravioli — I have to try that! Thanks!

    ChristineB: So glad he liked the idea!

    Susan: Sadly, Pita chips are not gluten-free. But rice cakes and rice crackers, and some nut-chips are, and so are corn tortilla chips!

    Lylah  |  September 7th, 2011 at 4:35 pm