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School Lunches: Thinking Outside the Lunch Box

The school-lunch challenge: giving the kids a nourishing lunch they won't want to trade for a cupcake. What's a parent to do?

Get the Kids Involved

  • Let the kids play with their food: dipping fruit, vegetables, crackers, or bread in sauces; assembling bite-size cheese and cracker sandwiches; or making tiny fruit kabobs on toothpicks.
  • Keep fruits and vegetables small and easy to eat: grapes, cherries, small plums, blueberries, melon cubes, baby carrots, cucumber slices, bell pepper strips and lightly steamed or blanched broccoli florets.
  • Get them involved with planning and making lunches because they're more likely to eat it if they helped pack it. After all, you won't be there to lay down the "three more bites before you can leave the table" law.

Variety is the Spice of Lunch

  • Include enough range to keep your kids from getting bored, but don't be surprised if they settle on a few favorites and request them week after week. Kids like to have a few familiar, comforting things nearby when they are away from home.
  • Give them some choices from each food group, and allow them to mix and match for a nutritionally-balanced lunch.
  • Beyond sliced bread, try crackers, pita bread, naan, corn bread, English muffins, tortillas, baked tortilla chips, mini bagels, or lettuce wraps.
  • For protein, there's good ol' peanut butter, but the kids might also enjoy hummus, bean dip, sliced cheese, yogurt, cold cuts, tuna salad, pasta salad, egg salad, or a thermos full of chili.
  • When serving tuna, egg, chicken, or pasta salad, mix in shredded carrots, apples, zucchini, bell peppers, raisins, nuts--anything to add nutrition and fiber without adding lots of empty calories.

Lunch Tips

  • About food safety: lightweight, freezable cold packs or frozen juice boxes enable you to send the kids to school with perishables such as pasta salad, egg salad, meat sandwiches, yogurt, tuna, etc.
  • Get your kids into the habit of washing their hands before eating. Include antibacterial hand wipes if that's what it takes.
  • Make lunches the night before to ease the morning rush out the door.
  • Reusable lunchboxes are earth-friendly and save the expense of brown bags, but be sure to wash them out frequently.
  • You've heard this one before, but a little note from you tucked into a lunch once in a while is a comfort. Keep notes small enough so kids don't have to haul out a long, loving letter from home in front of the rest of the lunchroom.
  • When you pack nutritious lunches you know your kids will love, you might even feel okay about slipping a cookie or a brownie into the bag!

    Aug. 24, 2009 1:33 pm
    Bento box-style lunches are the way to go. They're great fun and lovely to look at. Bentos themselves are also really pretty, but not necessary, you can even use a colorful tupperware box. Great tips!
    Aug. 26, 2009 10:19 am
    My daughter is patently anti-sandwich and starts kindergarten next week. She's a vegetarian (her choice) AND allergic to peanuts so no peanut butter or cold cuts. Thanks for the tips that go beyond sandwiches.
    Aug. 26, 2009 7:00 pm
    Found some good ideas that will take us beyond a standard sandwich. Thanks.
    Aug. 26, 2009 8:09 pm
    Use an icepack in your childs lunch box it will keep everything from being all warm and yucky. I still rememeber the yucky runny yogurt I use to get!
    Aug. 27, 2009 12:59 am
    I pack small quantities of many different finger foods. For instance, tomorrow my boys are having two mini meat and cheese kabobs (on plastic colored toothpicks), half a boiled egg (yolk removed), one piece each of papaya, mango, pineapple and a strawberry, four grapes, a clementine, one fourth of a homemade brownie and a half slice of bread and butter and two baby carrots. This sounds like a ton of food, but when you only add one or two of each thing, it's not too much at all. It's enough to fill their bellies, though, and there's enough variety to keep them interested. Also, make sure to vary the entree- sometimes I make "sushi sandwiches" which is just a standard sandwich flattened and then rolled and cut into slices of "sushi". My boys love that. I also do quesadillas, pitas, bagels- you name it. I've found that if I keep things interesting and new, that I can get them to eat small quantities of things they would typically shy away from. I hope these tips help s
    Aug. 27, 2009 1:21 pm
    I use a small thermos to give my daughter a warm lunch sometimes. Some of the warm items include soup, fried rice, and spaghetti. I warm the entree in the microwave in the morning until it is piping hot, then transfer it into the thermos. The thermos stays cool on the outside so the cool items in the lunchbox stay that way. Don't forget to pack a utinsel.
    Aug. 28, 2009 7:50 am
    my son doesn't mind a sandwich most of the time. but to mix it up, sometimes i press fun shaped cookie cutters into his sandwich, making it almost like a fruit roll-up
    Aug. 28, 2009 1:16 pm
    I just bought a great sandwich sized plastic container at The Container Store. When you take off the lid, there is a small covered section for dip. It is enough to hold yogurt dip, cream cheese spread, or hummus as well as things to dip.It also comes in "cute colors" so my daughter is excited to use it for lunch.
    j&j's mom 
    Aug. 30, 2009 3:20 pm
    Our school is peanut free, and they only have 20 mins to eat lunch. Lots of small finger foods in plastic containers works best. Cutting up apples ensures they get eaten. Sprinkle them with some lemon to keep from browning.
    Oct. 11, 2009 8:42 am
    I bought my girls the laptop lunch box from They love them. The girls help decide what goes in each little compartment and they always seem to eat most of their lunch/snack. Our typical box contains a half of a sandwich in one compartment, fruit in another, veggies (such as carrots) in another and dip in the little container and a little junk food in another. They love seeing their lunch and all their friends love their lunchboxes. Another great idea, cereal. Sometimes I pack a ziplock bowl (the kids can easily put the top back on is a little milk is left over) with dried cereal. I also pack little fresh fruit and yougurt. The girls buy milk at school to pour on the cereal. They love cereal for lunch.
    Nov. 28, 2009 8:12 am
    actually Im looking for something indestructable and large portion for my hubby. Need hot and cold ideas. gonna research thermos ideas-larger, bigmouth, horizontal/square/open type???
    Nov. 29, 2009 6:38 pm
    to honeydew- my mom always used to put hot water in the thermos for about 10 minutes. Pour it out and then put the hot food in the container. It keeps hot much longer this way.
    May 1, 2010 5:29 am
    To citrus punch-- we all loved your detailed idea list, i found myself wishing i had your recipes for your sushi sandwhiches, but I'm looking forward to finding my son's fav flavor combos of these ideas! Thanx for sharing!
    Sep. 9, 2010 5:22 pm
    I notice a fair portion of recipies in this collection contain peanuts or peanut butter. Some schools have banned peanut products due to allergies. Just something to keep in mind. I like that people have gotten creative far past the bologna sandwiches & animal cracker lunches I packed as a kid! Will also try some of these recipies for Saturday lunches...
    Sep. 16, 2010 9:38 am
    I need something for a picky eater. All he wants are sandwiches, grapes, juice... He seems pleased but he needs more variety...he does not like veggies, pasta, peanut butter, but will occasionally eat green beans & loves rice. Help, he needs more lunch variety. I'm tired of preparing the same thing everyday!
    Sep. 26, 2010 5:03 am
    helping to keep the lunches chilly...i place the juice boxes in the freezer and use then instead of an ice pack...i always have a chicken or a turkey rollin on the rotisserie.. and that turns into healthy.. timesaving... money saving... lunch style meal from salads to pita's and of coarse the in style rollups. enjoy
    Feb. 26, 2011 8:42 pm
    do you have any ideas for someone whos child doesn't have a microwave to warm lunches up at school.
    Jun. 7, 2011 12:57 pm
    This is so true--it also depends on if the schools have some good programs for school lunches. If not--be willing to make your kids their own.
    Aug. 15, 2011 2:10 am
    Of great importance to the well-being of your child is not only your willingness to pack their lunch for school - but, it avails you of a couple of other opportunities. #1 - it let's your child know that they are important enough to have you invest your time into making this lunch for him/her and the way they know this - is that you can teach them their way around the kitchen by (#2) having them help pack the lunch. Their input and imagination gives their self-worth an incredible boost and that's a lesson worth learning. Another thought - do you pack a lunch for an adult? I have the opportunity to control the mid-day meal for my husband (who is diabetic)by packing his lunches everyday. He is a teacher and we both have peace of mind when we know that his diet-plan is being followed. I don't need to wonder what's being served on the school lunch line - I pack a wonderful lunch for him everyday. His favorites: a Breadless Sandwich A large slices of Mesquite-smoked Turkey B
    Aug. 21, 2011 9:48 am
    My kids are all older now and have been packing their own lunches for several years. We always buy or make favorite snacks and veggies and we pre pack them in snack size baggies so they are ready to grab in the morning. Pre packing is also great when they are grabbed as an after school snack (High Schoolers can down an entire bag in a heartbeat!) I still write notes to them I just do it on the inside of the brown bag so noone knows it's there but us, and they LOVE to see those notes in the middle of busy, stressful days! I've even opened my lunch bag to see a note that has meant the world to me!
    Aug. 24, 2011 6:08 pm
    A recipe I got from AR is called lunch box hot dogs. You just fill a thermos with boiling water and a hot dog by lunch time it's still hot and they kid just pours out the water and put's the hot dog on a bun!
    Aug. 25, 2011 5:01 pm
    with so many schools going peanut free look for a soy nut or better yet Pumpkin Seed butter. They are very similar in taste and so long as you're careful about the ingredients list often lower in sugar & higher in protein than regular peanut butter spreads. I don't know the selection in other countries but in Canada there's a great brand called Nuts To You.
    Sep. 23, 2011 9:48 am
    Being that I am allergic to peanuts, I found a great substitute to peanut butter. It's called WOWBUTTER. It is made in a 100% peanut, nut, gluten and dairy free facility, with all natural ingredients (soy) and tastes just like peanut butter (my boyfriend says) and is still healthy. And, for all you guys and gals out there who have children is "nut free schools", you just peel back the label and cut out a sticker, stick it to their lunch box and it lets the school staff know that your child(ren) is helping keep the school allergy free.
    Sep. 28, 2011 9:33 am
    I need something for my sons lunch boxes. He doesn't want a sandwich and he thinks that an ice cream sandwich is the best thing for lunch. He is a meat and potato kid. Just need help for his lunch at school. thanks in advance.
    Sep. 30, 2011 8:34 pm
    One thing that I loved my mother for packing was cheese quesadillas. Being mexican I grew up with this food! For michelle-Try adding ham, chicken, turkey or beef to a quesadilla with some veggies on the side. To make it healthier add a side of veggies and ranch and a natural fruit roll up. You can also make the quesadilla with a whole-wheat tortilla and low-fat cheese. Have fun and remember: variety!
    May 2, 2012 4:57 pm
    Oh AllRecipes, you just know how to answer all my questions! Thank you for the wonderful input on how I can get my children to finish their lunches! One of my kids loves hummus and naan... I never thought of packing it for her lunch! Pure Genius!!
    Sep. 12, 2012 12:41 pm
    My children bring their lunch everyday. I get tired of making sandwiches, to the point I don't eat them to much anymore. My 2 older kids(teens) don't like veggie or fruit and my baby(11) eats everything under the sun. Thank God I have one easy one.
    Jun. 16, 2013 4:54 pm
    Thanks for the great ideas! Someone asked the question about lunches for kids who do not have access to a microwave or toaster at school. For my daughter, I either pack cold lunches (especially for hot summer days), or I use insulated containers. I found the stainless steel versions to hold the temperature best. I pre-warm the containers with hot water for a few minutes before I put the food in. For one container, I could get a neoprene sleeve (for wide water bottles, I got mine at REI) which fits very well and keeps the food hot even longer. I make soups, stews, or pack pasta dishes in the containers (I can add vegetables, so that they don't just get the pasta). Casseroles also work. They might look a bit messy, but my daughter doesn't mind. When she was in elementary school, I used 1- and 1.5-cup containers, and some time during middle school, we switched to 1.5- and 2-cup containers. I pack her drink in an insulated bottle, too, so that it does not get heated up by the warm lunch.
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