With these back to school lunch ideas, you can offer some delicious and healthy alternative lunches to feed kids of all ages, from toddlers to teenagers.
If you are like most families, you are never ready for the morning school rush. Between brushing teeth and picking out clothes, there’s the shout, “Finish you breakfast!” and “Did you pack your homework?”
Somewhere during this chaos, you also have to come up with creative back to school lunch ideas that insure your budding student eats a nutritious meal. And if you have more than one kid, that means more than one set of taste buds and peculiarities. Need help?
School cafeteria lunches, in some areas, are getting healthier. But, for the most part, by packing your child’s lunch you are insuring your child has a healthy and well-balanced meal. This is not to say that kids don’t swap with other kids or throw things away.
But, pretty soon they will get hungry. And if that sack lunch is their only source of nourishment (and they don’t have cash on them!), then you can be sure that the lunch will get eaten.
So what are the choices? Some kids are easy. PBJ, everyday. Other kids are not. Most kids get bored having the same lunch everyday. So add some variety to the menu. Be adventurous.
If you make sandwiches, try different cuts of meats paired with different types of cheeses. And, think outside of the square. Toast isn’t the only bread you can use for sandwiches.
There is sourdough, baguettes, hoagie rolls and pita bread, to name a few. My Italian Grinder with Olive Tapenade is always a big hit in my house!
Some stores even sell mini-sized pitas, which are fun for small fingers. Roll it up in a slice of lavash (or flat bread) or try whole-wheat tortillas. But wait, my kid doesn’t eat bread. Now what?
You can roll a piece of cucumber, carrot or some cream cheese in a slice of turkey, or any cut of meat. If they like cream cheese, try some of the flavored cheese spreads out there. Or offer your child a homemade lunchable: small cuts of meat, cheese and crackers.
And there is more to a sandwich than just meat and cheese. If your kid likes pickles, also try olives, artichoke hearts or heart of palm. Add some fresh herbs with the lettuce and a little vinaigrette to drizzle over it.
Kids’ taste buds evolve over time, so slapping a couple slices of turkey with a slice of cheese isn’t going to make the grade for a tween or teenager. Introduce new flavors to broaden their horizons.
Got leftover pulled pork? Barbecue brisket? Roasted chicken? They all make great sandwiches for lunch the next day. Go a little beyond the traditional sandwich and make up batch of homemade pretzel dogs (pictured below). My kids love these for lunch!
Comfort food in a thermos
Middle Child was the first kid to fall in love in soup. He was in kindergarten when I started packing a thermos full of chicken noodle soup for him everyday for lunch. He’s now a junior in high school and he also enjoys chicken tortilla soup and sausage gumbo for lunch.
A thermos/food jar makes it even easier to pack a delicious meal for those hungry kids, especially those big appetites of a teenager. Food jars come in a variety of different sizes, depending on the size of appetite you want to feed.
Got leftovers? Heat them up and stuff them in the food jar. The food really does stay warm until lunch time. And if you go this route for lunch, the sky’s the limit for menu choices. Just chop everything up beforehand so your child can scoop it up easily with a spoon.
Some of our family’s favorite meals that make excellent lunches the next day include:
- Chicken Tortilla Soup
- Chicken Noodle Soup
- Chicken and Sausage Potato Gumbo
- Skillet Spaghetti
- Pork Sausage Fried Brown Rice
- Leftover Pulled Pork Mac and Cheese
- Gormeh Sabzi (Persian Herb Stew with Rice)
- Koobideh Kabob (Persian Ground Beef Kabob with Rice)
Let’s go dipping!
If you need school lunch ideas for a grazer or if your child likes a variety of little bites to eat and dips for their crackers or vegetables, then pack some hummus, yogurt or a cheese dip. How about little container of peanut butter and apple slices?
Even the pickiest child likes something healthy. Find it and exploit it! Bento boxes and little containers are perfect for kids who like a variety of little bites. Fill those squares up with their favorite fruits and vegetables.
Dips are a great way to introduce new vegetables. Add some jicama, radishes and cucumbers to add a bit of variety. Includes nuts, dried fruits and seeds.
Some of our favorite dips to dunk our veggies include:
- Classic Garlic Hummus
- Avocado Hummus
- Homemade Ranch Dressing
- Persian Yogurt with Cucumber (Mast o Khiar)
- Not-ella Carob Butter
For small bites of main lunch items for your bento box, try these family favorites:
- Persian Beef Cutlets with Potatoes and Cauliflower
- Dolmeh (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
- Deviled or Hardboiled Eggs
- Potato and Vegetable Latkes
Kid friendly salads
As the weather warms up, my kids still love their soup. But lately, they have really been into salads. You have no idea how many flips I made when I heard that request! Even though only 2 out of 3 of my kids eat salads, I make sure I give them something hearty that will fill them up.
I wrote this great post all about how to build a better salad and all of the flavor components to make a great salad. I always include a protein source and a lot of times it is leftovers, like carne asada, chicken kabob, steak, hatch chile verde with chicken, or even a simple rotisserie chicken.
If you are making a salad to go, do invest in little bottles for the salad dressing. Salads will only get super soggy sitting in the dressing for several hours. These are some our family favorite salads:
- Salad Olivieh (Persian Potato Salad with Chicken)
- Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad (Shirazi Salad)
- Greek Salad
- Quinoa Tabouleh
- Steak Salad with Parmesan and Dijon
Healthier sweet options
Kids are attracted to sugar like flies on… well, you get the metaphor. I don’t usually pack sweet stuff in my kids’ lunch boxes, but sometimes I do. I try to keep it simple and relatively healthy, like fruits or some chocolate in the trail mix.
If I slip them something sweet that I baked, I try to make sure it includes whole grains and complex carbohydrates to fill their little tummies with fiber and give them real energy for the rest of the day..
You definitely do not want to give them sugary foods that spike their insulin up, only to lead them to a sugar crash and a groggy, slow afternoon. No one is saying not to add a special treat to your child’s lunch box. Just make sure they nutritious items, as well, to help them succeed during the school day.
A few of my favorite dessert bars that aren’t tooth-cracking sweet but are still super kid friendly include:
- No-Bake Crispy Raisin Nut Bars
- Paleo Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars (made with almond meal)
- Whole Wheat Berry Bars with Flax Meal (pictured below)
- Raspberry Almond Olive Oil Scones
- Chocolate Almond Banana Bread
- Whole Wheat Banana Nut Bread
Final thoughts on school lunch ideas
By getting a little creative in the kitchen, you are teaching your kids that eating healthy is important and not a last-minute, forgotten chore. And by trying new ways of offering the same thing, you are teaching your kids to be adventurous.
Don’t be surprised the next time you make a home-made dinner to find even your pickiest eater loving it. It has been known to happen! Healthy eating habits is a learned habit that definitely takes time and patience for parents.
Lead by example and take the time to create a healthy and delicious lunch for your kids. Even if you can’t make everything yourself, there are certainly lots of healthy snacks and meals that can be store-bought.
Make it fun and get your kids involved. It’s a great way to teach them about the impact of food and how to make healthy choices.
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