13 Creative, Healthy School Lunch Ideas
By Siobhan Adcock
School lunch has never looked or tasted better. Kids these days don’t know how lucky they have it! Not only are they growing up in an era when schools, government officials and nutritionists are paying attention to the health-factor of the average school-cafeteria lunch (and the news there is getting better, bit by bit), but they’re also the lucky beneficiaries of our collective Instagram addiction. But there’s no need to fall into a rabbit hole of bento boxes and cookie-cutter-shaped mini sandwiches. Here are 13 delicious healthy school lunches for kids that don’t require a PhD in Pinterest to pull off.
Variations to try: Alternate cherry tomatoes, cucumber chunks, and mozzarella balls, or try strawberries, dates and bananas
Packing tips: Don’t pack your child off to school weaponized with sharp shish-kebab sticks. Popsicle sticks or craft sticks work just as well for skewering most soft foods (you can use a sharp knife to slice an entry point into cucumber or tomatoes).
Serve with: dried fruit, sliced red peppers, whole-wheat pita
Variations to try: Roll up sliced roast beef or turkey with pesto or hummus; or smear hummus or bean dip on a wrap and roll it up with sliced veggies. Turkey with apple slices and honey is popular with sweet tooths.
Packing tips: Wraps are easy, but can fall apart if overstuffed. Use a wooden pick to spear wraps closed, or roll a wrap up tightly and cut into two-inch-long segments, sushi-roll style.
Serve with: berries, snap peas
Variations to try: A rollup is just a wrap made with pre-made pizza dough that gets baked quickly in a hot oven, then cooled—so you can batch-prepare a few days’ worth on Sunday night, in almost any combination of flavors your kids like, such as the classic pizza rollup with tomato sauce and mozzarella, or Mexican-style with black beans, cheddar, and salsa.
Packing tips: Rollups can be noshed room-temperature, or you can heat them up in the morning and pack them in a layer of foil.
Serve with: edamame, grapes
Variations to try: Kids tend to love breakfast for lunch…and dinner and snacks. (Ironic how they never seem to want to eat it at breakfast-time though, right?) Serve up French toast sticks with a hard boiled egg, or spread a whole-grain waffle with nut butter and low-sugar jelly for a cafeteria-covetable update on the classic PB&J.
Packing tips: Include a small dipping cup of maple syrup at your own peril—or better yet, sprinkle a dash of powdered sugar or add a dab of honey.
Serve with: apple slices, yogurt cup
Variations to try: Protein-packed mini-quiches can be baked in advance in your cupcake pan, in endless variations: Try them with broccoli florets, shredded carrots, and cheddar, or with tomato, basil and mozzarella.
Packing tips: Especially if you’re packing for older kids or hyper-busy kindergarteners, it’s wise to stash an extra mini quiche in their lunchbox: No one can eat just one.
Serve with: berries, popcorn, grapes
Variations to try: Melted and crisped in a pan and then cooled and cut into wedges, whole-wheat quesadillas are a smart way to pack veggies and calcium into kids’ lunches. Try them with red and green peppers, shredded carrots, and sliced and pitted black olives.
Packing tips: Some vegetables, while delicious in warm quesadillas, can make a room-temp tortilla surprisingly soggy (looking at you, tomatoes and portabello mushrooms). Stick to firmer veggies.
Serve with: grapes, a small side cup of salsa
Dips and Dunkers
Variations to try: Whole-grain tortillas or pitas cut into wedges, or whole-grain pita chips, sun chips, or tortilla chips make a satisfying and crunchy lunch when paired with hummus or white or black bean dip.
Packing tips: Add a handful of dippable veggies, like carrot sticks, celery, or sliced peppers.
Serve with: a clementine or orange sections
Variations to try: Panko-crusted chicken slices are just as delicious the next day in the lunchbox, especially packed alongside leftover cooked green beans. Same goes for leftover fish sticks.
Packing tips: Keep coated items crispy by packing them separately to protect from moisture, and include tomato sauce for dipping.
Serve with: sliced red peppers to keep the crispy quotient high
Variations to try: Curate your own savory plate of cured meats, olives, cheese, tomato, pickle, and hard boiled eggs.
Packing tips: Lightly pat items with a paper towel first, to remove excess oil and keep the slime factor low.
Serve with: soft pita wedges, grapes
Variations to try: Bake up a batch of your favorite whole-grain quick bread, banana-oat bars, or yogurt bars, slice it up, and get ready for compliments all week.
Packing tips: Energy bars can be heavy on the sugar, so watch the portion sizes, and supplement with nutritious, filling sides.
Serve with: yogurt or cottage cheese cup, berries, popcorn
Variations to try: Cold spaghetti may only be for true aficionados. Instead, try firm-cooked leftover noodles lightly coated in peanut-soy sauce and topped with thin-sliced cucumber and shredded carrot.
Packing tips: Break or cut noodles in half to minimize slurp-induced mess.
Serve with: hard boiled egg, orange slices
Variations to try: Ask kids (who typically have about 15 or 20 minutes to eat lunch) and they’ll most likely tell you that a regular taco is a bit of a handful on a tight lunch schedule, with everything falling out and needing to be put back into place with every bite. Do the deconstructing in advance for a speedy, tasty lunch with more nutritional power—serve cheese cubes, cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers, and tortilla wedges with a bit of black bean dip.
Packing tips: You can also convert a taco into a wrap by spreading black bean dip and a dab of salsa on a tortilla, and rolling it up with veggies and a sprinkle of cheese.
Serve with: crisp carrot sticks or snap peas, sweet berries
Variations to try: Like the lunchbox version of an antipasti plate, the kid version of a cheese plate should be light on the fatty cheeses and heavier on flavor-boosting accompaniments. Pair apple and pear slices with a round of soft cheese and whole wheat crackers, and a handful of nuts or trail mix (if your school isn’t nut-free).
Packing tips: Gouda, mozzarella and swiss are good hard-cheese choices that offer high calcium with lower fat and sodium per nibble.
Serve with: grapes or dried cranberries
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.