For many parents, the decision to pack school lunches rather than buy them comes down to a few main factors: cost, health, and convenience. For the cost factor, it’s definitely possible to make packed lunches that are affordable for a range of budgets. And when you pack, you’ll have complete control over the daily menu, which means that you can ensure healthy options. But the convenience question is the real kicker. Mornings are crazy enough without adding school lunch preparation to the mix. School cafeteria lunches are certainly the quickest and most “convenient” way to go. But if you do choose to pack lunches anyway, you may find yourself spending more for pre-packaged or pre-made items that aren’t as healthy as homemade but can be thrown into a lunch box quickly and easily in the midst of the hectic morning routine.
Oh, right. And then there’s the part about making sure that the food you pack will actually get eaten. So, really, all you have to do is find lunches that are inexpensive, easy/fast to make, healthy and, of course, deemed consumable by tiny tyrants who would live off of chicken nuggets if left to their own devices.
Nothing to it, right?
Actually, it’s easier than you think. Here at Richmond Mom, we’ve found five fabulous lunch ideas that will make packing lunches fun, easy and affordable – and because they’re kid-approved, we’re pretty sure your kids will like them as much as we do. The best part? They can all be made in 10 minutes or less using ingredients probably already have on hand!
Our winning school lunches met the following criteria:
- Easy and fast to make/pack
- Inexpensive ingredients
- Kid-friendly flavors and flair
- Healthy ingredients
- Flexibility for gluten- and nut-free alterations
Try these tasty lunch ideas and get the kids involved, too. You might even find that packing lunches is something you – and the kids – start to look forward to even in the midst of school morning mayhem.
Of course, if you have any tried and true lunch ideas that meet our criteria, we would love to hear about them! Send us your recipes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prep Time: 10 minutes / Cooking Time: 3 minutes
Advanced planning needed: Varies
Materials: A sealable glass jar (like a wide mouth Mason jar) or a thermos
I know, I know. Ramen noodles are the sustenance of every college student and the sodium-filled nightmare of every parent. But there’s a reason these little packets of dried noodles have survived as long as they have on the market: 1) they’re so cheap, they’re practically free and 2) we all secretly love them (it’s ok, no judgment here). So when we found this amazing lunchtime idea from One Good Thing by Jillee, we were all over it. This simple recipe uses noodles (rice noodles, soba noodles, or even leftover spaghetti), some veggies, and a bit of bouillon and/or miso paste, all topped with hot water just before eating. Just layer your ingredients in the jar, put some hot water in a thermos, and when it’s time for lunch, all your kiddo has to do is pour the hot water into the jar and enjoy. To make your morning even easier, pre-make the jars with everything but the liquid and store them in the fridge for up to a week. When you’re ready to pack lunches, just grab and go. For little kids, you may want to go ahead and combine everything for them and put it all in a thermos – the noodles will be a bit more cooked when lunch time comes, but the end result will still be delicious!
Why we love it: For whatever reason, kids seem to gravitate towards unhealthy foods first. So whenever we can turn a less-than-healthy meal into something that kids love and parents feel good about, we consider it a win. And while it might not be quite as cheap as a packet of ramen noodles at the store, this easy-to-make soup still uses inexpensive ingredients – and best of all, can be packed with healthy veggies and proteins. For a few variations, we suggest adding some pre-cooked chicken, using a pre-made (low-sodium) broth instead of the bouillon and hot water, and/or using frozen veggies that can thaw between morning and lunchtime. The thing is, you can really play around with this recipe to customize it to your kids’ tastes and dietary needs. Throw in some chopsticks for added flair and make school lunch an adventure.
Prep Time: 10-15 minutes
Advanced planning needed: No
Materials: Plastic or wooden skewers
What’s more fun than a meal on a stick? This twist on the classic kabob takes the “boring” lunch that you make every day and turns it into a festive treat that your kids will love to eat. Simply make your child’s favorite sandwich, then cut it into small squares or use a small cookie cutter to make fun shapes. Alternate layers of sandwich, fruit, cheese and/or veggies on a plastic or wooden skewer (you may want to cut off sharp ends for the smaller kids) and voila! You have a healthy lunch that is not only fun to eat, but looks cool, too. If you’re looking for a little inspiration, you’ll absolutely love all the ideas that One Little Project has to offer. From standard PB&Js to mini- cheeseburger kabobs, lunch is always more fun on a stick!
Why we love it: We love that this lunch doesn’t require any special ingredients or materials outside of a few skewers that you can buy in large packs at the grocery store for next to nothing. But the real deal maker here is that fact that you can use virtually anything to assemble your lunchtime kabobs. Skip the bread and use layers of meat, cheese, veggies, and fruit for gluten-free lunches, or bypass the meat for a veggie option. If your children have any food or dietary restriction based on allergies, just use foods that are safe and they won’t have to miss out on a thing. Be sure to get your kids involved on this one. Even the littlest lunchtime helpers can be part of the fun.
Prep Time: 5-10 minutes
Advanced planning needed: Varies
Materials: Paper or reusable silicone cupcake liners, a shallow rectangular container
I don’t know what it is about Lunchablesâ, but my kids act like they’re the holy grail of all lunchtime treats. And I’ll admit, I’ve bought these pre-packed lunches a time or two in my day to make life a little easier. But every day? That can really add up. For a fraction of the cost and virtually no effort, you can make your own “lunchables” with ingredients that you most likely already have around the house. Using cupcake liners and a reusable plastic container, you can create fun, easy compartmentalized lunches that your kids will love assembling themselves when the lunch bell rings. Use crackers with turkey and cheese, then add in some fruit and/or veggies along with a little sweet treat like mini-marshmallows or chocolate chips. Or do a vegetarian version with your kids’ favorite veggies. You can even put together ingredients for mini-pizzas or make up a box with easy taco toppings and tortillas. Make gluten-free options with mini-rice cakes or rice crackers, or use corn tortillas for taco-themed lunch. Really, just about anything you have in the pantry will do.
Why we love it: Versatility is the name of the game with this fabulous lunch idea. There’s really not much you can’t do, but if you need a little inspiration, we especially love the ideas Cool Mom Eats has come up with on their site. While most of these lunchable options can be made on the spot, some things like pizzas or tacos might require a little bit of extra planning. So think ahead and next time you have spaghetti or tacos, set aside some sauce or a container of seasoned taco meat so that you’re ready to go when the lunchtime assembly begins. For a quick go-to that your kids are sure to love, we predict that DIY Lunchables are going to be a hit time and again.
Prep Time: 5-10 minutes
Advanced Planning Needed: No
Materials Needed: Some plastic wrap or a sushi rolling mat
Like most of our recipes, we’re not asking you to re-invent lunch here, just to re-imagine how you assemble it. And that’s why this recipe is so great – it doesn’t require anything special or any additional costs outside of your normal lunch expenses, but it makes for a fun shake-up of the normal lunchtime routine. Using regular sandwich bread, ordinary fillings and a healthy dose of kid-friendly creativity, this lunch is quick to make and can even be made ahead of time. You’ll absolutely want to include the kids during prep of these delicious roll-ups. They’ll love flattening the bread with a rolling pin and helping you layer their favorite ingredients. While this awesome recipe from One Handed Cooks calls for tuna, you can also use your favorite lunch meats, leftover chicken, just veggies, or even substitute with fruits and a complementary spread. Need a gluten-free option? Use your favorite gluten-free bread, wraps or corn tortillas instead of regular sandwich bread.
Why we love it: I firmly believe that 95% of getting a kid to eat something is how you market it. Think about it – if you can’t get your kid to eat yogurt, all you have to do is throw a cartoon animal on a plastic tube and next thing you know, they can’t get enough. And that’s why we love this idea. It’s fun and unique, but can be packed with all of the wholesome nutrition you want for your kids. They’ll think its cool, especially if you add in some chopsticks, steamed edamame and a fun dipping sauce like ranch or hummus. As an added perk, they’ll look like Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club when she pulled out her fancy bento box full of sushi while the rest of the delinquents ate sandwiches. Sigh. She was the coolest.
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Advanced Planning Needed: No
Materials Needed: A bento-style container or small plastic containers for dips.
While many of us might have a fondue pot that has been sitting in the pantry since we received it as a wedding gift, chances are, it’s rarely, if ever, used. The idea of fondue is fabulous – but it takes a lot of effort, which means that for most grown-ups, it’s a rare treat. That’s why this idea from Power Your Lunchbox has us super excited and comes in at number one on our list. Using your normal lunchtime ingredients, but with a few extra dipping sauces thrown in the mix, you can have a fun, easy “fun”-due lunch ready for your kids in as few as five minutes. Cut up bread (or not), roll up some lunchmeat, throw in some cheeses cubes, veggies, and sliced fruit, then get creative with your dipping sauces. For the fruit, yogurt works well (see the recipe for ideas), use ranch for veggies, meats, and cheeses; or add in some pita and hummus. This idea lends itself to endless creativity for kids and parents alike.
Why we love it: Not only is it easy to involve your kids in making this lunch, it’s also so fantastically affordable because you absolutely won’t need any ingredients other than what you have on hand. Just take your standard sandwich/fruit/starch lunchbox combo and jazz it up a little. Make it vegetarian, make it vegan, or make it gluten-free. You can even add some sweet treats like mini-marshmallows and chocolate or caramel sauce if you’re feeling especially friendly in the morning. Whatever you choose, just know that everyone will love the interactive nature of this kid-friendly take on a grown-up treat.