With back to school looming on the horizon – or already here for many families – it’s time to start getting back into a routine. And for many of us, that routine includes chaotic mornings of missing socks, unsigned permission slips, spilled breakfast cereal, and frantic scrambling to get school lunch packed before the bus comes.
Of course, getting a school lunch made is one thing, getting your kids to eat it without you there to offer some gentle coaxing (or frustrated nagging) is another thing altogether. In fact, nothing drives me crazier than opening a lunch box the next day to find a half eaten lunch. Not only does it feel like a waste money, but it feels like a waste of time. That’s why, like most parents, I’m constantly in search of fast, easy, affordable school lunch options that my kids will actually like.
Last year, we brought you five of our favorite Healthy School Lunch Ideas and we can honestly say that these favorites have stood the test of time. However, you can never have too many ideas, especially when it comes to convenient school lunches. So this year, we’re back with five more fun and creative lunch ideas that will not only save you time and money but make your kids happy every time the lunch bell rings.
To pick our favorites, we scoured some of our favorite family blogs and recipe sites. To choose the final five, we made sure that our picks offered:
- Inexpensive, easy-to-find ingredients (most of which are probably in your pantry now!)
- Fast assembly/cook times
- Options to make ahead and/or freeze
- Unique, kid-friendly features that will make lunchtime fun and delicious
- Good ideas for kids of all ages, from toddlers to teens
This year’s winners are sure to delight kids and parents alike. In fact, we won’t be surprised if some of these lunch ideas turn up in your own lunchbox, as well!
With school starting on Tuesday for most Richmond area families, now is the perfect time to start prepping for a great first week back. Get your shopping done this weekend and have some of these tasty treats ready to go for an easy, or at least easier, morning routine this school year.
Make ahead option: Yes
Time: 5-10 minutes
This fun lunch idea comes to us via the Lunchbox Dad. Using simple ingredients like corn chips, meat, cheese, sour cream, and fresh veggies, your kid can have nachos on the go. All you have to do is separate your toppings into a bento box, divided reusable plastic container, or small individual containers and voila! Your job is done. Your kids do the rest when they get to school and have fun “building” their own nacho feast.
Why we love it: Not only is this recipe insanely easy, it’s a great way to combine dinner prep the night before with lunch prep in the morning. If you’re serving tacos for dinner, just set aside some of the ingredients and you’ll have DIY nachos ready to go in the morning. Or prepare ahead when you shop and grab some individual salsa or guacamole packs (found in the refrigerated produce section of many grocery stores). Another feature that makes this recipe a Richmond Mom favorite is the versatility. Not only can you mix and match toppings, but you can get your kids to help by letting them can load up their own containers with the ingredients they know they’ll eat. However you choose to put your DIY Nachos together, your kids are going love making them almost as much as they love eating them.
For dietary concerns: Customize your “nacho bar” with ingredients that meet your kids’ dietary needs.
Make ahead option: Yes
Time: 15 minutes to prep, about 18-20 to bake
If you asked people in my house, “Who loves Hot Pockets?” I have to admit that my hand would be one of the first ones up. I don’t know what it is about those little handheld treats, but I may not have survived college without them. Of course, these days, I do my best to stay away from overly processed items – for myself and my family. That’s why Homemade Hot Pockets are a hit in this house. Not only are they easy to make, but they can be made ahead of time and frozen for quick, last-minute lunch assembly.
Why we love them: When it comes to flavor combinations, homemade hot pockets are a picky eater’s best friend – or rather, a picky eater’s parent’s best friend. With this recipe from Delish, all you need is some store-bought pie crust (or if you’re feeling ambitious, make your own), and fillings. For this recipe, we’ve gone with a classic comfort food – chicken pot pie. But for pizza lovers, you can load them up with pizza sauce, pepperoni, and cheese. For veggie lovers, fill them with veggies and cheese. The possibilities are endless. Best of all, you can make a batch on Sunday night, put them in the freezer, and have them ready to go during the week. Just wrap a frozen pocket in a towel and reheat in the microwave from frozen for about 60 seconds, pop it a lunchbox with some carrot sticks and apple slices and you’re good to go.
For dietary concerns: Switch out pie crust for gluten-free pizza dough or biscuit dough and/or use vegan cheese substitutes, non-dairy sauces, and other “everyday” items that meet your kids’ needs.
Make ahead option: Sure, but they’re so quick, you won’t need to!
Time: Less than 5 minutes
For those of us with kids who have constantly changing palates, predictability can be nice. I had one child who seemed to have a new “favorite food” every other day (making everything on my weekly shopping list obsolete within a matter of hours), and another who ate a PB&J sandwich for lunch nearly every day for 12 years. But, while I loved the ease of knowing what to make Child 2 every day, even I got bored with it. That’s why we love recipes that add a fun twist to an old classic. Not only are these PB&J Banana Burritos (compliments of Mission Menus) easy to make, but they’re something just different enough to keep kids interested – and they let you have a little fun, too.
Why we love them: For a fast simple lunch that requires no extra work on your part and absolutely no planning (considering you’ve most likely got everything you need sitting in your pantry as we speak), PB&J Banana Burritos take the prize. You can even get creative and switch out ingredients. For example, substitute honey for jelly, use cream cheese or hummus and cucumbers sliced lenghtwise instead of PB&J and banana, use rolled up turkey with cheese and other favorites toppings, and so on. Just have fun with it!
For dietary concerns: If you have concerns about gluten or nut allergies, swap out the flour tortillas for a gluten-free wrap and/or use sunflower butter or another non-allergy causing substitute.
Make ahead option: Yes
Time: 5-10 minutes (or more if you’re making your own dough/sauce) to assemble, 12-15 minutes to bake
What kid doesn’t love pizza? But what parent wants to make it first thing in the morning? No parent ever. That’s who. And while, sure, there are plenty of store-bought pizza options out there, we’re looking for healthier, cheaper options. And these cheesy pizza pinwheels are the perfect solution. Brought to you by Emma Christensen at Kitchn, they call for store-bought (or homemade) pizza dough, sauce, and your choice of toppings. Make them with pepperoni, veggies, or whatever your kids like. Then just store them in the fridge, throw them in lunch boxes the night before or in the morning, and you’re good to go.
Why we love them: My kids would eat pizza every day given the choice. And I’ll admit, on the occasions that I’m not up for cooking or too many after school activities require pizza delivery, I’m not above grabbing a leftover slice or two for lunches the following day. But I always feel a little bad about it, I have to admit. These pizza pinwheels are perfect for alleviating that guilt and giving your kids a lunch they’ll love. They’re easy to make and only take about 12-15 minutes to bake. Make them the night before for a quick morning lunch assembly, or if you’re up and have the time, make them fresh and save the rest for after-school snacks or even dinner!
For dietary concerns: Substitute ingredients or use gluten-free options as needed to meet your kids’ needs.
Make ahead option: Yes
Time: 5-10 minutes to assemble, 25 minutes to bake
Leftovers are at the heart of this creative lunchbox idea brought you by Kristi from I Should Be Mopping The Floor. If you’ve got some leftover mac n’ cheese, homemade or from a box (we don’t judge), then you’ve pretty got what you need to make this fun, handheld lunch. Best of all, you can make them ahead of time for quick morning lunchbox packing or make a double batch to save for lunches, after-school snacks, AND dinner on a busy night.
Why we love them: When it comes to feeding kids, flexibility is the name of the game. This recipe calls for ham to give it a little extra protein-packed punch, but for flexibility, feel free to substitute add-ins according to your kids’ palates. And because mac n’ cheese muffins are handheld, you won’t have to worry about utensils – a fact that matters if you’ve lost as many forks and spoons to lunch box carelessness as I have over the years. Plus, you can make them in mini-muffin pans for your little guys or use a full-size muffin pan for larger appetites, the choice is yours. Then simply pair them with some fresh fruit and veggies, and you’ve got a lunch that kids will love regardless of their age.
For dietary concerns: Make mac n’ cheese as you normally would to meet your kids’ dietary needs.
Do you have a tried and true school lunch favorite? If so, feel free to share! We would love to hear about it anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org! In the meantime, be sure to check out all of our Richmond area favorites with our complete Best of Richmond series.