Kids Week: Ideas for Packing a Lunch

We get a LOT of requests for school lunch ideas. Sara and I have been planning Kids Week for quite awhile now and the plan was always for me to do this post, mostly because I’m the one who has to pack lunch for a kiddo every day. Okay, not every day; maybe 50% of the time. Our mornings are so rushed and crazy and school lunch is super convenient that the option of him eating in the cafeteria is super convenient. But there are just some things like turnip greens and Great Northern beans with ham pieces that I think us non-native Southerners can’t properly appreciate. Scratch that, I don’t think anyone can truly appreciate the phrase “ham pieces.”

However. As an active participant of the blogosphere, in the last few weeks, I’ve started seeing what other people were posting for their packed lunch posts and I started feeling WILDLY insecure. Like…there are entire blogs dedicated to cute sandwiches and amazing Bento boxes. I called Sara and told her I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this post and she talked me down from my crazy ledge, reminding me that part of what our blog is all about is being realistic and accessible. So I started putting this post together and realized that we have a ton of ideas for packed lunches–like…we may be breaking a record for the number of pictures in a single post. We may not have the perfect sandwich replicas of Hello Kitty and Charlie and Lola that I WISH I had the time/energy/patience/talent for, but, all in all, a major self-esteem crisis has been averted.
For the most part, I’m going to go through these ideas by concept rather than complete meals so you can kind of pick and choose what tips, ideas, and recipes work for you and your family rather than trying to completely re-create a meal, you know?
One quick disclaimer–I’m using a lot of specific brands in this post and they are 100% not advertisements. These are products that I truly love and stand behind and am not being compensated in any way for using them on our blog.
Tips and Tools

Everybody knows their kids best and knows what and how their kids will eat. That being said, it seems like most kids like food that is presented in a fun way, food on a stick, and food that can be dipped. Okay, who am I kidding, most adults like the same things! I’ll come back to food that can be dipped later on, but let’s talk about food being fun. One of my favorite super easy ways to make food fun is using cookie cutters to cut sandwiches:

You can use large cookie cutters to cut out an entire sandwich or you can use smaller ones to make finger sandwiches. You can also use cookie cutters to cut out tortillas for cinnamon chips (more about those later, too).

Kids also love food on a stick, but I’m always a little reluctant to use bamboo skewers because they’re so sharp and can be splintery. Enter these beauties:

I’ve been able to find these over by the toothpicks and matches at the grocery store and they cost a little more than a dollar for 35, PLUS you can wash and re-use them. Plus, your kids can be convinced that they may have magical powers. Try skewering cubes of turkey or ham with whole olives and your kids’ favorite veggies.

Am I the only one who wonders why my kids have to eat so much? I swear to you all that I feel like parenting would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to feed my children. Sometimes I feel like between 4 people on different schedules and routines, 3 meals a day, 3 snacks, and food blogging, I never make it out of the kitchen. Lately when I make lunch for my son in the morning, I go ahead and pack a lunch for myself and my daughter to eat later. It’s one less thing to worry about later on in the day and one less time I wonder if I can just set food out for my kids in the morning like I do for the cat.

Containers

My kiddos each have their super-cool insulated lunch bags (Transformers and Hello Kitty if you’re curious), so I’m not even going to go there–everyone knows how to find lunch bags because their kids have a sixth sense that automatically directs them to the backpacks and lunch bags most garishly decorated in cartoon, superhero, and video game characters.

I have tons of snack containers. These are a few:

I’ve gotten almost all of them in the dollar section of Target. Don’t be afraid to mix things up a little–sandwich containers can hold more than sandwiches!

Now…check out these babies:
There’s a big container for the main dish and then a small opening for vegetables or fruit and an even smaller well for something else. Like dip. I love that when you close the lid, each segment closes completely so you don’t have to worry about your salad dressing distributing itself among the rest of your lunch. I think they were $1.99 for two containers and even cheaper at Sam’s Club and they are (to me) worth every penny.

Drink Containers

When my kids and I went to New York in June, they each got one of these drink bottles. And they have officially become my favorite drink container for kids who are too big for a sippy cup but still prone to occasional (or frequent) spillage:


What do I love about them?

–They have rubber bottoms that keep them where you want them.

–They hold enough to quench kids’ thirst, but not so much that they’re going to need to go to the bathroom three times in an hour. Also, it’s small enough that your kid’s water isn’t going to get warm while they’re drinking and then not want to finish it.

–To open the spout, you have to push the button on the side of the lid. That means they’re not going to accidentally leave the spout open (like on a bike bottle) and forget about it (or fall asleep, if they take a bottle of water with them to bed), thus spilling the contents of the bottle everywhere.

–There aren’t a million parts to keep track of, making it super easy to clean. No trapped chocolate milk in a place you can’t reach.

On the other end of the spectrum, I spent about $1 each for a few of these at WalMart:

Inexpensive (read: not the end of the world if it gets lost), perfect for a serving of milk or juice, and they come in a variety of colors.

Sandwiches

Okay, now…when you think of bringing a lunch from home (or “cold lunch” as we called it when I was in elementary school), you usually think sandwiches. And if you’re talking about sandwiches in my house, then sandwiches with crusts on them are not an option. Enter our dinosaur friend (again, bought this guy at Walmart for a buck or two):

It cuts the sandwich into two halves while also cutting off the crusts. Genius, right?
My little girl LOVES anything tiny, including tea sandwiches. Try holding two pieces of bread together (like a sandwich) and using a pair of kitchen shears to trim the crusts off. Then spread each side with softened cream cheese and place some cucumbers (seeded and patted dry) on one side and lightly sprinkling a little dillweed on the other side.

Gently (but firmly) press the sides together and cut them into quarters. Going back to the whole food-on-a-stick thing (plus the whole tiny tea sandwiches thing), I alternated skewering each tiny sandwich with an olive.

I stuck them in one of the Ziploc divided containers with some baby carrots, sugar snap peas, and a little Ranch dressing for dipping the veggies. And took a picture. My 3-year-old daughter SAW the picture and immediately said, “I want to EAT that!” Bingo, right?

Wraps

I love wraps and pinwheel sandwiches for school lunches. To keep them together, you can either skewer them individually with toothpicks (try and find the long ones with the plastic flag thingy on the end so there’s no mistaking the fact that there’s a toothpick in there) or you can use another one of these plastic cocktail stirrers.

For this wrap, I used a tortilla and spread it with a little mayo, a few slices of cheddar cheese, a few slices of turkey, some tomatoes, spinach, and a little Kosher salt and pepper:
I rolled up the tortilla, making sure there was a little mayo around the edge so I could seal the edges, then I cut it into thirds and skewered them to keep them in place.

But seriously, that’s only one of the virtually countless options. Here are some other ideas:

Spreads
*Mayo
* Garlic-Herb Sandwich Spread
*Roasted Garlic Tomato Spread
*Sara’s
*Mustard (yellow, honey, Dijon, coarse-grain)
*Guacamole
*Softened cream cheese (any flavor)
*Your favorite hummus

Veggies
*Lettuce
*Spinach
*Thin slices of red onion
*Sprouts
*Cucumbers
*Avocado (not techincally a vegetable, but, you know…)

Meats
*Deli turkey, chicken, roast beef, or ham slices
*Grilled chicken
*Bacon

Leftovers

Leftovers are a GREAT resource for packed lunches. We had chili the other night and my kiddo loved it so much that I just packed some of that for him in a thermos with some cornbread for the next day. Here are some other leftover meals that make yummy lunches the next day:

Italian Sausage Tortellini Soup


They go great with some leftover breadsticks!

Who doesn’t love cold pizza? You can either send pizza baked in the oven:


Or on the grill:

Speaking of pizza, what about some Stuffed Pizza Rolls in one of those divided Ziploc containers?

These Chicken and Bacon Pastry Pockets are super kid-friendly and taste even better the next day:

When it gets cold, some of this Beef Stew in a Thermos will warm them up and it’s way better for them than the stuff in the can!
Fruits

I love using the small Ziploc containers in the picture above for assorted fruit. If the fruit is a little tart, try mixing some lime juice with a little sugar and drizzling it over the fruit to add a little sweetness and to keep it tasting fresh.

You could also cut up some apple slices and rub them with a quarter of a lemon and then serve them with some peanut butter or marshmallow cream. Or both. Hey, I’m not above a fluffernut apple!

My kids also love eating fruit from a skewer (surprise, right?!) Just use whatever’s in season–strawberries, watermelon (and other melons), blueberries, grapes, etc. Try including a little Caramel Toffee Dip for a surefire bet on them eating their fruit!

If you’re feeling fancy, Fruit Salsa with Cinnamon Chips is both a great way pack some fruit and make your kids feel like they’re getting a sweet treat!

Dips

Like I said, my kids love dipping stuff. In stuff. I’m semi-ashamed to admit that one of them dips his/her chicken nuggets in the caramel from the Apple Dippers at McDonald’s.

Encourage them to dip their veggies or some pita wedges in Tzatziki.

Or you could add some baked tortilla chips to their lunch with a side of Guacamole.
And what kid doesn’t love Ranch?!


They can dip the Breadsticks or Pizza Rolls from earlier in Pizza Sauce:

Or Guiltless Alfredo:

Something Sweet

I don’t like my kids having anything super big and sugary while they’re at school, but I did buy a bag of those Hershey’s Minatures (the little candy bars) and have been slipping 1-2 into his lunches. You could also add a few Hershey’s Kisses, mini candy bars, a cookie, a small brownie, a little bag of Teddy Grahams or cinnamon Goldfish crackers, etc. Just like us adults, it helps them feel like they’re not being deprived of “the good stuff” and I really think it teaches them that it’s okay to have a little treat–like they don’t have to have a giant candy bar.

Hopefully these ideas will make lunchtime a little less overwhelming or tedious and a lot more fun! Happy back to school, everybody!

42 comments

  1. Great ideas! I have two little one's in preschool and they seem to never, ever eat the lunches I make. Thank you for posting this because it gives me some new ideas 🙂 My kids dip their nuggets into the caramel sauce at Mickey D's too 😉

  2. I wish my kids would eat like this. . .on another note, I might use some of these ideas for MY lunch! 🙂

  3. Awesome post! I have to pack lunch 5 days a week for two. I love some of your ideas and I already do some of them. Thanks for the tip about the cups. I am trying to get away from sippy cups but looking for something the daycare will allow. I tries a thermos but they like the kids to have cups with lids.

  4. Great ideas! I never thought of drink stirrers for skewers and I have been shying away from the idea of a pointy stick in my little girl's lunch box. She's not in school yet, but we have to pack for the sitter.

    By the way, my daughter dips her apples in ketchup – so between the two of us we have normal kids! LOL

  5. This is absolutely perfect!! This morning was actually my very first experience with packing a lunch for my little one. Being allergic to nuts the easy PB&J sandwich is off the list and I'm guessing turkey or ham sandwiches will get old fast, so I'm excited to have more options now. Thank you!!

  6. These are great ideas…for me! 🙂 Maybe my hubby will eat more veggies now? lol

    My daughter dips her bell peppers in ketchup. Everything gets dipped in ketchup. And if it wasn't for cute sandwich cut-outs, she'd never eat a sandwich. She's all about presentation. LOL Thanks for the ideas!

  7. How awesome! This makes me wish my son was older and I could pack lunches for him!

    BTW I know the blog your talking about…the one with all the Bentos? It made me sigh as well…we just moved from Hawaii and they sell Bentos at gas stations. I miss them and may start making them for my hubby to take to work! Better than BK right? 🙂

  8. I have this weird fetish with cool cups. The Beard Man is always moaning about how every time he comes home there is a couple new thermos cups, kiddie cups, cool shaped glassware, etc. in the cupboards. So, don't think for a minute that I won't be getting your favorite kiddie cup too! Thanks for the suggestion 🙂

    Oh, we just finished a post about a week ago on lunch ideas for kids (that they will actually eat). I can't wait to browse through all your links. Thanks!

  9. I LOVE the idea of the stir sticks for skewers. I will have to get some.
    I also wanted to share lunch punch. A friend won a set and has since purchased more. I think they are very cool, just need to order my own (I'm thinking the puzzle set and the VrrrM set).

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This is SO what I needed this week as I get to do the lunch packing routine for the first time next week. I am grateful to have new ideas. Thanks, Kate!!

  11. Ooh, I love the stirrers and those cool ziploc containers! My kids love tortilla wraps (except they like cream cheese instead of mayo). Another idea I found when I had to teach this class last year at church was using bread, rolling it flat with a rolling pin, spreading it with cream cheese and sliced fruit or preserves. Or you could use peanut butter and fresh strawberries. Or hummus and veggies. Anyway, then you roll up the whole thing. The flattened bread also works well for salads that I would normally put in a tortilla (the kids can hold the squishy bread together better than the hard tortilla).
    I love all your ideas! Thank you Kate!

  12. Wow, this is great because it can also be adapted for adults who want to save by taking lunch to work, but are tired of salad or ham-n-cheese. Thanks, ladies! 🙂

  13. I don't have kids, but I am saving this post for ideas for my lunch. Thank you for all the wonderful ideas!

  14. Great ideas! Stumbled across your site and have tried about 7 recipes so far and LOVE them all. Wanted to make the stuffed pizza rolls from your post today but the link it invalid. Would love to try those-pretty please fix link! thanks!

  15. I love, Love, LOVE you guys. I don't think I can stress that enough. And you've inspired me! My son started preschool yesterday, and I thought it would be fun (or crazy)to start packing him lunches on the days he goes. He's only gone from 9:30 to 11:30 but then he has a fun lunch surprise to come home to every Tuesday and Thursday. Plus, since he's such an AWFUL eater, maybe I can trick him by making fun things! 🙂 Thanks for the ideas!

  16. Man, you always know what I need to see, hear and eat! My first son who is four year old is starting preppie-k tomorrow and I have to start sending lunches! Thanks for the ideas and inspiration! 🙂 I hope he is excited! 🙂

  17. Wow these are some great ideas… Now if I could only convince the guys to eat it!! Oddly enough I am the ONLY one in my family who likes ranch dip. What type of thermos do you use? I pack 4 lunches a day, 5 days a week. The eldest two are high schoolers who will skip lunch all together rather than eat a school lunch…

    And great northern beans w/ ham pieces is one of the most awesome dishes on the face of the earth. And no I'm not a southerner!! Its a dish my grandma in Nebraska used to make and we still make!!! Its divine!!

  18. Kate! How did you know I was looking for kid's lunch ideas? Until this year my kids were fine with school lunch and now they've decided it's lame. So it's nice to have some new lunches to try. And I have those same ziploc containers!

  19. I really like your skewers idea. I'm going to have to look for some of those! I think the kids would get a kick out of those. Hmmm, just got to thinking though. With all the paranoia throughout the schools, would they consider that to be a weapon?

  20. A question about the Ziploc divided containers: Can a little kid open them by herself without spilling the contents? My kindergartener has a hard time opening containers, and if she raises her hand and waits for a teacher to help her in the cafeteria, she doesn't have any time left to eat! So if I can reduce her lunch to one lid, maybe she'll have more time to eat!

  21. thanks for all the great ideas! and I'm glad to hear that one of my kids isnt the only one to ever dip their nuggets in the caramel apple dip from McD's. I thought it was the strangest thing! haha…the things that kids will try (& won't try, for that matter)

  22. Oh, Kate, I totally get you on the "non-Southerners in the South" thing. Last year my school's lunch calendar listed "Breakfast for Lunch" and I got so excited. I was thinking pancakes, scrambled eggs, maybe even waffles. But it turned out to be biscuits with that thick, heavy, white gravy stuff all over them. Major disappointment 🙁

    1. If you purchase any metallic thermos (take the time to make sure it doesn’t flake inside!) before you put any food/drink inside you want to keep hot fill it with the hottest water you can get and let it sit for 10-15 minutes then dump it out and put whatever food/drink in it you want,it’ll keep it warm for hours!. Same goes if you want to keep anything cold,fill with ice water and let it sit for 10-15 minutes before dumping it out and putting that food/drink in it. (:

  23. Thanks for a great post! I love the way the food looks pretty and mixes in lots of variety. My kids are not “there” yet, but I have hope. 🙂

  24. I love the ideas, I too can use ALL the ideas I can get, I have 8 kids now between the ages of 4 and 12 and I make their lunch everyday!! Making lunch and thinking of ideas to make it not the same everyday is so hard for me. Thanks for all your posts.

  25. the link to the kids water bottles that you recommended no longer works. any other ideas on where to find them? or maybe just the brand name so that i can search for them myself? thanks!

  26. What wonderful ideas! Putting the swizzler sticks on my grocery list! There is something i do that i didnt see mentioned. I buy a box of food coloring markers (in the baking section at walmart) and draw a cute simple picture or write a message on their sandwich. My kids love it! Their lunches are always a hit at their lunchtable. 😉

  27. Thank you so much for sharing, and love blogs when the writer understands..lol I have three children 8,5,4. Two boys, and my four year old little girl. She loves tiny food, lol and the boys are super picky. I am looking for new lunch ideas for my third grader, we save money that way to pack their lunch. Their school district has accounts for kids, and parents can deposit money onto their account. So $40 a month, would be for one of them….no that’s ok..so thank you for sharing! Needed it! God bless all moms

  28. I like using paper cupcake liners and put them into a sandwhich container to separate things like cheese, crackers, ham, and grapes for example!

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