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. 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!!

  2. 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

  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 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 😉

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