11 Quick and Easy School Lunch Ideas That Aren't Sandwiches
The daily grind of slapping together two slices of bread with a nondescript filling can get old pretty fast. We may start back to school with the best of intentions, but packing school lunches can rapidly become a thankless morning ritual.
If your kid comes home from school with barely a bite taken out of their lunch, it may be a clue that it’s time to mix things up. We searched far and wide for inspiring school lunch ideas to keep things exciting after the luster of back-to-school has worn off.
We found a veritable treasure trove of of great ideas in the inspiring Instagram feed of @lunches_by_lindsay, an account run by Lindsay Pruss that features creative lunch ideas that are accessible and simple to execute—and that kids will actually eat. She talked us through some of her favorite quick, easy, and attention-grabbing ideas that will make for a school lunch-packing win.
1. Savory Stuffed Peppers
Those tiny sweet peppers are a colorful, kid-friendly favorite. Pruss makes them the main player in the lunch box, and says this is a great “out of the comfort zone” option for kids that could stand to expand their culinary repertoire. The sweet mini peppers are filled with cream cheese and sprinkled with some Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel seasoning.
Pruss’s pro tip: For more adventurous palates, fill these with tuna salad, egg salad, or even hummus.
2. Quirky quesadillas
Quesadillas are super quick to make, can be stuffed with all sorts of surprises, and their crispy edges make them satisfying to bite into between classes. In our family we like to stuff them with spinach or beans, but Pruss says there is no reason to stick with the old standbys. Classic cheese is a surefire bet for picky eaters, but if you want to mix it up she recommends getting creative with combos like apple and honey, pizza toppings, or leftover chicken with a little bit of taco-style seasoning.
Pruss’s pro tip: When in doubt, throw in a cute note or drawing to make your kids' day.
3. Breakfast for lunch
Breakfast isn’t just the most important meal of the day, it’s also the yummiest, which is why we are strong proponents of breakfast for dinner—and for lunch and snacks, but who is counting, really? The best breakfast of all? Pancakes and bacon, with a liberal pour of syrup. The only way to make that meal better? Put it on a stick! “Food on a stick is always more fun,” says Pruss. We agree.
This is a great Monday lunch, using leftover silver dollar pancakes from Sunday breakfast. Don’t forget the maple syrup for dipping—just be sure to put it in a well-sealed container.
4. Dumpling day
Whether they are leftovers from last night’s dinner, or you have a frozen bag sitting in the freezer, pierogies, wontons, samosas, and potstickers travel well and make for a fun, quick-to-eat lunch that’s way more exciting than a turkey sandwich. They serve up great at room temperature and pair perfectly with a yummy dipping sauce or with just a handful of veggies, if you’re in a rush. And for kids that complain they “don’t have enough time to eat,” these are a fun finger food that can be eaten quickly while catching up on schoolyard gossip.
Pruss’s pro tip: Pack these cold or at room temperature. Also, be sure to line the compartment of their bento box with a paper napkin to absorb condensation.
5. Leftover pizza bites
A soggy, leftover slice may have felt like a good breakfast option back when you were in high school or college, but for a little kid popping open their lunch box, it can feel pretty uninspired. Pruss has a simple tip for changing up last night’s pizza to make it more appealing: Transform it into pizza bites. Just cut last night's pizza into small squares and suddenly your quick weeknight dinner has turned into a breezy lunch prep idea that kids will devour.
Pruss’s pro tip: Pack a fun little fork with these pizza bites. “Eating is less messy and so much more fun!” says Pruss.
6. Chicken and waffles
It’s school lunch, soul food style. Who doesn't love chicken and waffles? Just skewer them up for a lunch that’s filling and fun. Be sure to get a well-sealed dipping container for the maple syrup.
Pruss’s pro tip: To make sure everything stays crispy, be sure to let waffles and chicken cool separately before putting them on the skewer and packing in the bento box.
7. Pasta dippers
Pasta salad is kinda boring (especially from a kid’s perspective). We love Pruss's tapas-style idea for turning leftover pasta into a dipper-style lunch. Pruss likes using bow tie pasta, for a fun look, and recommends having kids help out by letting them skewer the pasta and any other additions they’d like, like pepperoni, peppers, olives, and mozzarella balls, in different patterns.
Pruss’s pro tip: Keep pasta from sticking by running it under cold water before assembling the skewers.
8. DIY Lunchables
Healthier than store bought, and just as easy! The sky is the limit on this customizable spin on an old favorite. Just get your child’s favorite deli meat (pepperoni is a perfect size, but you can also cut ham, turkey, or vegan lunch meats down to fit).Then make it fun by cutting any cheese they like into a fun shape. We love Pruss’s idea of getting kids involved with the prep of this lunch.
Pruss’s pro tip: Store the crackers in a separate snack bag or a well-sealed container. The meats and cheeses will naturally let off a bit of moisture, so storing crackers separately will help to keep them crisp.
9. Wrap it up
It’s time to think outside the bun. Wraps are basically a sandwich in disguise. When cut up into smaller pinwheels and served up in a bento box, they transform traditional sandwich components into a fun and easy-to-eat option. Spreads like mayonnaise or mustard, and non-traditional ideas like hummus or guacamole, help the wraps stay rolled up throughout the day, without the need for picks.
Pruss’s pro tip: Shredded cheese makes for an easier roll up than sliced cheeses.
10. Fried favorites
There is nothing wrong with chicken nuggets or fish sticks. Both taste great at room temperature, they pair well with crunchy lunch box veggies, and kids love them. As many of us who contemplated formula feeding our infants were told: “fed is best” and that’s a philosophy to stand by if you have picky eaters.
While we do love a good Pinterest feed, filled with sophisticated school lunch ideas that photograph well, if you are crunched for time and inspiration (or if you have an elementary school kid who eats like a typical kid), these fried (or air fried) favorites are sure to get consumed and may grant you legend status at the lunch table.
Pruss’s pro tip: Chicken nuggets are A-OK once in a while. If you’re feeling guilty about sending your kids off with fried food, toss in a few veggies in some fun shapes.
11. Pesto pinwheels
Fun, delicious, and simple to make, these pesto pinwheels are a go-to for Pruss since her kids gobble them up. Simply take a roll of Pillsbury crescent rolls, unroll it flat and seal all the perforated edges to form one large sheet of dough. Spread with your favorite toppings combo like pesto and shredded cheese, or tapenade and cream cheese. Using a pizza wheel, cut into 2-inch strips, then roll and cook as directed on the dough package. Cool completely before packing in the bento box.
Pruss’s pro tip: Mix up your pesto options. Pruss recommends using a basil pesto for one half of the rolls and a sun dried tomato pesto for the other.