Whether at home, at school, or somewhere in between, these ideas will help you — and your kids — make and enjoy their midday meal.

By Amy Barnes
September 30, 2020
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Mother and daughter packing lunch.
Credit: RuslanDashinsky/Getty Images

This fall in school buildings and homes nationwide, lunchtime takes on a new focus with pandemic constraints. Schools may request students bring paper bag lunches and disposable meal items. Colleges cafeterias are often take-out only, and kids doing full online learning are eating lunch at home. All of these changes mean lunch options have changed as well.

With schedules and school disrupted by the pandemic, finding some kind of normal lunch routine may be challenging. Involving kids in the preparation and planning can be one way to make things feel more consistent. Consider having them help make recipes like sourdough bread, or use lunch prep as a way to teach math and reading skills through recipes.

Lunches don't have to be difficult for parents or repetitive for kids. Bored with plain sandwiches? Try making home version of fast and fast casual favorites or serve breakfast for lunch. Have muffin tins and wafflemakers do double duty. Don't forget adults eating from home when lunch planning. Remember that leftovers are your friends; yesterday's pot roast is today's hot sandwich and cold pizza can be a lifesaver on busy days.

However you lunch during the pandemic, thinking inside and outside of the familiar lunch box is key. Involving students in the process of making and choosing lunchtime meals can make lunch fun and flavorful.

Going Back to the Sack Lunch

Cute, insulated lunch bags may not be on the school supply shopping list this year, as some schools are asking students to bring in lunches in disposable packaging. Adjusting menu items to fit can include sandwiches with nut butters, pre-packaged chips, fruit, and desserts like cookies.

Stock up on old-time brown paper sacks, and decorate them fun stickers and doodles. Buying packaged snacks in bulk from warehouse stores like Sam's Club and Costco can help make mornings easier when packing lunches, too.

Take on the Sandwich

The lunchbox sandwich may get a bad rap, but you can introduce wraps and new takes on old favorites for at-home or at-school options. Take the traditional grilled cheese, and explore alternatives and tips in our grilled cheese collection, with everything from an Italian option to a Madame Cristo.

Try a meaty French Dip, or go with veggies in this California Veggie Sandwich. Serve up sandwiches with one of these homemade potato chips or your kid's favorite prepackaged chips.

Copycat Fast and Fast Casual Food Options

Students learning online at home may get bored with the same sandwich every day. Try introducing fast food at home with easy recipes for chicken nuggets, corn dogs, French fries and hamburgers that you can prepare ahead and serve up school lunch style. Pick up some of these at-home lunch trays, and turn your kitchen into a school lunch cafeteria (minus the mystery meat.) These great copycat options for things like Copycat Broccoli Cheddar Soup, a crispy Copycat Fried Chicken Sandwich, and for a fun dessert, this Clone of a Cinnabon recipe, make homemade feel a little more special.

Roll With Rice and Noodle Bowls

A quick way to get lunch on the table or in packed containers is to create rice or noodle bowls. Once a week, prepare a batch of rice, spaghetti, or ramen noodles. Then, set out fun mix-in options like sliced boiled eggs, pre-cooked ground beef or chicken, steamed veggies, and crunchy toppers like raw veggies or nuts and seeds. Kids can add their favorites to make customized rice bowls to eat at home or school. Check out these rice and noodle bowl recipes to find new combinations. It's a great way to use up leftovers, too.

Getting Pizza With It

Perennial lunchtime favorite, pizza, can turn into a fun pandemic school lunch. From a Mummy Pizza to an easy four-ingredient Fast English Muffin Pizza, pizza can be a quick and easy option to pack or eat at home. Add a pizza stone to your kitchen gadgets and even frozen pizzas or pizza bites will taste great at home, at noon.

Breakfast for Lunch

Being at home for school may make it seem like the days blur together. Take that a step further and serve up breakfast for lunch. From simple scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage to breakfast sandwiches, the protein content is also great as brain food.

Bring out the waffle maker for waffles and savory sandwich options like this Make-Ahead BLT Waffle Sandwich. Quesadillas also get the breakfast treatment in this yummy Ham, Egg, and Cheese Quesadilla.

Muffin Tin Meal Options

When lunch moves home with online learning, add some adventure with muffin tin meals. Fill each muffin spot in the tin with a variety of options: diced ham or turkey, cheese cubes, fresh fruit, crackers, bacon bits, lettuce shreds, cookies, dipping sauces, and dressings. Kids can pick and choose what to eat with easy clean-up. For fun, easy-to-eat recipes, try making Spaghetti and Meatball Muffin Bites or Lasagna Cupcakes.

Pandemic Packed Lunches for Grown-ups

While you might nibble off your kids' lunch plates, adults working from home also need a great midday meal. Don't forget yourself as you prepare your kids' lunches.

A quick option can be a "peasant plate" with crackers, cheese, diced meat, and fruit, but you can also prepare more adult options. Try adding sandwiches with a little more spice to your lunch options like this Real N'Awlins Muffeletta, or make your own sushi.

Salads in a jar are another option that you can prep ahead and eat while helping your students/kids with their online homework. Try making a batch of warming zuppa toscana soup or zesty quinoa salad. Don't forget to take advantage of meal subscription services for easy prep. You can cook in the same amount of time it would take you to do takeout, and it's fresh when you're ready to eat. Plus, while you don't have to share, your student may find a new favorite, too.

Days of The Week Lunches

Make every lunch day a celebration by focusing on daily themed lunches. Bright Blue Monday Cake can help start the week of learning out on the right cake. Make tacos on Tuesday, or try a warm slow cooker taco soup. For Wacky Wednesday, try making a wacky cake that defies traditional recipes and is great for pandemic lunches with no milk or eggs. Turn Thursday into Thirst-day with a great chocolate milkshake.

Finish up the week with a little ooh la la on French Friday with French fries, madeleines or Vanilla Crepes. Beyond the days of the week, consider doing themed days centered around a tea party half birthday, or calendar events like Ice Cream Day.