18 Trade-Proof School Lunch Ideas
New (school) year, new (lunch) menu! Rather than sticking to the same ol' squished PB&J sandwiches and ho-hum crackers and cheese, try these easy homemade school lunch recipes that are colorful, flavorful, and packed with a sneaky amount of nutrition. (Shh… we won't tell the picky eaters.) Snag a lunch box — we love this Fit & Fresh Foundry Gaspee Lunch Kit ($22, target.com) — and the affordable ingredients for your favorite lunches and snacks on your next Target run, and prepare to earn an A from your distinguished scholars.
Sponsored By: Target
When in doubt, waffle it out. Your waffle maker is good for much more than breakfast, as this Middle Eastern-inspired recipe proves. Press the chickpea, garlic, and fresh herb blend between the plates to make the easy, non-fried falafel as crispy as their higher-fat rendition. Wrap the the falafel waffle in a paper towel to absorb any excess moisture, and then have your kiddo enjoy at room temp or warmed up in the microwave.
Even when it's not a Tuesday, your scholar will love declaring it a taco day when they have this hearty recipe awaiting them for lunch. Instead of ground beef, this taco recipe is made with high-fiber, just-so-happens-to-be vegan lentils that are spiced nicely with a homemade taco seasoning blend. Pack the lentil mixture in one container, add the toppings to another, then wrap the tortillas in foil.
Now here's a crazy-cute casserole! Rather than building a whole baking dish full of lasagna, try tiny muffin tin-sized "cupcakes" that are the perfect portion for pint-sized diners. Pack one or two, depending on their age and appetite. There's no boiling required since this easy school lunch recipe calls for wonton wrappers to stand in for the pasta. Don't worry, the beef, tomatoes, and cheese (three varieties!) are still invited to the party.
Black Bean and Corn Quesadillas
Almost every kid we know gives cheese and carbs an A+, so they're likely to love this Mexican meal. Black beans, corn and onion make the filling hardy, while brown sugar and a pinch of red pepper flakes lend an appetizing sweet and savory kick that might just inspire you to steal a wedge while you're packing their lunch.
Queenie's Tomato Bagel Sandwich
No list of best school lunch ideas would be complete without a classic sandwich recipe, and this one ups the ante with its bagel base. Since it's filled with cream cheese and veggies instead of meat, you don't have to worry so much about keeping it ice-cold until lunch. Score bonus points by mixing up the vegetables based on what's in season and selecting different cream cheese flavors as the year goes on.
PBJ 'Sushi' Kid's Bento Box
We can guess what you're thinking. "Sushi for kids?!" You bet, when it's constructed with a tortilla, nut butter (like Good & Gather Creamy Cashew Butter; $7, target.com), and jelly — and rolled up and sliced into bite-sized spirals. Pair it with a banana and their dipping sauce of choice to round out the easy, kid-friendly school lunch.
Ready after just 20 minutes of prep — probably less, if your bacon is already crispy — these sandwich wraps will please parents and kids alike. The adults will co-sign on the hefty stack of veggies, while the little ones will cheese for crunchy bacon bits and the cream cheese that holds it all together until lunchtime.
Sublime Oxford Sandwich
Doesn't this sandwich already sound smart?! Nope, it's not named for the shirt your student might wear in the classroom. It actually gets its moniker from where the recipe creator first enjoyed it, Oxford, England. The simple sandwich recipe is like a twist in the classic caprese salad stuffed between slices of whole-grain bread. But instead of mozzarella, it calls for creamy, kid-friendly goat cheese, and enlists crunchy cucumber and bell pepper and sweet fig preserves to join the mix.
Addictive Sweet Potato Burritos
"Addictive" in the healthiest way, these bean- and sweet potato-loaded burritos are not only delicious, but they're completely customizable with your favorite spices and cheeses. What moves them into top-of-the-class territory, though, is the fact that you can make a big batch, freeze, and reheat as desired for a weeks-worth (or more) of school lunches.
Broccoli and Tortellini Salad
Pasta salad gets a main dish makeover in this make-ahead school lunch idea. It offers all the flavors you and your student adore from summer picnics any day of the year, and is essentially a mash-up of the traditional sunflower seed- and raisin-topped broccoli salad and a bacon-laced cheesy pasta dinner. The delicious results are ideal to enjoy at room temp, making school lunch prep a breeze.
Apple Curry Turkey Pita
Here's a bright idea: Toss last night's leftover chicken or turkey with diced apples, onion, lemon juice, and curry powder for a sunny, simple school lunch that's ready in about 20 minutes. Then let your little one choose the "vehicle" to hold this healthy sandwich filling — a pita, naan bread, croissant, or bagel would work wonderfully. For best results, pack the filling separately to ensure it doesn't soak into the bread.
Sure, you could pack cold delivery pizza leftovers or reheated frozen pizza. But why would you, when you're just 30 minutes away from tucking the same kid-friendly slice flavors inside a semi-homemade pinwheel roll? The base recipe calls for pepperoni and marinara, but feel free to customize with chicken and barbecue sauce, sausage and pesto sauce, or whatever topping combination your student likes best. Two to four makes a substantial meal, once you pair them with a vegetable or fruit salad.
Turkey Veggie Meatloaf Cups
Meatloaf is one of our favorite ways to inspire picky eaters into eating more veggies. How could they resist eating them when A) they don't even know the veggies are included, and B) they're delivered in fun palm-sized packages? To make the zucchini, onions, and bell pepper essentially disappear inside the saucy, tasty turkey mix, give them a whirl in a food processor (like this KitchenAid 3 ½-cup Food Chopper; $35, target.com) until coarsely chopped and mixed, but not liquified.
Lunch Box Pita Pockets
Pack them a BYOL (build your own lunch)! Pop lettuce, carrots, and their deli meat of choice in a zip-top bag, pour ranch dressing in a small container, then tuck a pita bread inside foil or plastic wrap. Come noon, your student can get creative, assemble, and enjoy as desired. Dunk or drizzle — there are no rules here, as long as they eat it all for enough energy in the afternoon.
Terrific Turkey Chili
We don't know about you, but chili day was always a popular hot lunch when we were in school. The traditional lunch lady chili recipe was made with beef, but we can't argue with the 875 five-star reviews of this turkey-based blend. Flavor upgrades by way of a packet of taco seasoning, a jar of salsa, and bonus spices and veggies make this recipe way easy yet just as cozy as you remember.
Stars and Flowers
Remarkably simple at its core but sure to put a smile on their face, this bento box lunch idea takes a plain ham and cheese sandwich and turns up the volume on the creativity. All it takes are a couple cookie cutters, and almost instantly, tortillas, deli meat, and cheese get so much more appealing. Pair those stacks with trail mix or a fruit salad, nut butter-stuffed celery, and a vegetable to round out the meal.
Amazing Healthy Dark Chocolate
No school lunch is complete without dessert! These surprisingly-healthy chocolate cups are made with only unsweetened cocoa powder, coconut oil, and maple syrup. That means they just so happen to be vegan, but the kids will never guess they're any different from what they'd snag in the candy aisle at the supermarket.
Inspired by chocolate bark, this healthy dessert recipe packs in a bit of protein (from the Greek yogurt) and can be dressed up differently each time you try it. Make it your own with whatever flavored extracts, nuts, and fruits you and your family enjoy — or to festively match the color scheme of the school!