By the time your kids get to middle and high school, their tastes are changing, they are feeling very independent, and they have a lot of opinions.
That goes double for their taste in lunch.
The days of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on squishy white bread and a bag of baby carrots are long gone (unless that’s what they are craving). Instead, variety is the name of the game, with mix-and-match options keeping things fresh on the lunch front.
If packing an insulated container is no problem, then last night’s dinner can always be the next day’s lunch. Baked pastas and casseroles, soups and stews, frittatas and more can easily be repackaged for those who love leftovers.
But if make-ahead, no-cook, room-temperature foods are the kind of easy that appeals to you and your food-loving kids, read on. The following recommendations for building school lunches are all simple enough for your kids to make on their own — and so good that you might want to steal some ideas for yourself.
The advanced edition: Hand the following options to your kids and have them make their own lunches.
So much more than a sandwich
Wraps and tortillas are just the beginning when it comes to sandwich options that aren’t plain old bread. If the usual slices or pinwheels aren’t cutting it anymore, swap them out for a new flavor and texture.
Bagels (mini or full-size), pretzel rolls, naan, English muffins, croissants and frozen waffles are a few fun ways to switch up the way your kids make a sandwich.
Choose a filling, such as turkey and cheese; sliced hard-boiled eggs and greens; leftover grilled chicken; or vegetable options like falafel, smashed avocado and feta, leftover eggplant parmesan or chickpea-based “chicken” salad.
And don’t stick to plain mayo — use spreads to bring more flavor to the party. Try:
Flavored cream cheeses
Tahini, which is made from sesame seeds, not nuts
Tapenade or other salty, tangy vegetable spreads like muffuletta relish or giardiniera
Pesto, whether basil- or sun-dried tomato-based
Soft and spreadable cheese like goat cheese or mascarpone
Creamy salad dressings and dips like jalapeño ranch or blue cheese
If your kids don’t want bread at all? Make sliced cheese and cold cut roll-ups (or substitute plant-based meats), or thread cubes of cheese and vegetables onto skewers. Add a container of dipping sauce like the above suggestions, or go with tried-and-true ranch, hummus or mustard.
Go-to grain and noodle bowls
Grain bowls aren’t just for the adults looking for a quick and healthy option on their lunch hour. Their customizable format makes them ideal for any level of picky teenager.
Bases like brown rice, quinoa, couscous, farro or other ancient grains are all great at room temperature, as are whole-grain noodle options like soba or ramen. As for toppings, there’s a choice for every day of the week and more, like:
Burrito bowl with pinto beans or rotisserie chicken, salsa, shredded cheese, guacamole and whole-wheat chips on the side
Vegetarian poke bowl with edamame, matchstick carrots, sliced radish, avocado, sprouts and sunflower seeds — tofu optional
Greek salad bowl with rotisserie chicken, feta, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers
Caprese bowl with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella balls, thinly sliced bell peppers and arugula
Cobb salad bowl with romaine, sliced turkey, blue cheese, hard-boiled eggs, cherry tomatoes and avocado
Cold ramen bowl with mushrooms, corn, broccoli or cauliflower, sugar snap peas and toasted sesame seeds or nori sheets
Just be aware of your school’s nut restrictions when making your bowls, in case nuts or sesame seeds are out of the question.
Sweet smoothie bowls
On the sweet side, if your kids are smoothie fans, it’s a quick transition from the blender to the bowl for a protein- and energy-rich lunch that still tastes like a treat.
Make a smoothie bowl base using Greek yogurt or a banana for protein and fiber, then freeze in a lunch-ready container. In the morning, top the frozen smoothie bowl with more frozen fruit or chopped fresh fruit. Keep other toppings like shredded coconut, seeds like chia or flax, or granola in separate containers so they’ll stay crunchy.
The smoothie base and extra frozen fruit will thaw by lunch and will be ready to top with all the accoutrements.
Or just snack for lunch
Maybe bringing a wooden cutting board to school and assembling a grazing platter at lunch is a bit much. But the idea of a snack or “meze” platter can still translate to a quick lunchtime situation when all the components are packed into a bento box carrier.
Fill the box compartments with a selection of the following or add in your own favorite snacking board elements.
Pre-wrapped cheese: string cheese, cheese sticks or tiny cheese rounds
Crackers, pretzels and veggie snacks
Dried fruit like apricots and cherries, or fresh fruit like clementines, grapes or berries
Yogurt- or chocolate-covered pretzels
Crunchy chickpeas or other veggie snacks
With so many school lunch choices, the sad bagged lunch will be a thing of the past.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.