Three ideas for the bagged lunch (that they will love)

It’s nearly that time of year again, when we round up the water bottles, inspect the thermoses, and sniff the lunch boxes to see if they are deadly or not. Yep, lazy summer lunching on the back patio is giving way to bagged lunches for school days.

Whether you pack a meal for your work day or the kids school lunch, you’re probably always looking for ways to change things up and when you’re facing picky eaters, allergies, or school policies, feeling inspired each time you face an empty lunchbox can become quite challenging.

Here are a few approaches I take to school lunches on those early mornings when I’m waiting for my coffee to kick in and time seems to move twice as fast as usual. All are simple, and as I parent a picky eater, you’ll find my menu choices are appealing to most children.

Love the Leftovers

As the saying goes, panning ahead saves you time in the end, and this is particularly true for leftovers. Preparing a slightly larger meal at dinner time yields 1-2 lunches for the next day.

Invest in a good thermos that little hands can easily open and send your child a ‘main meal’ once or twice a week. My son’s favorites are spaghetti & meatballs, lentil soup, fried rice, and – breakfast! – cold pancakes.

Wrap it Up

Is it just my boys that love nearly anything when it is served in a wrap? Bean & cheese burritos, chicken and rice, and good old sunflower butter with honey – all benefit from the ‘tortilla treatment’. Don’t forget about Pizza Rolls: a whole-wheat flour tortilla, a thin layer of tomato sauce or paste, deli-style pepperoni or shredded chicken, and thinly sliced cheddar. Olives optional.

If your child has a peanut allergy or you attend a school with a no-peanut policy, here are a few options to replace the beloved peanut butter sandwich.

Wraps are a good opportunity to serve a salad. Pack them full of lettuce, sliced cucumber or spinach and watch them disappear.

Serve a Sandwich

One of the best tips for keeping sandwiches healthy is to choose the best possible bread you can. In our home, we have a no-white bread policy for school lunch, and my son knows to not even ask for it. I prefer him to have whole-wheat or whole grain bread with no sugar added, and organic or homemade is always best.

Shredded chicken, cold roast beef, tuna, and ham are all in rotation here, served up with a generous helping of homemade relish.

Tip: If I know lunch contains a hearty sandwich, I avoid serving French Toast or other carbs for breakfast, and instead make a smoothie or eggs.


Fruits & Vegetables– Keep them organic, seasonal, well-washed, and easy for little ones to eat. Once in a while, make their day by as serving multi-coloured fruits and vegetables and packing them all in a ‘rainbow row’.

Smoothies – Shaina had the brilliant idea to serve up Freezer Smoothies for school lunch. It’s a great way to give kids their daily serving of yogurt and fruit.

Cookies & Bars– As much as possible, keep the sugar to a minimum. For a slightly healthier cookie, I like to switch out chocolate chips (my kids favorite) for chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, like in these beloved Honey-Oat Cookies.

Protein – My 2nd graders loves hard boiled eggs and cut up cheese for a special lunch. I love that he’s getting extra protein.

How are you changing up lunches this school year?

Aimée Wimbush-Bourque

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she traded her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters, cloth diapers and a laptop, serving as editor at Simple Bites.

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  1. “Tip: If I know lunch contains a hearty sandwich, I avoid serving French Toast or other carbs for breakfast, and instead make a smoothie or eggs.”

    This is a good one. I do my best to balance not only our weekly meals but our daily ones as well.

  2. Thanks for the tips. My girl doesn’t like sandwiches and she’s allergic to peanuts. She ate a bean and cheese burrito almost every day last year. We will both be happy to try some of your suggestions this fall!

  3. Thanks for these ideas, Aimee! One thing we’ve learned from our peanut-free school experience: it is essential to clearly label your lunches. Anything that looks like peanut butter, but is something else like chickpea, needs to loudly proclaim what it is on the container. We’ve had alternate butter sandwiches removed by diligient lunch helpers – who were fearing peanuts – and very hungry kids after school.

    • If the lunch helpers remove a child’s sandwich, are they provided anything else to eat instead?

      • Robin from Frugal Family Times says:

        Just seeing this comment now – sorry Amanda – at our school the lunch helpers are grade 5 volunteers. They are supposed to offer the kids something from the classroom snack box (it’s healthier, non perishable foods that kids who come to school hungry can take something from.) Because it’s kid leaders, this doesn’t always happen. One day that worked for us, and the other time my dgt was too shy to ask.

  4. Thank you for the good ideas!

  5. Oh, I love this! I hate trying to figure out what to do for lunch.
    I have decided that I actually like cooking and preparing meals.
    What I hate is figuring out what I am going to make. It’s the planning that is super hard and I don’t like it at all! But I need to read more posts like Aimee’s so that I start feeling invigorated! Thanks!

    • Oh, I am SO with you, Gianna! What works for us to sit down with a free printable menu planner on Sunday when going through the grocery store ads and coupons – I just use the “lunch” space for what I’m going to pack for my son’s school lunch. Still a tedious chore, but it’s better than facing that question at 6am every morning! HTH!

  6. Mary Ann says:

    Thanks for including some easy options to peanut butter. My daughter is anaphylactic to peanuts, dairy and eggs, and we’ve found several yummy alternatives to peanut butter. Sure, they might not taste just like “real” peanut butter, but once my husband and I get used to a certain alternative taste, we almost couldn’t remember what peanut butter tastes like in the first place! And I second the comment from Robin at Frugal Family Times — labeling anything that looks like peanut butter also helps food allergy parents at playdates, parties, etc.

  7. Aside from the anxiety the thought of making school lunches again brings me, I’m glad I read these. Good ideas.

  8. Great post of ideas for sure! I make a lot of freezer meals and snacks. That way I can just grab and go in the morning. One of my favorites for the freezer are PB & J’s. My kids love them and the sandwiches are defrosted and ready to eat by lunch.

    • WOAH! You just blew my mind. It never occured to me to prepare a few days’ worth of PB&J sandwiches ahead of time and freeze them for lunches. No more daily sandwich making every morning. Thank you!!

  9. Thanks so much for these great tips/ideas. I was just telling my husband last night that we need to start brainstorming lunch ideas for our little man who will be starting an all-day 4k in a week 1/2. This post couldn’t have come at a better time!

  10. Question! Do the left over meals or mini pizzas stay warm? Our kids aren’t allowed to use the microwave and I wondered how it would taste!

  11. my kids love a small container of yogurt with another container of fresh granola they can mix in at lunch. Great alternative to sandwiches each day. I also pack fruit they can either eat or sprinkle in as well!

  12. You drew me in when you said that you parent a picky eater, then you lost me 3 sentences later when you suggested lentil soup. Your picky eater must not be all that picky. Mine won’t even eat a sandwich.

    There are some interesting thinking-outside-the-box ideas, and I think the point that rings out for me is the general idea of providing your child with the foods you know he/she likes; i.e., if he likes melted cheese toast, find a way to pack it up, if she likes soup put it in a thermos–not to get stuck on mainstream lunchbox ideas.

    I really like the idea to arrange the fruit in a rainbow. Cut-up veggies with a favorite dipping sauce would be good, too.

    For my picky eater who doesn’t eat sandwiches, I sometimes take two tortillas and melt cheese on them in the toaster oven, toss some ham or chicken on one side, slap one cheesy tortilla on top of the other, and call it a quesadilla. The cucumber must be served separately, never in a sandwich for this one.

    May I suggest people consider those new/old-fashioned cloth sandwich wrappers rather than going out to buy new plastic containers? I think we all need to consider alternative packaging, too.

  13. Great tips. Our latest craze is simply slicing cucumbers and sprinkling salt over. My oldest son loves apples and cheese together. The kids love crackers with pb and banana slices anytime. Smoothies are a hit, always – my son needs extra protein so banana cashew smoothies have been a hit in the past (soak cashews for a few hours first and the texture isn’t grainy at all). Just made hearty whoe wheat blueberry banana muffins with some chocolate savings thrown in last night. Yum!

  14. Thank you SO much for the frozen smoothie idea!! My daughter is very excited to take one in her lunch box and so am I!

  15. MMMM, these recipes look great can’t wait to try them out on my 2 year old. He just started daycare. Thanks a bunch.

  16. I pack 2-3 lunches a week, and at least one is onigiri. They make up hot from the rice cooker in about 5 minutes, I wrap them in dried seaweed and wrap the whole thing in saran wrap, and by lunchtime, it’s perfect. Some people put fish, vegetables, or pickles in the middle, but I sprinkle “yukari” or “furikake” from the Asian Market in with the rice before I pack it. The seaweed is salty enough for flavor and it counts as a green vegetable.
    This year I’m getting my 7-year-olds in on making sandwiches, but I’m not ready to let them to go to town with squishy rice on my carpeted kitchen yet.

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