Paninis are obviously members of the sandwich family, but they have an especially important feature that keeps them interesting and, more importantly, intact until lunch: their crunch factor. Paninis are kind of like a little magic trick at our house. In addition to being less squishable on the outside, paninis make my kids seem to tolerate random ingredients getting all squished up and melted on the inside. I often will tuck some leftover roasted zucchini or other veggies inside for super veg factor! You can keep paninis simple with a grilled cheese and tomato option or any other taste treat: baked tofu and pesto, cream cheese and olive, hummus and veggies, etc.
Especially as the weather gets colder, opening up a thermos of yummy soup can be so comforting and energizing at lunch. And the possibilities are endless: noodle, veggie, miso, etc. There are several BPA-options for thermoses; we like this insulated, leakproof version. Pack along some yummy crackers or bread for dipping, and your child will be the envy of all at her lunch table.
3. Grain salad
A lot of packed lunches are refined-carb heavy, but making a grain salad is a simple and nutritious way to mix up your child’s main dish. Start with a favorite grain (or a mix of grains), whether it be rice or barley, then add nuts, various proteins, chopped fruit or raisins. Pour on a little vinaigrette or even toss with a favorite sauce. I’m all for letting kids come up with their own concoctions: rice and chickpeas with barbecue sauce? Why not? Grain salads are also good time savers because they can be made and packed the night or day before.
4. Bumped up leftovers
This may seem like a no-brainer, but making delicious, kid-friendly dinners are the best and easiest way to create great lunches — as evidenced by all of the lunch ideas highlighted in this post. It’s super smart to double recipes that you know are family favorites and that keep for a few days. Yet even the yummiest dinner could use some extra pizzaz to keep kids hungry for it the next day. Add some punch to an old dish by tossing some veggies and tofu in with leftover rice to make a stirfry. I like to toss leftover pasta into a pyrex with veggies, tomato sauce, and vegan cheese and then bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes. Another filling option: make some extra rice or quinoa, mix with beans and a little sauce and stuff into bell peppers, then bake at 350 for about 20 minutes.
5. International inspirations
One of my favorite things to do when I pick my son up from school is to peek at what his little buddies have packed in their lunches. His school boasts students with lots of different cultural backgrounds, and this is evident at lunch. Homemade dumplings and sushi seem to be common lunch fare, with yummy rice and beans, samosas, and even congee also acting as tasty main dishes. You can try making some of these dishes, like dumplings, as a family activity, especially if your kids have an interest in helping you cook. Tamer tastes in your family? Try a classic British sandwich of cucumber and cream cheese.
6. Bring Your Own Veggie Burger Bar
Burgers and hot dogs may be standard cafeteria fare, but give your child the opportunity to create his own burger, and she won’t miss out on the unhealthy versions. A search on the internet yields hundreds of veggie burger recipes (or try one of our own favorites). Whether you are looking for one that’s heavy on veggies and grains or you’d prefer a bean-based burger, there are lots of flavor options for a lunch that mimics whatever they might be serving in the cafeteria, but is about a million times tastier and healthier. Consider one of these lunch box options: you can put toppings mushrooms, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, or cheese in different compartments for your child to pick and choose. And it’s so very easy to save a veggie burger from dinner the night before.