Cold Lunch Ideas for Kids (From a Mom of 3)

multiple children at school sitting for snacktime

Today I was packing the kids’ lunches and I realized that I have been throwing the same old boring stuff into their lunches for weeks! The primary reason I do it is because I am sure THEY WILL EAT IT.

Too many times I try something new or different, and then open up the lunch box at the end of the day to find that novel item still in the box, barely touched, if nibbled on at all.

My kids are creatures of habit, but I’m tired of making the same old sandwiches. I want them to be excited when they open their lunch box, to see what is inside there!

So I started doing some research, and this post is the list of items that I’ve come up with that I intend to start trying with my kiddos to see if I can shake up the regular lunch sandwich-monotony.

And I’m not going to lie…I feel a little (okay maybe really) inadequate, compared to other moms. I’m not crafty, I’m not creative, and I barely have enough time to get my own hair under a hat before it is time to leave for school.

But I am curious what the other half looks like, and to see what I can glean and learn.

Before we get to the food…

As I was doing my research, I realized that there are a lot of moms out there doing a lot more work than I am. There’s one mom who puts out a wide variety of already packed fixings for her kids to select for their lunch. There’s another mom who MEAL PLANS with her kiddos on the weekends. Holy cow, WHO HAS TIME FOR THAT?!?!?

Don’t get me started on the parents who are cutting the sandwiches into cool shapes.

But in organizing, let’s chat about the components of every lunch. For me, I try to have some kind of “main” thing, plus a handful of different sides. I try very hard to incorporate fresh fruit/vegs, rather than having all the fruit/veg come from a manufactured or processed or blended source. This seems to be the case for other parents/families as well.

But I think many people build lunches starting with the main dish/item. Not me!!! I build each lunch around what fresh fruit or vegetable I have to give them. Then I move on to the other sides and the main.

Let’s start with Fruit/Veg sides (required in my lunch boxes and usually where I start)

  • Fruit: apple slices, whole banana (don’t cut it up), orange slices or wedges already peeled (lunch is too short for peeling an entire orange for my youngest), pomegranate seeds in a small container, pears, raisins, applesauce, cut up melon, grapes, kiwi, berries of all kinds.
  • Veg: carrots, celery, tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, green peas (whole not shelled), green beans (fresh is best, my kids won’t eat canned).

To make the veg more exciting, I will sometimes stick some ranch dressing in there as well, or some hummus. I have also thrown in a little peanut butter for dipping apples or celery.

I do see that some families are putting a green salad in the lunch box/bag. I have one child who would probably love that, and two others who probably wouldn’t touch it.

Other sides once I have a fruit and a veg

Once I have some real food in there, I also like to throw in one thing from this list:

  • small bag of chips
  • granola bar
  • cereal bar
  • crackers of some kind (like goldfish, cheezit, triscuit, wheat thins, Chicken-n-a-biscuit)
  • nuts

  • pretzels
  • yogurt
  • trail mix
  • other dried fruits
  • veggie crisps/straws
  • string cheese/sliced or cubed cheese
  • leftover bacon/sausages from breakfast
  • olives
  • granola
  • peanut butter pretzels

I see other families are throwing in treats with lunch (like cookies, pudding, other baked sweet treats). I will sometimes throw in something sweet but usually don’t try to do anything extra, as the granola bars usually have a little bit of chocolate in there.

Now, for the main.

This is truly where I need some help and inspiration. I’ve really been stuck on PB&J daily, while varying all the sides. Here are some of the ideas I came across today in my research that I’d like to try:

  • Soup (bean, veg, noodles)
  • Waffle with peanut butter and jam
  • Bagel in all of its forms (cream cheese, or a sandwich)
  • Tortilla roll ups (putting hummus in there, or peanut butter/jam, turkey and cheese)
  • Mini burrito (refried beans and cheese)

  • Cut up meat (chicken, ham, turkey, steak)
  • Pizza
  • Sliced up sausages
  • Quesadillas
  • Meat and cheese roll ups (no tortilla) with cream cheese in the middle
  • mini pancakes
  • cold noodle salad (pesto)
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • other varieties of sandwich (tuna, lunch meat, cheese)
  • homemade lunchable (meat slices, cheese, crackers)
  • hamburger

I think that there are a lot of really good ideas for healthy foods that I am not sure that my kids would eat (though they look delicious to me), such as quinoa salad, complicated wraps, etc. Not to mention that I would have to make them.

Baking in advance…

I see a lot of moms making Popeye Spinach Muffins, or other varieties of breads such as carrot/apple/zucchini, for school lunches that would probably be really delicious and would go over really well.

There’s actually an endless number of breads/muffins that could be made, now that I am thinking about it, and the kids were be delighted to see those in their lunches.

I’m also seeing a lot of these “energy bites” which seem to be made up of mostly peanut butter plus some additives, like chopped up dried fruit, crushed nuts, and then chocolate or coconut for additional flavor.

Suggestions I will avoid for now…

I saw a post where the mom was putting food on a stick, like a kebab. While this sounds like a lot of fun, I have some concern about my sons using the sticks with the narrow end on the other kids during lunch. I am not sure my kids’ school would allow them.

uses for nonfat dry milk

Additional Equipment

TO make some of these ideas work, I am going to have to invest a little bit in some containers. I hate to spend a lot of money on stuff that the kids are just going to lose, which is why I suppose Bento box styles are so popular.

I’m really sensitive to the amount of waste I create by sending food wrapped up in plastic that just gets thrown away, so I need to do a better job of getting some contains for the kids’ foods.

I may also look to see if I can find a waffle maker that can make waffles of various sizes (though I can always cut them, I know).

It could also be cool to start cutting the kids’ sandwiches with a cookie cutter before packing them, just for fun.

I can be FUN MOM, right?

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.

I also see moms using cupcake liners to segregate food items, which I like as they are made of paper rather than plastic.

Making School Lunches More Interesting

You know, when I started this research, I thought I would be finding all kinds of creative recipes for school lunches. Turns out, most other moms are sending the same things to school that I am, though maybe dressed up in a different way (cut, chopped, sliced, arranged, dipped).

I plan to try out pancakes, waffles, creatively cut up sandwiches, and wraps/rollups. I think soup sounds like a nice idea but messy and annoying. I doubt my kids would eat elegant or complicated food in their lunches because they won’t eat it at home. Not yet anyway. Maybe in a year or two.

With a few new containers and a little creativity, I’ll be a Pinterest Mom in no time.

EDIT (Months Later)

So I thought I would come back and share this story. I went to school to have lunch with one of my children last week and I sat next to my son. On the other side was a boy from my kid’s class, who I knew by name. I decided to peak into his lunch box. I kid you not. Here’s a list of what he had:

  1. Chocolate milk
  2. Three oreos with mint filling
  3. A hot dog bun with ketchup

The boy drank the milk first, ate the areas, and threw away his bread and ketchup.

OMG, I look so GOOD right now!!!

All joking aside, I don’t know if this child just doesn’t like to eat, so his parents pack him whatever he is willing to carry to school, or if his parents just really do feed him oreos and hot dog buns for lunch.

The struggle is real, everyone.

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