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This time of year feels extra challenging when it comes to packing lunch. I’m now aware that the finish line is in sight and suddenly anything related to school, including packing a lunch, feels extra challenging.
Having the Simplified School Lunch Kit has made such a tremendous difference in my life this year, and it’s what will see me through the next six weeks of school.
How to Never Run Out of Lunch Ideas
One of the tools that has made the biggest difference for me, when it comes to packing school lunch, is the lunch idea list taken from the Simplified School Lunch Kit. I know this list will carry me through the school year.
This list is a giant “brain dump” of all the possibilities that can be packed for each lunch component. (I think about packing lunch in terms of components: main, fruit, veg, and crunch.) Being able to turn to a list of ideas takes all the guess work out of packing lunch. I no longer stand at my counter, with an open lunchbox in front of me, trying to figure out what to pack.
And, with a list, I’m able to plan ahead and be ready for packing lunch before the school day (or week) even begins. This list is also a great starting point for involving the kids: “Here are a few options. What sounds good for next week?”
Today, I want to share 20 no-sandwich main lunch ideas with you from this list. Now, you don’t need to pack a different “main” every single day. I often rotate just a couple of mains throughout the week, like black beans with rice and a sandwich. There’s no need to get crazy. Keep things simple and nourishing–that’s my motto!
My Favorite Lunchbox and Accessories
Since you’re about to see a lot of photos, let’s talk about some lunchbox specifics for a minute.
- Lunchbox: I use two different lunchbox options, depending on what I pack:
- PlanetBox (stainless steel box, pictured in the post) makes several different bento-style boxes. My favorite box is called the Rover, which is the largest lunchbox. This lunchbox isn’t cheap, but it’s well worth the expense. I’ve used our boxes for over 4 years. The PlanetBox Rover holds an entire lunch, 4.5 cups of food, and comes with two stainless steel containers that fit inside the box.
- Omielife Box (plastic, colorful box pictured in the post) is a leak-proof bento box with a built-in thermos container. This box is perfect for a hot lunch and a few sides. It can be purchased on Amazon.
- Accessories: There are some accessories that make packing a lunch so much easier.
- mini dipper containers: These are perfect for packing sauces, guacamole, and anything small and liquid. I use these containers in both the Planetbox and Omilife Box.
- silicone muffin cups: These are great for dividing up the lunchbox.
- PlanetBox Big Dipper: This container works perfectly in the Rover. I use this for yogurt and other foods that need to be in a leak-proof food. It also fits in the Omielife Box if you remove the thermos part (which does come out). I also use the PlanetBox little dipper, which is a stainless alternative to the mini dipper containers mentioned above.
- bamboo skewers: Skewers are a fun addition to the lunchbox. Add fruit to a skewer, meatballs, or french toast bites (small pieces of french toast) and fruit.
- reusable silverware: If you’re going to pack leftovers, rice, yogurt, or anything that requires silverware, I recommend purchasing a dedicated set just for the lunchbox.
How to Pack Hot or Cold Food In the Lunchbox
Anytime I share lunchbox photos and ideas, I’m asked, “How do you pack hot food? How does that food stay warm?” And the same goes for cold items. Here’s the answer…
My kids enjoy many foods at room temperature. I pack an ice pack on these days and pack the food in the Planetbox. When something needs to be hot (not everything needs to be served hot–kids can learn to enjoy food at room temperature), I go with the Omielife Box since it has a built-in thermos container. Any thermos container works. It helps to add hot water to the thermos container and let the water sit for a few minutes before dumping the water out and adding the warmed up food. This will keep the food warm in the thermos until lunchtime.
20 No-Sandwich Lunch Ideas for Kids
1. Lunchable or Snack Style
This is a super fun main, because it feels like a store-bought Lunchable, but without all the questionable ingredients. This one also lends itself to a lot of variety.
Choose crackers or sliced pita bread. Then choose a meat, like a cured meat (not all cured meats are evil–curing meat is actually a very traditional way to preserve a bounty of meat), shredded chicken (from a whole cooked chicken), or rolled up deli chicken or turkey, and a hard cheese cut into cubes (cheddar, jack, parmesan, asiago, etc.). I use silicone muffin liners to keep the ingredients separate in the lunchbox.
You can make a batch of burritos in advance and freeze them in a freezer-friendly storage bag. Reheat the burritos in the microwave or in the oven until warmed through. Serve in the lunchbox, which means they’ll be room temperature by lunchtime. Or, you can wrap the warm burrito in foil. I love making bean burritos. You can also use chicken, ground beef, or pulled pork.
3. Sweet Sammies
Use pancakes (einkorn pancakes or gluten-free pancakes) or waffles (einkorn waffles or gluten-free pancakes) add a nut butter (or seed butter) or cream cheese and jam. Or, skip the jam and use sliced fruit (like bananas, apple slices, pears), a sprinkle of cinnamon, nut butter (or seed butter) or cream cheese, and honey.
4. Hot dogs
This is an easy lunch and a fun one for kids. Grab some grass-fed hot dogs (I like Applegate Grass-Fed Beef Dogs) and serve with ketchup. Serve the cooked hotdogs, cut into smaller pieces, in a thermos for a hot lunch. Or, for a room temperature lunch, serve the cooked hot dogs whole or on skewers. Remember to pack an ice pack when serving at room temperature.
5. Meatballs and sauce
Reuse homemade meatballs from last night’s dinner in the lunchbox. Serve the meatballs in a thermos, or at room temperature. My kids love the meatballs on a skewer served with spaghetti sauce on the side or cut up and mixed with pasta and sauce. This oven-baked recipe is perfect for a weeknight meal with leftovers for the lunchbox, or make meatballs in the Instant Pot.
6. Build your own parfait
Add yogurt to a sealable container (I use the Planetbox Big Dipper or thermos container) and add parfait toppings on the side for your child to build their own parfait: granola and fruit.
7. Chicken or tuna salad
Quesadillas are such a fun and easy lunch that you can even prep in advance and freeze. Spread a tortilla with cheese, pear and ham and cheese, steamed broccoli and cheese, shredded chicken or ground beef and cheese, beans and cheese, or spinach and cheese. Fold the tortilla over and cook until the cheese melts and the outside of the tortilla is crisp. This recipe is a great guide that will show you how to make your own quesadillas in the oven, or use the stove-top method.
9. Build your own tacos
This is a super fun way to use leftovers. Add ground beef, beans, or shredded chicken to the lunchbox (the thermos container or a container like the Planetbox Big Dipper works best), along with a variety of toppings on the side (shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes–whatever you have), and a tortilla (or two). This “main” option quickly becomes the veggie option, too. Score!
10. Corn dog or pizza muffins
Most of us usually think about muffins in terms of the sweet variety. Take a savory twist for the lunchbox main with homemade corn dog muffins or pizza muffins. So good! And you can make the muffins in advance and freeze them for later. <–You know, for the week when you just can’t pack one more lunch. The finish line is near.
11. Deli meat roll-ups
This is a no-prep, low-stress kind of main lunch option. Pick up some deli turkey, ham, or roast beef (I like Applegate brand) and roll it up. Add spinach, arugula, or a slice of cheese before rolling the deli meat.
Surprisingly, this is my kids’ favorite lunch! I pack leftover oatmeal from a previous breakfast in the thermos container. To keep them full, I usually add a small amount of butter (or nut butter or seed butter) mixed with the oatmeal for a healthy fat. You can also serve the oatmeal cold in a container, like the Planetbox Big Dipper.
13. Oatmeal cups
Think: oatmeal meets muffin. A super fun breakfast or lunch main for any kid. Serve the oatmeal cups alongside fruit or yogurt or a hardboiled egg. Don’t want to make muffin-style oatmeal? Try breakfast cookies! Yes, they’re technically for breakfast, but you can serve them for lunch or even an after school snack.
14. Rice and beans (or meat)
Mix together rice and beans (I like to cook black beans in the Instant Pot and freeze extra for lunch), or meat (like ground beef with taco seasonings or shredded chicken). Serve warm in a thermos container or at room temperature.
I can’t help but sing my praises for humble soup. Soup is budget-friendly, packs a nourishing punch, and it’s super easy to prep in advance. I love making a pot of soup for dinner and turning the leftovers into a lunch. Serve soup warm in a thermos container. I like to serve the soup alongside crackers or a muffin (if I have any prepped in the freezer). There are so many delicious soup recipes on the blog. You can browse them all, here. A few of our favorites include:
- tomato soup (Londyn’s fav)
- chicken noodle soup (Piper’s fav)
- lentil soup (another Piper favorite)
- broccoli cheese soup (a classic and family favorite)
- potato-cauliflower soup (my favorite)
16. Sweet Muffins
We already talked about savory muffins, but what about sweet muffins? Sweet muffins are a super versatile option that kids never tire from seeing in their lunchbox. I love to use a mini muffin pan so the muffins fit better in the lunchbox. Plus, the kids think mini muffins are fun. A few recipes to try:
- Master Einkorn Recipe
- Einkorn Banana Muffins
- Einkorn Pumpkin Spice Muffins
- Homemade Naturally-Sweetened Blueberry Muffins (Spelt)
- Blueberry Almond-Oat Muffins (Gluten-Free)
- Whole Grain Morning Glory Muffins (Whole Wheat)
- Spiced Applesauce Oat Muffins (Whole Wheat)
17. Meat and cheese skewers
Another deli meat idea. Roll up deli meat (I like Applegate brand) and then cut into smaller pieces. Cube your child’s favorite hard cheese. Add both to a skewer.
18. Chicken tenders or nuggets
Chicken tenders and nuggets can be incredibly nutritious when you make them with simple ingredients. This recipe is a hit with my kids. If you don’t want to make your own chicken nuggets or tenders, Applegate and Belle and Evans make options with real ingredients. Serve the nuggets in a thermos container or at room temperature (with an ice pack). Serve alongside ketchup, homemade ranch, or a honey mustard.
19. Pasta salad
This is another option that you can make your own based what you have and your child’s preferences. Toss together some pasta (I like Jovial’s brown rice pasta), veggies of choice (like halved cherry tomatoes, cucumber, or sliced carrots), olives, cheese (small mozzarella balls, hard cheese, feta cheese, etc.), shredded chicken or cubed deli ham, and a vinaigrette dressing. You can also add greens, if your child is up for leafy greens, like arugula or baby spinach.
20. Fried rice
Rice is such a versatile, family-friendly, and budget-friendly real food staple. Put rice to good use with an easy lunch or dinner by making homemade fried rice. Make this for dinner and serve the extras in the lunchbox, either a thermos container or at room temperature. This vegetarian fried rice is a classic, or up the veggies with this broccoli and cauliflower fried rice.