52 School Lunch Ideas for Lunches Kids Will Actually Eat

What to put in a lunchbox that's healthy, fun, and easy

Chances are that by now you've had some healthy, well-packed lunches delivered back into your hands virtually untouched at the school end of the day. There should be a special name for the heartbreak one endures at the words "I told you I hate peanut-butter and jelly," when not only is this the first you're hearing of it, but you spent extra money on organic jelly and freshly ground peanut butter. And if not PBJ, then what? Well, we've got 52 answers to that question!

It's true what they say about good things and small packages when it comes to kids and lunches. I watched a painful number of sandwiches make the round trip from home to school and back again before working out that a lunchbox doesn't have to contain a sandwich. So we bought a cool lunchbox (and yes, cool absolutely helps) made up of small containers, and now I fill them with a variety of healthy finger foods. The one we bought is made by Yubo, and I love it because it completely disassembles, has a nifty fitted ice pack, and is treated with an anti-microbial agent to cope with those maddening Friday "I left it (to rot) at school" blues.

Of course any variation on a subdivided, Bento box theme will do. It is important to buy one that is free of BPA, PVC, and Phthalates; most responsible manufacturers offer these assurances for kids' lunch boxes.

Moving on to what's inside, variety is the key. The suggestions below can be put in small containers (many need an ice pack) and mixed and matched like Garanimals. Keep at least a dozen in the kitchen at any given time, so each day's lunch can be different. And if some do come back, don't be sad—cause two out of three ain't bad.

  1. Cream cheese and strawberries in a mini waffle sandwich
  2. Jello cubes
  3. Sliced cucumber with a wedge of lemon and a little salt
  4. BLT in a mini pita
  5. Hummus in one, with carrots/chips/sliced veggies in another
  6. Potato salad
  7. A mini-muffin 
  8. A hard boiled egg with a tiny salt packet
  9. Mini pita, shredded mozzarella, & tomato sauce - all in separate containers - for assembling a lunchbox pizza
  10. Cubes of interesting cheeses - tasting booth style
  11. Yogurt with sliced almonds or fruit and a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar
  12. Pistachios or other nuts (but pistachios are fun!)
  13. Roasted seaweed or kale snacks
  14. Peanut butter on crackers
  15. Cream cheese and jelly on crackers
  16. Cold spaghetti in a favorite dressing or peanut sauce
  17. Dried fruit
  18. Shredded cheese
  19. Watermelon chunks
  20. Mandarin orange slices (fresh or canned)
  21. Deviled egg
  22. Roll a tortilla with favorite sandwich filling, then slice off just a couple of bite-sized rolls
  23. Trail mix
  24. Cucumber sandwich wedges (like at high tea)
  25. Apple sauce
  26. Guacamole in one cup, tortilla chips in another
  27. Slices of sausage
  28. Pretzels (maybe with peanut butter?)
  29. Shelled sunflower seeds
  30. Itty bitty champagne grapes (so cute and sweet!)
  31. Corn bread with cheese melted or baked on top
  32. A radish sliced in a fun shape
  33. Mini bagels (or slices of bagel) with cream cheese
  34. Celery with peanut butter or cream cheese
  35. Popcorn
  36. Salad in one cup, dressing in another
  37. Dry cereal and a small carton of milk
  38. Slice of baguette with cream cheese or mascarpone and pesto
  39. Plain cooked pasta (try different colors and shapes)
  40. Carrots cut into long spaghetti strands
  41. Melon balls
  42. Babybel cheese (the ones in the red wax)
  43. Apple slices with peanut butter
  44. Peanuts in the shell (always fun!)
  45. Yogurt tubes (they can be frozen when you pack them)
  46. Any sandwich made on a slider bun
  47. Cherry tomatoes
  48. A couple of pieces of veggie sushi with a packet of soy sauce
  49. Slices of star fruit
  50. Mini croissant with nutella
  51. Sliced cheese and salami rolled into a tube
  52. For the connoisseur kid: strips of prosciutto wrapped around cubes of melon

Originally published November 2, 2012

Top photo: Photo by Melissa/CC BY 2.0