10 Prep-and-Pack Lunch Ideas That Aren’t Sandwiches (2024)

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Jess Thomson

Jess Thomson

Jess Thomson is a food and travel writer and the author of 8 cookbooks, including A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus. Her most recent book, A Year Right Here, is a food memoir about her family. She lives in Seattle, with her husband and eight-year-old son.

updated Aug 18, 2020

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10 Prep-and-Pack Lunch Ideas That Aren’t Sandwiches (1)

Let’s face it: Slapping the same smears onto bread (day after day, week after week) can leave kids and parents a little bored. Given that, here are 10 ideas for sandwich-free lunches that take cues from home and abroad. Test drive them all with your little eaters (or yourself!) to find new, interesting lunch box variations that keep everyone’s appetites healthy. To pick which one you should start with, play our video recipe roulette. Simply hit pause whenever you like and let the universe choose for you.

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10 Sandwich-Free Kids’ Lunch Ideas

Or, you know, sandwich-free lunch ideas for anyone. Because I don’t know anyone who, deep down, doesn’t want food on a stick at some point.

P.S.: All 10 ideas are nut-free, to correspond to many schools’ preferences that school lunches omit potentially allergenic foods. You’re welcome.

1. Food on Sticks

Think: chicken satays, beef skewers, or sausage kebabs, packed on lunchbox-sized sticks for kids. Because everything is more fun on a stick. (For young kids, use flat, blunt-edged bamboo sticks, not the stabby toothpick-like kind.)

  • Get a recipe: Yellow Chicken with Broccoli and Peanut Sauce at Hogwash, my blog. (Obviously, leave the peanut sauce off if packing a nut-free lunch or if your kid is in a peanut-free classroom.) Also, Grilled Smoked Sausage Skewers.
  • Pack with: Rice, sliced cucumbers, sliced mango, yogurt-covered pretzels

2. Quesadillas

They’re kid favorites for a reason — and contrary to our adult biases, they don’t need to be piping hot to be delicious.

  • Get a recipe: How To Make the Best Cheesy Quesadillas, The Avodilla
  • Pack with: Avocado slices or guacamole, jicama sticks, pineapple chunks, pumpkin seeds, or tortilla chips

3. Spring Rolls

Rice paper wrappers or large lettuce leaves make great rolled-up meals that are fun to eat. Fill them with tofu, pork, or shrimp; try our rainbow rolls; or let your kids branch out using their own ideas.

  • Get a recipe: Rainbow Vegetable Spring Rolls
  • Pack with: Cubed meat or cheese, sliced red bell peppers, blueberries, chocolate square.

4. Deli Meat Roll-Ups

Think outside the bun! Rolling sliced deli turkey, ham, or roast beef around cheese sticks, cream cheese, and even greens can change the way your kiddos think about lunch meat.

  • Pack with: Whole-wheat pretzels, celery (optional sunflower butter filing), cinnamon-sprinkled apple slices, coconut macaroon.

5. Vegetable Sushi or Onigiri

Using leftover rice and cooked fish from a previous meal, packing sushi for the family can be as easy as making sandwiches — especially if the kids feel like helping.

  • Get a recipe: Salmon and Black Sesame Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls), Summer Project: Make Vegetable Maki Sushi with Kids!
  • Pack with: Sushi condiments, edamame, raspberries, snickerdoodle cookie.

6. Cold Noodle Salads

Think soba with black sesame seeds, or plain udon.

  • Get a recipe: Soba Noodles with Wilted Bok Choy, Miso-Roasted Asparagus Soba Noodle Salad, Greek Chicken Pasta with Olives and Feta
  • Pack with: Cubed chicken or tinned fish, snap peas, clementines, chocolate raisins.

7. Hummus and Pita Plate

Nine out of 10 kids love a good smear of hummus. Why not make it the star of the show?

  • Get a recipe: How To Make Hummus from Scratch
  • Pack with: Salami, olives, carrots, baby tomatoes, and grapes. (Note that dipping is easier and less messy if you pack the hummus in a separate container.)

8. Quinoa Salad

Mix the meats, cheeses, and veggies your kids like into plain quinoa and dress lightly with a basic vinaigrette.

  • Get a recipe: How To Cook Fluffy, Tasty Quinoa
  • Pack with: Tomato/mozzarella/basil lollipops, popcorn, pear slices, baby brownie.

9. Breakfast for Lunch

Make extra food when you have time for a nice breakfast on the weekend, and save the leftovers for lunches (thinkL hard-boiled eggs, leftover pancakes, and leftover sausages).

  • Get a recipe: How To Hard-Boil an Egg, How To Make 2-Ingredient Banana Pancakes, The Best Pancake Recipe: Lofty Buttermilk Pancakes
  • Pack with: Sliced strawberries, squeezable yogurt. (Frozen yogurt tubes also make great small ice packs, and typically thaw by lunch.)

10. Leftover Picnic Lunch

If you’d eat it for lunch on the weekend, why not pack it in a lunch box? Because nothing beats a cold chicken leg on a Monday.

  • Get a recipe:
  • Pack with: Potato salad or coleslaw, watermelon, broccoli with yogurt ranch dip, s’mores (or s’mores brownie).

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