Packing school lunches can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re doing it for the first time. We get it — between the two of us, we’ve been packing school lunches for over 15 years! If we’ve learned anything, it's that your kids’ school lunches don’t have to be complicated to be delicious. The key is writing down a list of go-to lunch ideas that you can keep in rotation and make with store-bought staples that you can buy weekly, even if you haven’t had time to make a shopping list. Here are our favorite cold lunch ideas for school; pick and choose based on your children’s individual tastes and preferences.
1. Veggie and Hummus Wraps
Roll up your favorite hummus and pre-shredded veggies (think: carrots or stir-fry mix) in a whole wheat wrap, burrito-style. Pack with apple chips, crispy chickpeas (for even more protein), and a snack bar.
2. Pesto Pasta Salad
We always recommend cooking extra pasta whenever you’re making it for dinner. But when we’re really pressed for time, deli counter pasta salad is great too. Pack it as is or dress it up with a few spoonfuls of pesto, mini mozzarella balls, and halved cherry tomatoes. Dried fruit and crispy rice marshmallow bars are lunch box BFFs with pasta salad.
3. Shortcut Egg Salad
Of course you can hard boil your own eggs when making egg salad, but you can also buy them pre-boiled to save time. Chop the eggs and mix with mayo, mustard, salt, pepper, and pickles before piling your egg salad on whole wheat bread. Pack with sugar snap peas, apple slices, and fruit gummies for a nostalgic (and easy!) back-to-school lunch that your kids will love.
4. Frozen Fruit and Yogurt Parfait
Kids love breakfast for lunch! An easy, cold lunch idea for school is a frozen fruit parfait. To make the parfait, layer frozen fruit and whole milk Greek yogurt in a thermos. Add a scoop of breakfast cereal on the side (to prevent sogginess), and don’t forget the spoon. If your eater needs more to fill up, stick with the theme and add frozen waffles or a hard boiled egg. Bonus: the frozen fruit thaws while also keeping the lunchbox cold.
5. Smoked Salmon Bagel Sandwiches
Sandwich veggie cream cheese and smoked salmon between two halves of a toasted mini bagel. You can pack a few of these for older kids, and add sliced tomatoes, red onion, and capers if you’re feeling fancy. Snacking cucumbers and fresh strawberries are the perfect accompaniment for this school lunch box idea.
6. Sushi Shop Tuna Salad + Seaweed
This riff on tuna salad is eaten wrapped in crispy seaweed. Combine tuna with mayo, a splash of soy sauce, sriracha to taste, and a dash of sesame oil. Pack with seaweed snacks, pre-shredded carrots, and sliced avocado for DIY hand rolls. Pitted cherries and a few gummy candies round out this super quick school lunch.
7. Lunchable-Inspired Pizzas
One of our kiddos is obsessed with pizza Lunchables, and this DIY version has saved us a lot of money. Pack two sandwich thins alongside small containers filled with shredded mozzarella, mini pepperoni, and pizza sauce. A Capri Sun and a fun-sized candy bar make this feel like a real Lunchable. We also opt for sliced peppers and olives on the side to add a little (healthy) flair.
8. Mezze-Inspired Snack Box
Hit the salad bar for this one! Grab hummus, olives, a tabouli-style salad, and pack with pita bread. Greek yogurt dip is an easy alternative to hummus if you want to mix things up (or if sesame / tahini isn’t allowed for allergy reasons). This is a great opportunity to pack extra vegetables for dipping; we like cucumber coins, baby sweet peppers, and cherry tomatoes. String cheese and some cookies turn this into a super filling lunch.
9. Ham and Cheese Roll Ups
Avoid sandwich fatigue by wrapping thinly sliced deli ham and provolone cheese in spinach sandwich wraps. You can add a thin layer of cream cheese to secure the meat and cheese in the wrap. Roll tightly and slice into one-inch pieces. Pair with pretzels and an allergy-friendly chocolate spread for dipping. It’s such a simple idea for kids’ school lunches, but it’s always a hit!
10. Turkey Lettuce Cups
The deli isn’t only for thinly sliced meats. Order your favorite roasted turkey cut into one-inch thick slices. At home, cube the turkey, as well as some cheddar cheese and an apple. Toss with mayo or your favorite dressing and pack with butter lettuce cups for a build-your-own lunch. Crackers, a snack cake, and some (non-caffeinated) iced tea give this easy school lunch idea a tea party vibe.
11. BBQ Chicken Sandwiches
Pull the meat from a store-bought rotisserie chicken and toss with your favorite bottled BBQ sauce. Pack the chicken in a thermos with a bun on the side, along with store-bought coleslaw for a classic barbecue pit-style lunch. Corn on the cob (check the frozen food aisle!) and a sweet treat round this out.
12. Black Bean Dip and Chip Lunch
Long live nachos! Use canned black beans or black eyed peas, frozen corn, and chopped tomatoes to make a quick salad. Serve alongside tortilla chips for scooping and your kid’s favorite fixings. Think: store-bought pico de gallo, shredded cheese, guac, and/or sour cream.
Photography: Paul Quitoriano
Food Styling: Mary Rupp
Art Direction: Sarah Ceniceros