Packing lunch for work or school can be a little bit—dare we say—boring. It’s a sisyphean task that returns anew each day. Short of rearranging your entire life to become a meal-prep pro or buying expensive takeout everyday, what’s a budget- or health-conscious person to do? Thankfully, there are several tips that can improve your packed lunches, whether they’re for you or your kids.
8 Tips for making better lunches for work or school
Keep it simple: Yes, you want something that hits all the notes, like protein and fiber and flavor and originality, but realistically, only some of these are possible for each packed lunch. Sometimes pasta salad is the best option because it tastes great, takes only a little time to make, and mixes things up. Maybe you love something that’s packed with protein and fiber (like a TexMex bean-and-rice bowl), but you make it all the time. That’s fine—don’t worry too much about originality, then.
Prep, but don’t go over the top: Cooking a big batch of chili on Sunday for the week’s lunches and slicing up carrot and celery sticks for snacks is great. But if you’re going to lengths to assemble over-the-top perfect lunches that require many small containers and special dressings or a seven-fruit fruit salad, then that might be getting in the way of lunch prep. Yes, your kid might enjoy a sandwich cut into the shape of a panda bear, but if it’s preventing you from doing other things, then just skip it (okay, maybe cut the crusts off).
But plan for spontaneity: Keep your pantry stocked with ingredients you can turn into a simple meal, like canned beans (makes for a great bean salad or burrito bowl), pouches of microwaveable cooked grains (top with whatever leftover veg you have on hand and some cheese and you’ve got lunch), jarred salsa, pickles, olives, whole-grain crackers, and more.
Don’t snub the sandwich: Sack lunch sandwiches have come a long way since the afterthought PB&J or bologna and American cheese on white bread. For kids, focus on familiar flavors that will last the day. A smear of pesto stirred into mayonnaise can make a turkey-and-cheese sandwich a little more exciting, but still approachable. For the adults, stack your favorite sandwich fillings on crusty, whole grain sourdough bread that will only get better with time. Start with a smear of butter, mayonnaise, mustard, pesto, or olive tapenade, then layer on your main ingredients. Opt for flavorful, fiber-packed ingredients that will stay perky for hours like roasted red peppers, arugula, and shaved fennel salad. If you want to include avocado, drizzle on a little lemon juice first.
Opt for dishes that do well at room temp: Yes, a hot lunch is delicious, but not everyone has access to a microwave, especially kids in school. Already-grilled cheeses don’t seem so exciting after 4 hours waiting to be eaten, nor do a bowl of leftover spaghetti and meatballs or tomato soup. Grain bowls, pasta salads, frittatas, tuna salad, and bean salads are all fantastic at room temperature.
Listen to yourself: Meike Peters, the author of NOON: Simple Recipes for Scrumptious Midday Meals & More, points out that other meals during the day are often for other people, but lunchtime can be just for her. “Focusing on this inner voice,” she says, leads to recipes that are “simple but at the same time fun, nourishing, comforting, and healthy.” Basically, lunch can be an excuse to treat yourself. If you find that plowing through a salad or grain bowl feels like a chore, pack something you associate with fun—a wedge of brie and fancy crackers, perhaps?—or make comfort food that you can freeze in single portions for easy defrosting, like mashed potatoes or mac ‘n’ cheese.
Season generously: Don’t go overboard on the salt or sauce, but consider the fact that flavor shines with enough salt. Pack a small container of flaky sea salt (a leftover tiny jam jar), a baby hot sauce bottle, lemon wedges, and/or a squeeze bottle of extra-virgin olive oil to perk up your deskside lunch. (This one’s for the adults.)
Pack dressings and sauces separately: Maybe it goes without saying, but soggy salad is nobody’s friend. Repurpose a small jar for salad dressings and sauces or invest in some small squeeze bottles or containers. Not only will it keep your lunch fresher, it makes your midday meal that much more delightful when it comes with condiments.
Though an exciting lunch box can go a long way with kids, don’t feel like you need a fancy lunch box or insulated back to make packed lunches great. Opt for a light-weight container that is leak-proof and has the option of separators to keep ingredients from turning into mush.
3 Kid-friendly Lunch Ideas That Adults Will Love, Too
As any parent knows, cooking for kids can be a thankless task. What’s a favorite one week causes a meltdown the next, so these ideas come with, ahem, a grain of salt. But let’s be honest, adults can get down with these easy ideas that don’t take too long to put together.
Nut butter and banana roll ups: Spread nut or seed butter on a tortilla (whole grain if you can get away with it), top with a banana, then roll up, slice, and stack in a lunchbox. Serve with a side of cheese dip and crudité (carrot sticks, celery sticks, apple slices, etc.).
Muffin tin frittatas: Choose-your-own adventure frittatas make for an easy, delicious room-temperature lunch. Ask your kids for input on flavor combinations if you like, or go with family favorites. Bacon, cheddar, and chives (if green is a go) is a winner, or try broccoli, spinach, and ricotta. These keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator, a boon for busy weeks.
DIY Lunchables: These snack lunches ruled the playground in the 1990s, and for good reason: they appeal to kids who want to feel excited by their lunch. Include squares of cheese, sliced deli meat (like ham, pepperoni, or turkey), pickles, fruit, sliced vegetables, and a cookie.