What to CookNot Sad Desk Lunch

The No-Fail, Cheap & Cheerful Lunches I Pack for My 3 Kids

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The end of summer is fast approaching, so you know what that means: It’s time to gear up for another exciting school year. Buying new fall clothes, school supplies, and a shiny backpack are all on the to-do list; but so is dreaming up fresh and new ideas for the kids’ lunch boxes so that they come back empty (or at least, mostly empty) at the end of the day.

For me, it’s a sort of reset on the school year ahead. Last year, I made a very important decision: No more sad school lunches! Even though I’m a classically trained chef and recipe tester, I have three young kids who aren’t shy about giving feedback, so generating 15 creative and delicious lunch boxes week in and week out is admittedly no small feat. It gets difficult keeping the kids from getting bored. And, because I make a big effort to avoid pre-packaged products as much as possible, there are days when I’m just stumped.

13 Greatest Hits from Amanda's Kids' Lunches
13 Greatest Hits from Amanda's Kids' Lunches

If you are going to do something, then you have to arm yourself with the right tools. Last August, I went shopping for a few back-to-school supplies of my own. I purchased each of my kids a bento-style lunch box and a mini Thermos. These two items not only had my kids ooohhing and ahhhing, they are also incredibly helpful if you want to create some pretty awesome portable lunches. This small investment opened up a world of delicious lunch opportunities.

Last summer, I also decided not to rely on anymore deli cold cuts. I noticed how the sandwiches I had made with them were returning home at the end of the day half-eaten and soggy. My kids don’t really eat sandwiches at home, so why would they eat them at school? Light bulb moment: If I packed creatively, the leftovers already sitting in my fridge could truly make an A+ lunch. Added bonus: I’m saving money and avoiding food waste. I’ve since become a master of creatively repackaging the previous night’s dinner.

So, for my 11-year-old daughter Alessandra, my little lover of all things protein, I knew chicken salad with crackers or pita chips would be a great lunch option. Last night’s roasted chicken became today’s salad. She also loves it when I chop and toss in some grapes or apples. This way she gets a bite of sweet with her creamy chicken. Instead of bread, she enjoys dipping and spreading it on crackers; that way, no soggy bread and her lunch becomes a bit more interactive and fun.

In a pinch, I can pick up a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store for around $5 to $6, add a little mayo, and vegetables from the fridge, and I’m looking at a few dollars a day for a delicious lunch spread.

How to Make Chicken Salad Without a Recipe
How to Make Chicken Salad Without a Recipe

For my 9-year-old Veronica (aka, the carb queen), pasta is her number one meal, no matter what day of the week it is. With the new Thermos, her lunch comes together in a snap. Whether it’s last night’s pasta pomodoro or even a quick noodle with butter and parm, she loves twisting open the container and enjoying a warm pasta in the middle of the day. (For what it’s worth, she treated me to a 5-star lunch review after I gave her tortellini soup on a cold winter day.)

Another great Thermos lunch: chicken soup. Remember that roasted chicken I bought? I heat it up with some chicken stock and some pastina, and a simple soup is ready for me in minutes.

Past with Tomato Sauce - (Pasta con Pomodoro)

Past with Tomato Sauce - (Pasta con Pomodoro) by woo wei-duan

Smoky Minestrone with Tortellini and Parsley or Basil Pesto

Smoky Minestrone with Tortellini and Parsley or Basil Pesto by WinnieAb

My feisty 5-year-old son Dante loves Chinese food, so why not serve it up for lunch? When we get take-out, I make sure to get a double order his favorite, fried rice. He makes the Thermos fried rice disappear in an instant. One of his teachers even loved the idea so much, she emailed me saying it had become her go-to lunch as well!

I don’t need to order in, either; fried rice comes together in a snap with other leftovers, especially veggies, so producing a good lunch can also be a great way to clean out the fridge. This is a win-win in my book, and with rice being one of the most economical buys in the store, I can prepare each day’s portion for around $1.50, with the majority of ingredients coming from my pantry.

How to Make Fried Rice Without a Recipe

How to Make Fried Rice Without a Recipe by Pat Tanumihardja

Vegetarian Carrot Fried Brown Rice

Vegetarian Carrot Fried Brown Rice by Erin (Naturally Ella)

I had another epiphany sparked by my soggy sandwich syndrome: tortillas. They are much sturdier than your average slice of bread slice, and since Taco Tuesday is such a hit in my house, why not Taco (lunch) Wednesday?

I like to pick up some mini flour tortillas and pack it up with some of the leftover taco fixings. My kids love ground beef in a simple saute with chili and cumin. I always have some shredded lettuce and Mexican -style shredded cheese on hand to round it all out. And since I already have the containers handy, I’ll put the leftover sour cream and guacamole to good use. A mini taco fiesta in the middle of the day will make any kid happy. And it’s much less labor-intensive for me—just pack up the components and you’re done!

Forget Taco Tuesday—You'll Want Julia Turshen's Chorizo Tacos Everyday

Forget Taco Tuesday—You'll Want Julia Turshen's Chorizo T... by Food52

From Carnitas to Creamy Eggs, 16 Ways to Eat Tacos All Day Long

From Carnitas to Creamy Eggs, 16 Ways to Eat Tacos All Da... by Katie Macdonald


Once things took off, I started to get really creative. Why not sushi? Okay, so truth be told my kids still don’t eat actual sushi, but they do love a PB and J sushi-style roll-up. Just lay out a tortilla and smear it with peanut butter (or sunflower butter, if there are allergies in the classroom) and jelly. Then, just roll up the tortilla nice and tight, and slice it into 1-inch rolls. Lay them flat and tightly together in a container or bento box. This is another pantry hero, and since I’ve already picked up the tortillas for taco day, it’s another nice way to use them up before they start to get dry and rubbery. Peanut butter and fluff, Nutella, even tuna fish work great in this creative roll-up.

Lunch box inspiration.
Lunch box inspiration. Photo by Anna Gass

Another Excellent Lunch Idea

Getting to the top of your lunch-making game might take a little time. I certainly had some misses, along with the hits, but having my children give their feedback was an important part of figuring out what was going to work.

Now that Alessandra is 11, she has become part of the lunch-making process. I’m there to assist, of course, but having her in the kitchen not only gives me a helping hand, but allows her to create a nice lunch she will eat. Dante is also a great resource because he loves spying on his friends' lunch boxes and reporting back on different ideas for us to try. And Veronica? Well, she just needs her pasta.

Left: Sweet Alessandra and her favorite chicken salad. / Right: Just pasta for Veronica, please. Photos by Anna Gass

What are your favorite budget-friendly ideas for lunch? Share what works for you and your kids below!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Kids, School Lunch