Not Sad Desk Lunch

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

August 20, 2018

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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!

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. 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. Photo by Anna Gass

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Elizabeth
  • Margo Hale Lee
    Margo Hale Lee
  • Jessica
  • Ttrockwood
  • bellw67
Cookbook Author. Heirloom Kitchen.Food52 contributing editor & Recipe Tester.


Elizabeth August 26, 2018
I'm always excited to read about new lunch goodies. One of our favorites are the little sandwiches they have in the bakery at the Mitsua near us-- if we go to eat we stock up for the next few days with great lunch snack additions and tiny delicious Japanese cut off crust white bread sandwiches. I do have to say I could not stay sane making three different lunches every day for each of my kids. They know it's going to be the same for each one. Please don't tell them it could ever be otherwise!
Anna F. September 21, 2018
Haha! I should have gone your route but alas my fate of three different lunches a day keeps me on my toes! Thanks for your comment. xx
Margo H. August 22, 2018
Thanks for sharing these lunch ideas! How do you pack the tacos to send for lunch?
Anna F. August 22, 2018
I wrap some mini tortillas in some parchment. Then, the hot ground beef filling goes in the thermos. A few mini Tupperware’s with sour cream and shredded cheddar. Reusable spoon to scoop and they’re good to go!
Jessica August 21, 2018
These are some great ideas! I always struggle with filling/protein rich lunch ideas for my somewhat picky eater. She always wants fruit, but that's about it. I am definitely going to try leftover rotisserie chicken in soup and the PB&J sushi rolls!
Anna F. August 22, 2018
Great! Hope she loves them!
Ttrockwood August 21, 2018
My sister does batch cooking with her mini muffin tins- some frittatas, some with meatloaf mix, some of the corn and cheddar ones, and some with mac and cheese. They’re stashed in the freezer and defrosted the night before packing.
My nephew loves to choose from them, and with some easy additions of veggies and whatever else everyone is happy.

I remember packing my own lunches as soon as i was able to - peanut butter on graham crackers with an apple and a mini box of raisins was a favorite for a long time!
Anna F. August 21, 2018
I’m going to try the mini muffin frittata for breakfast too! What a great idea and i love bulk meals I can use all week. Thanks so much!!
bellw67 August 21, 2018
Some great lunch ideas, you might as well pack what the kids like or they won’t eat it. I remember taking a hard boiled egg for lunch, one of my favourites and Chef BoyArDee in a Thermos.
Anna F. August 21, 2018
Hard boiled eggs are always a great idea! Thanks so much for your comment! Xx
ktr August 20, 2018
I must have an odd kid because he wants the same thing pretty much every day - salami, carrots and an apple. It’s boring but he eats it and it’s easy to pack.
Anna F. August 21, 2018
He sounds like a dream, low maintenance boy! And salami is still my favorite! Xo
Hannah H. August 20, 2018
Love it!
Anna F. August 21, 2018
Thank you! Xx
HalfPint August 20, 2018
Another tortilla rollup idea: refried beans and sharp cheddar cheese. serve with a little container of salsa or pico de gallo.

Sometimes, you just want a sandwich: pack vegetables and protein (yes, you can use the meat from that rotisserie chicken) separately from the bread. Assemble your sandwich when ready to eat. This makes for a 'fresher' tasting sandwich and no soggy bread.

Hummus is good with crackers and vegetables sticks too.

Anna F. August 20, 2018
love the refried beans and cheese, great for Meatless monday! thanks for you comment. xx
Shelley M. August 20, 2018
So, you pack leftovers for them. Um, okay. I'm sure no one has ever thought of that before.
Hannah H. August 20, 2018
Cynical Shelley
Sairah B. August 19, 2020
Agree, very first world.