Packing lunches that are nutritious, satisfying and kid-approved can be a tall order on its own. Add to the mix, a child that is selective with their food choices and isn’t a fan of sandwiches and/or gets tired of eating her tried-and-true PB&J or turkey and cheese for the entire week. So, what’s a parent to do? Think outside the lunchbox and toss tradition to the side. These five sandwich-free lunch ideas not only help to shake things up all school-year long, they are also easy to make, and bring together the key components of a fueling lunch: whole grains, lean or plant-based protein, fruits and veggies.

Snack Lunch

Kids can’t resist a bento box (think a plastic container with mini food-holding compartments) lunch full of their favorite finger foods. This low-effort lunch idea is guaranteed to score an A+ from both kiddos and parents alike. Following the formula above, you can create a nourishing (and fun!) lunch in minutes. A few examples include: 

Whole-grain crackers + swiss cheese rolled up in lower sodium turkey + carrot chips + hummus

Air-popped popcorn + string cheese + grapes + bell pepper strips + ranch salad dressing

Whole-grain tortilla chips + prepared guacamole + grape tomatoes + crunchy roasted chickpeas + apple slices 

You get the idea! 

Hummus Chicken Salad

The beauty of chicken salad is that it’s an easy way to leverage your dinner leftovers. Simply combine leftover roasted or grilled chicken with a few spoonfuls of hummus and pair with whole-grain pita chips and colorful veggies for scooping it up, or stuff into a soft, whole wheat pita pocket. In addition to serving as a super-simple way to kick up the flavor of leftover chicken, hummus also contributes an added boost of plant-based protein with a touch of fiber.

Mini Bagels make for a fun and healthy lunch–just add plenty of veggies to keep it healthy.

Pizza Bagel Bites

Even the pickiest of eaters will go for this one. Spread pizza or marinara sauce over whole-grain mini bagels, top with shredded mozzarella and an array of toppings like veggies, turkey pepperoni, lower sodium deli ham or pineapple. Bake until the bagel is toasted and cheese is melted, then cool completely, wrap and store for immediate use or freeze. While this isn’t a last-minute lunch solution, the extra steps of planning ahead are worth it.

Pasta Salad

Yet another way to get the most out of your leftovers. Cooked whole-grain macaroni, rotini or penne pasta is tossed with cubed provolone, salami, cucumber, tomatoes, red bell pepper and a splash of bottled Italian dressing to yield a make-ahead lunch that requires just an ice pack, a fork and a piece of fruit to finish it off. 

Homemade pasta salad is an easy way to incorporate more veggies and lean or plant-based proteins into your diet. By making it at home, you’re also able to use less oil and more herbs for flavor!

Lunchtime Trail Mix

This is the ultimate in customizable lunch ideas. It also doubles as a wholesome after-school snack and portable breakfast! Allow your kiddos to choose a whole-grain cereal, such Quaker Oatmeal Squares or Wheat Chex as the base, then add in their choice of nuts, seeds and dried fruit for a variety of unique textures and flavors in every bite. When packing the lunch, incorporate a cup of yogurt plus fresh berries to create a layered yogurt parfait.  

The options are endless. See this Smart LifeBites story that has recipes for everything from Banana Sushi to fruit & veggies caterpillar snacks! Above all, have fun with it.

– Beth Stark, RDN, LDN

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