Packing school lunches every day can be hard! Not only do kids get tired of eating the same thing day in and day out, there’s also pressure from schoolmates about what’s “weird” and what’s not. Compound all that with the fact that you want your child’s lunch to provide all the vitamins and nutrients a growing body needs.

No child wants to be the “smelly kid” whose mom packs a tuna fish sandwich every day, but how’s a parent supposed to stay sane and provide a variety of delicious, nutritious lunches on a daily basis? That’s where we come in! Don’t worry; this isn’t a list of ingredients to buy or recipes to memorize. Below you’ll find a dozen unique lunch box ideas that will take you beyond the Bento.

Dinner dumplings. Nobody likes eating leftovers, especially picky kids. But not many can resist mini dumplings made with love. All it takes is a little bit of leftovers, premade gyoza or wonton wrappers from the supermarket, and 15-20 minutes of prep time. Dinner dumplings can be steamed, fried or boiled, though fried dumplings may get soggy after spending the morning in a lunch box. Don’t have time to hand press your dumplings fresh? Just freeze them and cook straight from the freezer whenever you’re ready. Leftover curry, stew or tacos work great as mini dumplings, but feel free to get creative!  

Bento boxes for the win. Now we said we’d take you beyond the bento box, but truthfully, no lunchbox list would be complete without them. “Bento” is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese culture. The containers themselves range from disposable, mass produced plastic versions to wood, hand crafted lacquerware and stainless steel. Plenty of brands produce bento boxes — PlanetBox, Bentology and LunchBots are a few of our favorites, but the real magic of a bento lunch lies in its packing. Some parents elaborately pack bento boxes to look like popular anime characters, comic books, or video game characters (called “kyaraben” or “character bento”), while others pack their bentos to look like people, animals, buildings or plants in the “oekakiben” style (called “picture bento”). While a certain art exists in properly packing a bento box, San Francisco blogger Biggie has it down to a science. Follow her steps to fill in the gaps and ensure that you’re getting the most out of your bento. For children who can’t stand having their food touch, use silicone baking cups to keep food separate, or as portion guides. 

Stackable tiffin boxes. Tiffin boxes are traditional Indian and Middle Eastern lunch boxes. They are similar to bentos, except they are stackable and intended for hot food. The average tiffin box has 2-4 layers, is made of metal, and is designed to lock together to keep hot meals nice and toasty. Modern tiffin boxes are even made to work inside microwaves, although the traditional versions are strictly metal. When packing a tiffin the traditional way: the bottom layer should be a carbohydrate (rice or naan bread); the second layer something cool and refreshing (like salad, pickles, broccoli or cherry tomatoes); the third layer contains the meat of the meal — pun intended; and the top layer, if you’re lucky enough to have a fourth tier, should be packed with something crispy or sweet to add variety.

Cute food just tastes better. These days, we’re all about immediate gratification, multitasking, and making everything as quick and simple as possible. Why not apply these same characteristics to the way we prepare school lunches? Along the vein of single-skillet dinner ideas, we now present you with…muffin tin meals! Not only are muffin tin meals time-savers (bake in advance then freeze until needed), you can’t argue with the individual portion sizes. Kids will love the novelty of eating “mini” foods; you’ll love the ease and mess-free aspects. Check out this Yummly page for muffin tin meal recipes to get you started.

An electrifying lunch box idea. Living where it’s cold most of the year can make packing school lunches especially tricky. No matter how much Fluffernutter you can fit between two slices of bread, nothing beats a hot cup of chicken noodle soup on a cold day. While we don’t recommend electric lunchboxes for very young children, they are a great way to get a hot meal into your middle-schooler. Lunches like soup, rice, chili, fajitas and shepherd’s pie all travel well in a tiered electric lunch box. 

Freezer pop foods. Good as summertime snacks or school lunches, freezer pop foods are simple to make and fun to eat. Plus, when you’re making and freezing meals ahead of time, you won’t stress as much in the mornings. Fill your silicone freezer pop molds with smoothies, yogurt sweetened with fruit puree or a bit of honey, pudding, applesauce, anything really! Freezer pops are a good way to get kids to try different types of food too (like applesauce or yogurt), because it’s presented in such a fun way. If you want your freezer pops to stay as frozen as possible, make sure to pack a couple ice packs to keep them from thawing out by lunchtime.

Portion control, the sustainable way. Whether you’re dealing with a picky eater who hates it when different foods touch or you want to be sure that you’re giving your child the proper amount of food for lunchtime, silicone muffin cups are what you need. Sometimes it’s hard sending a little one off to school. Will they get hungry before the day’s over? Do they have enough to eat? What if they get hungry and I’m late picking them up? Over packing their lunch may seem like the solution, but it’s wasteful. Instead of cramming the lunchbox full of food, use silicone muffin cups! They’re reusable, non-toxic, and come in a bunch of fun colors.

When paper lunch bags can’t cut it anymore. Brown paper bags are so passé. Nobody carries lunch in them anymore — these days they aren’t even used as homemade textbook covers! But sometimes all it takes to reignite a child’s interest in lunch is a fancy new look, and that’s exactly what the old, brown paper bag has done. Make your child’s lunch fun with reusable, sustainable, snack bags in fun prints and colors. Lunchskins can be homemade or store bought, and they’re great for transporting snacks, sandwiches, produce, or whole lunches. Lunchskins come in Velcro and zipper options, and are usually lined with nylon or another wipeable material. The Kitchn.com has one of the largest lists of reusable snack and sandwich bags to give you ideas and help get you started, or you can make your own.

Peanut butter and what? If your little one is happy having peanut butter and jelly every day but you aren’t, give peanut butter apple sandwiches a try. For this recipe, apple slices replace bread and you can use peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter, whatever type of filling you like. Peanut butter and apple sandwiches also make great snacks for playdates, or if you have errands to run with the kids right after school. All you have to do to make these fun finger sandwiches is core an apple and slice it into rings. Spread your choice of butter on one apple ring, make it fancy by sprinkling some granola on top if you like, and top it off with another slice of apple. They’re easy to make and kids gobble them up.

Stick ’em up! Another clever way of disguising leftover dinner is by turning it into lunch kabobs. Kabobs can be made with meat, tofu, fruit or veggies. Lunch kabobs don’t have to be made from leftovers, either. You can take just about any sandwich and turn it into a kabob. Because the skewers can pose a choking hazard, this lunch option is better suited for older kids. Use yogurt or another dipper to make the meal extra special. Here’s a simple recipe for the best fruit dip ever from Iowa Girl Eats.

Everything tastes better in a bowl. Break the redundancy of school lunches by serving your child a sandwich in a bowl! Great for kids who are sensitive to gluten, or who are practicing eating with utensils. Picking a sandwich and layering the ingredients in a bowl with your child is also a fun way to teach them about new foods. Sandwiches that have multiple ingredients tend to work better in bowls than, say, a grilled cheese sandwich. For days when the ingredients will be packed and assembled at school, pack condiments in small containers so your child can use them as dips or dressing. Pack the rest of the sandwich ingredients in an airtight container so it’s easy to transport, and pack a bowl on the side. When lunch comes, all your child has to do is turn the container upside-down into the bowl, add dressings, and dig in. Here’s a fun piece from Food52 with some sandwiches to try.

Frushi Teaching kids about fresh fruits and veggies can be challenging, but not when it’s fun! Fruit sushi (frushi! get it?) isn’t just a creative and refreshing snack, it’s a lot of fun to make with your kids. It’s pretty easy to whip up some frushi rolls, just follow the directions on the Kids Activities Blog using whatever variations of fruit you like as — the more colorful the better. If you’re concerned about sugar then substitute avocados for bananas. They’ll still give the frushi a nice creamy texture sans the sugar spike.

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