11 Cheap and Easy School Lunches That Go Way Beyond PB&J
These days, many children are exposed to fusion cuisine and multicultural dishes from a very young age. Packing something different from the typical brown-bag lunch is a fun way to incorporate a variety of nutrient-rich foods into their daily diets. For children who get as bored eating the typical sandwiches as parents get making them, taking tips from other cultures also helps diversify the humdrum rotation of PB&J and ham and cheese on white bread. Make this year's school lunches full of creative dishes that are as inexpensive and convenient as they are deliciously kid-friendly.
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Sushi rolls are a fun food originally meant to be eaten with the hands -- every kid's favorite utensil -- and these rolls are easy to pack and cheap to make. Once the rice is cooked, rolling them up takes just a few minutes. This is an opportunity to invite the entire family to take part in food prep. Video instructions from the recipe site Farm to Table Baby Mama cover the basics, with plenty of room for creativity when it comes to fillings. Repurpose leftover soy sauce packets from delivery and takeout meals to pack with the cut-up rolls.
Stacking metal tiffin boxes are designed to keep different components of meals separate until being eaten. They come from India, where one container would typically have rice and another curry. They come in stacks of two, three, four, and beyond. Use them to pack up rice and a dish such as a quick chicken tikka masala from Epicurious for a restaurant-worthy meal. The chicken tikka masala can be made for dinner the night before to allow the flavors to meld and for easy packing of leftovers in the morning.
Bento boxes feature small portions of different dishes, which keeps lunchtime interesting and nutritionally varied. Recreate this Asian lunch variety pack by using small containers and bags for each item, or by using a modern to-go version ($15 at Target). A complete lunch would include dry or fresh fruit, a vegetable snack such as edamame or cucumber slices, chicken with rice, and a small salad. The variations are endless and can easily be customized to reflect the leftovers in the fridge.
Change up the boring sandwich routine with flour tortillas. Creating roll-ups with slices of deli meat such as turkey, avocado, and lettuce make a more fun finger food with the same approachable flavors as a simple sandwich. These quick lunch rolls are an easy go-to when there are just minutes to spare before running out to catch the bus. Change up the fillings according to what you have on hand and your child's favorite combos.
Chili is a comfort food typically made in large batches, and it's easy to repurpose some as a take-to-school lunch in cold weather. Heat the chili before stashing it in a good thermos, then pack toppings such as shredded cheese, sliced avocado, and shredded lettuce with some tortilla chips and a spoon. Such a tasty lunch to school might inspire envy, but it's a tip easily shared at the next PTA meeting.
Related: 10 Regional Chili Recipes to Try This Fall
This one-container meal is packed with flavorful veggies, protein-rich chickpeas, and tangy feta. Put the dressing on the bottom of the container and build the salad on top with a 10-minute Martha Stewart recipe. When lunchtime comes, the container just needs to be shaken to distribute the dressing evenly. Pack a few slices of pita on the side for a complete meal that takes just minutes to throw together.
Bring new life to leftover rice by making it into tomorrow's packed lunch. Frying it up with a bit of soy sauce can be done quickly the night before, or in the morning to make sure there's no refrigerated chill remaining. Use leftover odds and ends to make a stir-fry to accompany the rice. Use favorite combinations of vegetables, proteins, and herbs to assemble a tasty dish that makes the most of ingredients already on hand.
Related: 10 Ways to Use Rice
These fresh rolls contain all the elements of a balanced meal in a fun-to-eat, handheld package. They are inexpensive and easy to make, although it's best to put them together ahead of time and stash them in the fridge for a quick packed lunch. The blog Sally's Baking Addiction has a version with peanut dipping sauce. Once the ingredients are prepped, it can be a fun family activity to customize each person's rolls. Kids will take pride in showing off their culinary skills the next day at lunch.
This cheesy dish is reminiscent of mac and cheese but includes plenty of healthy broccoli for balance. While kids will like the taste, parents will like how risotto goes from a labor-intensive and time-consuming dish to a simple, one-pot quick fix with a pressure cooker. The blog Pressure Cooker Diaries has a video for beginners. Refrigerate the meal in a plastic container to be ready to go in the morning. By the time lunch rolls around, the risotto will be room temperature and delicious.
A spin on a classic, this hearty Mexican sandwich is made on a roll and loaded with veggies and beans, making it a complete meal. For a classic but kid-friendly version, gather refried beans, Oaxacan or mozzarella cheese, avocado, and tomato. Any meat or other filling can be added but is not necessary, and although hot peppers are usually found in tortas, they can be omitted for kids who haven't yet developed a taste for spicy stuff. Tortas are gaining popularity quickly for their deliciousness and ability to fill up hungry people everywhere. The blog Amuse Your Bouche has a simple, 10-minute version, and Serious Eats has a half-hour version for advanced cooks.
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Take a break from classic sliced bread and make the most of the convenient pita pocket. The half-moons hold fillings better than slices and can be a welcome change of shape. Stuff them with favorite fillings such as egg salad, tuna, deli meat, cheese, and vegetables (see The Kitchn for recommendations). Because pitas hold so much, they're an efficient way to pack a lot of nutrition and sustenance into a lunchbox, keeping kids satisfied all day.