Since most of my friends’ kids go to nut-free schools, PB&J’s aren’t an option, so I’ve had multiple parents approach me for sandwich-free lunch ideas for their kids. I have an endless supply of thoughts on this theme, because sandwiches aren’t our go-to. In fact, I’d say what I’m relying on most often is leftovers from dinner to fill out Zane and Ruby’s lunches. It helps me avoid overwhelm, because decision fatigue is REAL you guys. Four people, three meals a day, seven days a week – these cannot all be new ideas or it would feel like a full-time job, and I already have one of those.
So, I’m starting with five of the kids’ recent sandwich-free lunches. Some were made the morning of, some were leftovers, and all of them were happily devoured. They are also nut-free, composed primarily of whole foods, and mostly gluten-free or easily made gluten-free if you have access to GF pasta and bread crumbs.
Until about a week ago, I packed my kids’ lunches and snacks in individual containers and threw them in a tote bag to hand off to their daycare provider. While this worked fine, it didn’t occur to me to streamline the process until my son started preschool – two different locations, two different lunches to pack. Plus, I think his teacher would have given me some side-eye if he showed up with a tote bag for a lunchbox. Now I pack them each a lunchbox to fit in their backpacks. It’s one less bag for me to carry out of the house and clean-up is SO much simpler.
I assembled each of these sandwich-free lunches in a Lunchbots Bento Cinco lunchbox. We’re relatively new to bento boxes, but so far I love this particular lunchbox. My kids are big eaters and this holds enough to satisfy them, plus the five compartments ensure they’re getting variety each day.
1. Meatballs and Pasta
I love packing meatballs in my kids’ lunches because I can make and bake off a big batch to keep in the fridge or freezer for quick packing. I usually follow this meatball recipe, and while you could also make the accompanying sauce, this time I opted for a jarred marinara for dipping. Speaking of which, how cute is the tiny fork to make dipping extra fun and keep little hands clean?
I filled out this lunchbox with buttered pasta (a gluten-free brand, in this case), cubes of cheddar cheese, sugar snap peas (my kids are currently obsessed), and grapes. Note: Normally we halve grapes for safety reasons, but this variety is as soft and small as blueberries.
2. Cheese Quesadilla with Rice & Beans
When I don’t plan ahead, we often end up eating quesadillas for dinner, and now the same goes for lunches. This lunchbox is predominantly items we tend to have on hand: a cheese quesadilla (shredded cheddar cheese sandwiched between two corn tortillas and pan-fried in butter), rice, and black beans. When this is the product of leftovers, the beans are usually sauteed with onion and spices, but this time I just rinsed the beans straight from the can and the kids still ate it up.
The final two components – cucumbers and strawberries – are always well-received in my home. In reality, I probably pack cucumbers three times a week since the kids are always happy to eat them.
3. Fish Sticks
Think leftover fish sticks are unappealing? Think again, especially when they’re The Best Fish Sticks You’ll Ever Eat. Although nothing beats eating them right out of the pan, they’re still delicious the next day. My kids especially enjoy dipping them in ketchup, along with leftover roasted potatoes.
To this lunch I added carrot sticks and bell peppers (probably my kids’ favorite vegetable) and, since the meal was veggie-heavy, sunflower seeds with raisins. I was in the habit of doing a mix of almonds or peanuts and raisins before Zane attended a nut-free school, but now I’m experimenting with a combination of seeds and dried fruit and they’re liking the variety.
4. Sweet Potato Pancakes
Breakfast for lunch (or dinner) is a big hit for both the kids and adults in our home, and it works just as well with a packed lunch. I’ve been starting with sweet potato pancakes (as pictured) or their predecessor, two-ingredient pancakes, and amping up the protein with a sliced hard-boiled egg.
Tip: Make sure the pancakes have fully cooled before storing them in the fridge, or else they will stick together.
Staying on theme, I added yogurt (make sure to pack a spoon!), granola, and raspberries to the smaller sections. This one came back without a crumb remaining.
5. Carrot Mac n Cheese with Chicken
I’m happy anytime I can combine dinner and lunch prep, and the kids are never disappointed to see my carrot macaroni and cheese two days in a row. You could either stir cooked chicken into the macaroni before baking for a one-pan meal, or do as I did here and include cubed poached chicken. I follow this poached chicken method and it comes out perfectly every time.
Since the mains are pretty beige here, the remaining components needed to be colorful: bell pepper, frozen peas, and blueberries.