Easy lunch ideas your kids can pack themselves in minutes

Aug 30, 2016 at 5:00 p.m. ET
Image: NatashaPhoto / Getty Images

I had been through too many screaming matches with my kids that have ended in tears (mine) to ever want to wade into the minefield of school lunch prep again. Sandwiches left uneaten, snacks completely neglected, bananas left to get mushy at the bottom of their backpacks...

Then I had a “eureka” moment while shopping with the kids, who wanted nothing to do with the usual groceries I was buying, but were literally begging me (and causing a major scene) to buy them Lunchables. You know — those little box kits that manage to pack 10,000 percent of the daily recommended allowance of sodium into a small container of cheese and crackers. And that’s when it hit me: Have the kids assemble their own lunches.

I’m not talking having them make their own the night before — they’re adept at taking a five-minute task and making it last an hour, and I have no patience for that after 6 p.m. I mean take all the stuff you’d use for their lunches, shove everything into a bento box or a few baggies, and let it be their problem. Give them their own condiments, plastic knives, paper plates — whatever they need to be the Michael Symon of the lunchroom.

More: After-school snacks your kids can prepare, because they've got hands, right?

school lunches kids can make themselves
Image: NatashaPhoto / Getty Images

Not only did this work, but it has saved me a ton of time and aggravation. You can pack up leftovers, odds and ends that are in the fridge, or buy your components in bulk, and package them when you get home so everything is grab-and-go. If you want to move behind plain old cold cuts and crackers, here are a few menu items that are in our rotation. Mix and match from the things listed, or ask your kid to add some items of their own:


Burgers don’t need to be hot to be delicious! Grill up some mini patties, then keep them in the freezer.

  • Slider buns
  • Burger patties
  • Ketchup and mustard packets
  • Potato chips
  • Pickles
  • Cheese
  • Bacon
  • Lettuce

Cocktail meatballs

There’s something about food being on a toothpick that makes it taste better. Throw a few fancy-looking ones into a baggie, which makes it more fun to eat. I’ve tried this with my own meatballs before that I’ve batch-frozen, but now I use the frozen Swedish meatballs from Ikea.

  • Meatballs
  • Cubed mozzarella
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Dipping sauce: gravy, teriyaki, barbecue sauce

Bagel bites

I’ve got a kid who loves smoked salmon, and you’d be surprised how many kids feel the same. Try “plating” it by cutting slices in half and rolling them up to look like roses. Everyone’s a sucker for pretty food.

  • Mini bagels or bagel chips
  • Whipped cream cheese
  • Smoked salmon
  • Sliced tomatoes
  • Sliced cucumbers
  • Salt and pepper packets
  • Bacon

Loaded waffles

Who doesn’t like breakfast anytime? By putting fruit on a waffle, you're more likely to get them to eat it rather than find it smooshed up in their bags when they get home.

  • Mini waffles
  • Cream cheese
  • Peanut butter
  • Sliced strawberries
  • Blueberries
  • Fingerling banana with plastic knife
  • Chocolate chips

Taco box

This is one of the best ways to use up leftover meat and vegetables from dinner, and I rarely find a lunchbox full of leftovers. Save the small sauce cups that come when you get takeout; they make great condiment containers!

  • Rotisserie chicken
  • Sliced steak
  • Salsa
  • Sour cream
  • Shredded cheese
  • Chopped lettuce
  • Diced tomatoes
  • Chopped bell peppers

Sushi rolls

Buy a small container of rice from your local takeout spot, and pack it with dried seaweed snacks. I buy frozen, precooked salad shrimp from Costco and put it straight into the container. They’ll thaw by lunchtime.

  • Salad shrimp
  • Imitation crab sticks
  • Julienned cucumber
  • Sliced mango
  • Shredded lettuce
  • Soy sauce packets
  • Mayonnaise packets
  • Sesame seeds


It's not quite the Philadelphia classic, but the kids love it just the same.

  • Split piece of a baguette, or a hot dog bun
  • Thinly sliced and chopped deli roast beef
  • Shredded cheese
  • Sliced bell peppers