nut butter fruit panini = peanut butter and jelly
Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune

Back-to-School Lunches Your Kids Will Actually Eat

The struggle is real
nut butter fruit panini = peanut butter and jelly
Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune

One of the biggest hurdles parents face when sending kids to school each day is figuring out what to pack for lunch. There are so many things to think about: the lunch needs to be something they’ll actually eat, something that can sit in a lunchbox for hours without getting cold or soggy and, preferably, something with some nutritional value. After all, kids can’t live off of Rice Krispies Treats and brownies alone.

While there’s nothing wrong with sending a PB&J  — it’s a classic for a reason — here are 16 recipes that will give those lunchboxes a leg up if you’re looking for some extra inspiration.

Air Fryer Mozzarella Sticks

Air Fryer Mozzarella Sticks
Courtesy Ready Set Eat

Mozzarella sticks for school lunch? Why not? This favorite cheesy recipe has protein, kid-friendly flavors and is fairly healthy. Because these are cooked in the air fryer, they aren’t loaded with oil. To keep them warm and crispy, cook them in the morning before school, then pack them in a thermos lined with paper towels to absorb the moisture.

For the Air Fryer Mozzarella Sticks recipe, click here.

Three Ingredient Bagels

Three Ingredient Bagels
Jacqui Wedewer / The Daily Meal

Bagels are a great, versatile lunchbox option, whether your kiddos like them with cream cheese, butter, jelly or just plain. While you could pick them up at the store or the bagel shop, this easy bagel recipe has a few things going for it: your kids can help make them over the weekend and they are packed with Greek yogurt for a nutritional boost.

For the Three Ingredient Bagel recipe, click here.

Pepperoni Pizza Pinwheels

Pepperoni Pizza Pinwheels
Jacqui Wedewer / The Daily Meal

Pizza is a classic kid fave, but it’s not exactly lunch box-friendly. These pinwheels, however, are the best of both worlds since they pack the flavors of pizza in a compact, handheld package. Plus, since they’re made with crescent roll dough, they can be ready in 15 minutes. Either make them in the morning while everyone’s eating breakfast or have the kids make their own the night before and reheat in the morning. 

For the Pepperoni Pizza Pinwheels recipe, click here.

Homemade Egg Noodles

Homemade Egg Noodles
Jacqui Wedewer / The Daily Meal

Buttered pasta makes for a great lunch option for picky eaters. Most of the time, store-bought pasta more than suffices but if you’re feeling industrious over the weekend, make your own egg noodles. You can store them in the fridge or freezer until you’re ready to use them. They’ll cook up in minutes and make for a super-special, homemade lunch full of love.

For the Homemade Egg Noodles recipe, click here.

Grilled Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches

Grilled Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches
Courtesy of Ready Set Eat

If you want some variation from the usual peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, why not take some inspiration from Elvis and swap in a banana? This recipe calls for cinnamon raisin bread and a quick cook in a buttered skillet, but you can use whatever bread you like and even skip the grilling if you’re in a rush. You can use nut-free butter as well.

For the Grilled Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches recipe, click here.

Ham and Cheese Pinwheels

Ham and Cheese Pinwheels
zoff/Shutterstock

Wrapping up foods in a tortilla and turning them into “pinwheels” is a classic lunchbox strategy. Here, ham and cheddar are rolled up with ranch-flavored cream cheese but you can swap in any deli meat and cheese combo your kid likes. Use this formula to inspire other pinwheel possibilities inspired by your kids’ favorite flavor combos, whether it’s peanut butter and jelly or hummus and cucumber.

For the Ham and Cheese Pinwheels recipe, click here.

Savory Carrot Waffles

Savory Carrot Waffles
Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune; Shannon Kinsella/food styling

Waffles are always a win for kids, so why not take that familiar format and add in some veggies? Carrots have a natural sweetness so they’re a great choice for packing some nutritional power into savory waffles. If your kiddos aren’t into the flavors in this recipe, use some cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice instead to make the waffles more approachable.

For the Savory Carrot Waffle recipe, click here.

The Only Waffle Recipe You’ll Ever Need

The Only Waffle Recipe You’ll Ever Need
Valentina_G / iStock / Getty Images Plus

If you can’t sell the children on savory waffles, then traditional Belgian waffles are a decent lunch. They’ve got milk and eggs for protein and carbs for energy. You can swap in some whole wheat flour if you want them more wholesome. Make a big batch over the weekend, freeze, then pop them in the toaster before packing up those backpacks.

For the Only Waffle Recipe You’ll Ever Need, click here.

Buttermilk Chicken Nuggets

Buttermilk Chicken Nuggets
Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune

You can get frozen chicken nuggets and pack those for lunch; honestly, they’re a good option to have on hand. But nothing beats homemade, especially when the chicken is marinated in buttermilk first. This recipe is too involved for a weekday morning, but is a perfect option to make ahead and reheat, whether you serve them for dinner and pack leftovers or you make them specifically for this purpose.

For the Buttermilk Chicken Nuggets recipe, click here.

Chicken Noodle Soup

Chicken Noodle Soup
Courtesy of Karrie Truman, Happy Money Saver

A perennial children’s lunch favorite, there’s no need to wait until your little has the sniffles to serve them homemade chicken noodle soup. Seal it tight in a thermos and pack it in their lunchbox for a warming, filling meal. If you want to go all the way homemade, you can use the egg noodles mentioned above. 

For the Chicken Noodle Soup recipe, click here.

Mixed Berry Jam

Mixed Berry Jam
baibaz/Shutterstock

If you’ve gone berry picking this summer and are looking for a way to preserve that warm-weather goodness, make mixed berry jam, which is a great activity to do with the kiddos. Plus, it’s one of the best ways to upgrade those peanut or sun butter and jelly sandwiches that are sure to be in regular rotation. 

For the Mixed Berry Jam recipe, click here.

Raisin Sandwich Bread

Raisin Sandwich Bread
Corinne Poleij / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Upgrade a PB&J from so-so to spectacular with homemade bread. And for a fun, extra special touch, switch things up with raisin sandwich bread. Use this bread to upgrade grilled cheese sandwiches and more too!

For the Raisin Sandwich Bread recipe, click here.

Corn, Broccoli and Cheddar Muffins

Corn, Broccoli and Cheddar Muffins
mphillips007 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

You may think of muffins as one of the best after-school snacks, but they’re also a viable lunch option, especially when they’re packed with corn kernels and broccoli like in this savory recipe. Make a big batch, store them in the freezer and pull them out as needed. Even if you don’t have time to fully defrost them, they should be good to go by lunch time.

For the Corn, Broccoli and Cheddar Muffins recipe, click here.

Salami and Cream Cheese Sandwich

Salami and Cream Cheese Sandwich
Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune; Lisa Schumacher/food styling

A cold-cut sandwich is an easy lunch option — it’s portable, it provides protein and it appeals to many kids. This recipe combines a few favorite ingredients into one meal: pretzel rolls, salami and cream cheese. It’s super simple but extra delicious. 

For the Salami and Cream Cheese Sandwich recipe, click here.

Nutty Butter and Fruit Panini

Nutty Butter and Fruit Panini
Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune

For another twist on PB&J, try this nut butter and fruit panini. You can use whatever bread will appeal to your kiddos, whichever “butter” is OK to bring to school and any fruit your child prefers. For a special treat, swap the nut butter for a chocolate hazelnut spread. It feels like dessert but is packed with everything your kids need to power through until the bell rings.

For the Nutty Butter and Fruit Panini recipe, click here.

Mac and Cheese

Mac and Cheese
Courtesy of Karrie Truman, Happy Money Saver

Kid food at its finest, macaroni and cheese is ideal for meal prep since it takes just a handful of ingredients and a few easy steps. It packs up well in a thermos and stays warm until lunchtime. But we all know kids can be picky about their mac and cheese, so if this one isn’t to their liking, there are plenty more marvelous mac and cheese recipes to choose from.

For the Macaroni and Cheese recipe, click here.

More from The Daily Meal:

School Lunch Packing Supplies You Actually Need

15 Quick and Easy After-School Snacks For Every Type of Kid

25 Fuss-Free Rrecipes for Busy School Nights

The Healthiest and Unhealthiest Juice Boxes for Kids

25 Breakfasts for Hectic School Day Mornings