Does the lunch-packing routine wear you down? You’re not alone! A whole term into the school year, many parents would happily remortgage the house to purchase a lifetime of school lunches supplied by NASA. Just tear off the top and they’re good to go!

We can dream, but those empty lunch boxes still line up on the kitchen counter every weekday morning. By Christmas, I’m feeling entitled to some kind of long-term service award for filling each lunch box day after day. That’s why I got such a surprise when my son Peter dropped his "lunch confession" bombshell. It was during his grade seven year, and our conversation went like this:

Son (breezing into the kitchen as I swiped mayonnaise across slices of whole wheat bread): "Don’t put cucumber in my sandwich. Jacob doesn’t like it."

Me: "Who’s Jacob?"


Me: "How long have I been making lunch for Jacob?"

Another silence, accompanied by the look that means I’m not saying anything more until I call my lawyer.

Me: "If you’re not even eating the lunches I make, maybe I should give up. Maybe I should just buy pre-packaged lunch stuff."

Son, suddenly switching from mute to effusive: "No, don’t do that! I can trade a sandwich for anything I want. No one else has homemade sandwiches."

The reality of the school lunch break

Under cross-examination, Peter dispelled my preconceived myths about lunchtime at his school. Apparently the lunch bell kicks off a trading frenzy rivalling Wall Street during a market free-fall. But the news that my sandwiches were hot commodities did little to cushion the impact of my son’s revelation. For weeks, maybe months, I’d been slavishly packing (moderately) healthy lunches, only to have my son barter them for junk food.

On reflection, though, I could hardly blame Peter for trading his lunch. By rough calculation, I’d served him more than 150 packed lunches in the past year, and approximately 120 had featured sandwiches as the special of the day. It was clearly time to reform.

With my son acting as a junior food critic, we drafted a list of sandwich alternatives – a kind of school lunch box cheat sheet to help me inject more creativity into my lunch menu.

Creative lunches require planning

As much as I wish otherwise, the cheat sheet hasn’t allowed me to escape an inconvenient truth: creative lunches require planning and preparation ahead of time. But if you care to print out this cheat sheet and bring it along on your next trip to the grocery store, it may just help you add some new, winning combos to your child’s lunch box. And hopefully you’ll reduce the chance that your lovingly packed lunch will be traded for something better – or worse!

Main items

Quesadillas and salsa 

Place grated cheese, chopped spring onions, green pepper and slices of pepperoni (or pre-cooked bacon) between two tortillas. Cook in microwave on low until cheese is melted. Pack salsa separately. 


Make several pizzas at a time to freeze ahead. Try some new toppings, such as chicken sprinkled on barbeque sauce. For quick made-in-the-morning pizzas, use half an English muffin, toasted, as the pizza base. 


To speed up preparation time, bake the egg and bacon mixture in store-bought, muffin-size pastry shells. Soup Transport to school in a food Thermos. Serve with pre-made, bake-at-home breadsticks. 


This freezes well, so you can make a large quantity at once. Transport in a food Thermos, and don’t forget the crackers or breadsticks! 

Meat tacos*

Pack hard-shell tacos in a sturdy container, supported by paper towels, or use soft tortillas. Send all the fixin’s along in separate containers, including a Thermos to keep the meat warm. For cold-meat tacos, ensure that the meat is placed alongside an ice pack. 

Macaroni and cheese 

Send your child’s favourite homemade version to school in a Thermos. 

Tea biscuits and jam 

Best baked fresh in the morning, but the dough can be prepared the night before. Add the milk just before baking. For variation, add grated cheese, fresh or frozen blueberries, or dried raisins or cranberries. 


Does any other lunch staple have so many different flavours? And you can freeze them by the dozen, too! 


Try to go beyond bacon, lettuce and tomato. How about diced chicken, bean sprouts, grated carrot and cheese? 

Cold chicken strips* 

Serve with a salad, which offers almost endless variations. 

Souvlaki sandwich* 

Grill pork, chicken, beef or lamb the night before. Wrap in pita bread with lettuce, tomatoes and thinly sliced red onion. Add a container of homemade tzataiki. 

Pig in a blanket* 

Wrap a hot dog or veggie dog in crescent roll dough and bake for about 15 minutes. (I use the refrigerated, ready-made dough that comes in a can.) 



Slide cubes of chicken, fresh apples and grapes on a wooden skewer for a Waldorf sandwich kebab. Popsicle sticks are a safer option for younger children. 


Look for an oven-baked recipe. They're healthier and faster to make. 

Pancakes or waffles 

Many kids are happy to eat these cold if you pack plenty of maple syrup. 

Pasta salad* 

Potato salad* 


California rolls are easier to make than you think! Cook sticky rice the night before, and also chop the crabmeat into the mayonnaise. In the morning, spread the rice onto a sheet of nori. Sprinkle with sesame seeds. Flip the nori over onto a sheet of plastic wrap and arrange crabmeat and avocado slices down the middle. Roll up and slice. Pack with pickled ginger and soy sauce sachets. Quick "pretend" sushi Arrange crabmeat and avocado strips inside a tortilla and wrap into a tight roll. Slice into small rolls and fix each roll with a toothpick or two. 

Tuna salad* 

Add tuna to a basic salad with croutons on the side.


Antipasto and crackers 

Although antipasto takes some effort to make, the payback is its longevity; canned antipasto will keep for several months in the fridge. 

Guacamole* and crackers 

Salmon dip* and crackers 

Simply mash a can of salmon or tuna with mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and a little fennel. 

Cottage cheese* and crackers 

Spinach dip* with sourdough bread sticks 


Pop it the night before and sprinkle with salt, taco mix, powdered cheese or all three. What could be easier? And kids love it! 

Celery stick canoes 

Fill the hollow side of a celery stick with peanut butter, then add raisins to mimic people in your "canoes." Substitute a cheese stick or cheese spread for the peanut butter if your school has a nut ban in place. 

Potato skins 

Bake potatoes, cut in half and scoop out white inner until only about a half centimetre is left on the skin. Cut in half again. Brush skins with butter and salt and bake about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with cooked, crumbled bacon and grated cheese. Bake in oven until cheese melts. 

Focaccia bread 

With oil and vinegar dip, of course! 

Cold corn on the cob 

For a more elegant snack, slice the cob into medallions. 

Rice pudding* 


Add your child’s favourite fruit combo and pack muesli on the side for the topping. 

Trail mix 

Try whole wheat cereal squares, dried apricots, sunflower seeds, cranberries, flaked coconut and candy-coated chocolate buttons. 

Raw veggies 

Add some variety to this classic by serving with a variety of salad dressings and dips, including yogurt.* 

Homemade granola bars 

If these feature favourite ingredients, maybe your child will assume responsibility for making their own supply!

*A word of caution: All asterisked food items must be packed above an ice pack and in an insulated lunch kit to keep them fresh and safe for consumption. You may also want to routinely add a special sticker to items that should be kept cold, and instruct your child to always carefully repack any uneaten "keep-me-cold" items alongside the ice pack(s).

Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2011 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox