The A+ Back to School Pantry
With these kid-friendly ingredients and recipes, you’ll have everything you need for easy weekday lunches — and make that some easy dinners, too!
My son is a sophomore in high school now. (I’m a little shocked. Pre-K was yesterday.) He’s packing his own lunches these days — and let me tell you, I don’t exactly miss trying to suss out what my picky kid might deign to consume on any given day. But I’m still making sure to keep the kitchen stocked with items that offer him possibilities galore.
Kiddo is learning some tenets of school lunches I’ve known for years, like if he waits until 10 minutes before he needs to go, he might not have lunch that day. Or that he’ll never make it through the afternoon if he doesn’t give himself the right fuel (so no, a lunch box with nothing but cheesy crackers and cookies won’t do). He’s already realized that including a mix of nutrients and textures really does matter. All I have to do is keep enough of his favorites on-hand, which is harder than I expected. I’d always heard that teenagers eat a lot, and hoo-boy, does he ever.
If you’re planning lunches for younger kids, you probably won’t need to buy the quantities I do — unless you’re feeding multiple kids — but the basic concepts of stocking the back-to-school pantry apply to us all.
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The ultimate back-to-school pantry
The secret to packing nutritious lunches your kids will eat looks a lot like the secret to getting an easy family dinner on the table: Make sure you keep an assortment of versatile, nutritious, kid-friendly foods in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. This list of lunchbox-specific foods assumes you already have standard items like cooking oils, vinegar, salt, spices and other seasoning, condiments, flour, sugar, baking powder and baking soda, breadcrumbs, canned tomatoes, broth, garlic, and onions.
Easy proteins: Eggs, cheese (including spreadable ones like cream cheese, sturdy ones like cheddar, and fun-to-eat ones like bocconcini or string cheese), canned beans (especially chickpeas and black beans), plain yogurt, nut or seed butters, leftover cooked meats (I always cook an extra couple of chicken breasts, or buy a larger cut of beef), canned tuna, edamame, tofu
Lunchbox-friendly fruits and vegetables: apples (of course), clementines, oranges, melon, pineapple, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, banana, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, baby carrots, bell peppers, snow peas, green beans
Raw and ready-made grains: Oats, quinoa, couscous, rice, pasta, white whole-wheat bread, flatbread, pita, tortillas, English muffins, bagels, popcorn
Ready-to-eat fridge and freezer items: hummus, guacamole, tzatziki, flavored yogurt, deli meats, sausages, meatballs, chicken tenders, veggie burgers, dumplings, peas, corn kernels, waffles and pancakes, a variety of frozen fruits
Shortcuts for semi-homemade cooking: Pizza dough, pie crust, puff pastry, ravioli and/or tortellini, jarred pasta sauce, rotisserie chicken, salsa, refried beans, spiralized veggies, coleslaw mix, precooked whole grains
Healthy snacks: whole-grain crackers, pretzels, pita chips, dried fruit, applesauce, canned fruit in juice, freeze-dried fruits and vegetables, low-sugar granola bars and cereal bars, nut-free trail mix, jerky sticks, olives
Recipes for kids who like to nibble
When my son was in elementary school, his lunchboxes were all about variety. He never wanted to eat a lot of any one thing, but if I gave him a little bit of four or five different choices, the odds were good he’d eat enough to get him through the day.
Whatever marketing genius invented Lunchables clearly had a kid like mine. But I never liked the uber-processed ingredients they contained. This DIY version recreates their popular pepperoni pizza option with wholesome components.
Breakfast for dinner is always a hit in my home. Breakfast for lunch seems like an equally smart idea. Here, you’re giving your kid multiple components to combine: mini-pancakes, breakfast sausage patties, cheese, fruit, and yogurt.
Bento boxes are a lot like Lunchables, but they’re friendlier to leftovers. A little bit of last night’s chicken, a few grape tomatoes, a muffin, some raisins… You get the idea. This clever recipe gives you ideas for 15 different combinations.
When you’ve got a grazer, a big ol’ sandwich just won’t do. Make it work by rolling your sandwich ingredients inside a tortilla and cutting it into bite-sized pieces. Add some sliced fruit and a handful of olives for maximum nibbling.
Recipes for families who like to meal-prep
My husband and son both go on extended jags, eating the same thing for lunch every day. For them, preparing a week’s worth of meals at once just makes sense. And it makes weekdays so much easier! Double any of these recipes, and you’ve also got that night’s dinner.
On Sunday, make a batch each of homemade falafel and hummus (both super-easy) and a sturdy salad (no lettuce, so it won’t wilt), and you’ve got what you need for four weekday lunches.
Think of these as a super-healthy, make-ahead burrito bowl, with lime-scented brown rice, taco-seasoned turkey, corn kernels, and a chunky, four-ingredient salsa. If your kid lives for Taco Tuesday, it’s a guaranteed winner.
I don’t know what was in your lunchbox growing up, but mine usually had either tuna or PBJ sandwiches. What I would’ve given for a hearty helping of noodles with soy sauce. The pasta is whole-wheat for extra nutrition, and of course it’s chock-full of vegetables. Customize to suit your family’s taste.
The flexibility of this recipe makes it ideal for busy parents. Cook a batch of whatever grain you like and saute some of your family’s favorite vegetables. While that’s going, whisk together a quick honey-lemon sauce and simmer bite-sized pieces of chicken. Divide into containers and you’ve got six lunches ready to go.
Recipes for anyone who likes to eat with their hands
My son just turned 15, and he still hates using a fork. He’d much prefer to just pick up his food and take a bite. If he puts anything like these in his lunchbox, the box will come home empty.
Whole-wheat pizza dough — easy and nutritious — becomes the container for seasoned ground meat and vegetables along with shredded cheese. Bake these ahead of time and freeze, then pop one in your kid’s lunchbox. It’ll be ready to eat by lunchtime.
Aren’t these cute? The quick dough is made with Greek yogurt and whole-wheat, self-rising flour, and the filling has spinach, zucchini, and cheese — so even though they’re perfectly adorable and kid-friendly, they’re also packed with nutrients. And even with homemade dough, these are ready in around 30 minutes.
Yes, sandwiches are already hand-held. But putting the ingredients of a classic ham-and-cheese in muffin form makes them so much more enticing! Even if you’ve never baked before, you can pull these off. I’d pack two with an apple and some carrot sticks and consider this a fine lunch.
When my son was little, he was obsessed with the idea of bringing hot dogs to school in his lunchbox. That always got a hard no from me. But then we came across this idea: Bake chunks of wieners inside whole-grain corn muffins. I’d include a little tub of mustard for dipping, and we’d both be happy.
Recipes for the snackers
I don’t remember how old my son was when I realized he’d reliably eat the snack-ier foods in his lunchbox, and leave the “real” food untouched. My solution: Make sure the snacks are packed with nutrition, like these. I never tricked him — I don’t believe in hiding foods he might resist — but if I made his meal feel like a snack, he was happy.
Crunchy snacks are a must, in my opinion. This one offers crunch galore via popcorn, banana chips, pumpkin seeds, and rice crackers. Shredded coconut and dried fruit add variety. Fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals: check, check, and check.
For a kid as picky as mine, I’ll do whatever I can to boost his nutrient intake. That includes adding mini-chocolate chips. These little flavor bombs are thoroughly chocolatey thanks to the cocoa powder and chips, but they’ve also got sunflower seeds and sunbutter, whole oats, and super-nutritious hemp hearts (aka hemp seeds), with just a little maple syrup to sweeten them.
Whatever your nutritional concerns, these easy bars meet them. They’re vegan, raw, and gluten-, grain-, nut-, dairy-, egg-, soy-, and refined sugar-free. They’re full of fiber and protein. And they’re still yummy enough to delight almost any kid.
If I were the type of person to bust out the laugh of a triumphant mom, these irresistible brownies would call for it. So fudgy they feel downright decadent, they’re actually full of protein and fiber thanks to canned black beans, pumpkin puree, and rolled oats. A little maple syrup sweetens them, while cocoa powder and chocolate chips deliver on the treat front.
Get the kids cooking
If they help cook a meal, they just might eat it, right? Here’s inspiration in these next articles.