15 Fresh Brown Bag Lunch Ideas

Back to school doesn't have to mean back to the same old sandwich.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

For many kids, including my own, back to school not only means back to books and homework, but back to eating sandwiches for lunch. If you've got kids who don't like buying lunch at school, the whole sandwich scene can get pretty boring by October. But it's not always easy to think of new brown bag lunch ideas.

I'm forever trying out different options in the hope of keeping lunch interesting and desirable. Hey, I've had lunch duty at my daughter's school -- I've seen what kids really eat and what they give or throw away.

The first thing to consider when brainstorming brown bag lunch ideas is, of course, your child's food preferences. One child might really like cold pasta salad or even vegetable sushi, while another prefers pita sandwiches or crackers with cheese and fruit. But don't be afraid to try out a few of your own brown bag lunch ideas. It's good to expand your child's food horizons. It may take a few tries, but they may actually ask for it the next time.

For safety's sake, keeping the following lunch entree options cold until lunchtime is essential. You can do this by packing a reusable ice pack. Or try packing a small water bottle or 100% juice box that has been frozen -- your child will have a slushy drink to enjoy at lunch, and won't have to worry about bringing an ice pack home.

15 Fresh Brown Bag Lunch Ideas

  1. Pasta Lover's Lunch Salad. Pack a cold pasta salad and a plastic fork, and your pasta lover will love you, too! Make your salad with lean meat or low-fat cheese (so it has some protein), lots of vegetables to boost fiber and nutrition, and use a whole-grain blend pasta, like Barilla Plus. Then just drizzle some light vinaigrette over the top and toss.
  2. Pita Pocket Sandwich. Pack your whole-grain pita pocket with chicken Caesar salad, or any other lean meat or cheese filler mixed with vegetables and dark green lettuce.
  3. The Fruit and Cheese Plate Special. Make crispy cracker sandwiches with whole-wheat crackers, slices of assorted cheese, and lean meats. Don't forget the fruit, which goes nicely with the cheese and adds fiber and nutrition.
  4. Peanut Butter Fun Pack. Pack 1/8 cup of natural-style peanut butter, along with a plastic knife or spoon, wheat crackers, and celery sticks, and you have a peanut butter fun pack!
  5. Bagel With Cream Cheese, Please. Bagels are a wonderful foundation for hardy sandwiches that stand up to being in a backpack or locker all morning. You can toast a bagel in the morning and simply spread some light cream cheese in the middle. Or make a bagel sandwich with, say, a little light cream cheese, some turkey, and cranberry sauce, then top it off with alfalfa sprouts or Romaine lettuce.
  6. Carry a Cobb Salad. Plastic containers can hold the makings of a delicious salad lunch. Fill it with chopped green lettuce, chopped hard-boiled egg, light cheese, and/or lean ham. You can buy packets of light dressing, or just use extra packets of light salad dressing left over from your last trip to the fast-food chain.
  7. It's a Wrap! Wraps are a nice change of pace from the usual sandwich. Use one of the new higher-fiber tortillas, like the multigrain flour tortillas available in most supermarkets. Then fill 'er up with chicken Caesar salad or assorted lean meats, cheese, tomato, sliced onion, shredded Romaine lettuce, and light dressing. Just roll it up and wrap in foil.
  8. Noodle Soup Cups. Many schools offer a hot water dispenser so kids can add hot water to packaged noodle soup cups. Some brands are higher in sodium and fat, and lower in fiber than others. Check out the options in stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's.
  9. Veggie Sushi. Not all kids will go for this one, but there are some out there who really like seaweed-wrapped sushi rolls. You can now buy pre-made sushi at many supermarkets, too. Choosing the veggie-filled sushi means there's no chance the sushi will get a little "fishy" while it's in your kid's backpack.
  10. Toss Some Taco Salad. If taco salad is a favorite, you can pack the meat mixture tossed with the shredded cheese, tomatoes, and chopped Romaine lettuce in a plastic container. At lunchtime, your child can add crunchy, reduced-fat tortilla chips and a little light dressing.
  11. Fried Rice Can Be Fun. When made with eggs or chopped lean ham and lots of veggies, cold fried rice can be a satisfying noontime treat. Make your own, or plan on leftovers the night before if you're ordering from a restaurant.
  12. Talk About Taquitos. I started doing this last year, and it seems to have stuck with my girls. I pop some Bean and Cheese frozen Taquitos from Whole Foods into my toaster oven in the morning, then let them cool. Then, I wrap them in foil and make sure they stay cool by packing a frozen juice box or small water bottle. By noon, they are cold, fun finger food.
  13. BBQ Chicken Sandwich. Your child can assemble a yummy BBQ grilled chicken sandwich fresh at lunchtime. Just pack a grilled, boneless, skinless chicken breast (you can make it in your indoor grill the night before) with some lettuce and sliced tomato in one baggie, and a whole-wheat bun in another. Add a packet of BBQ sauce to the lunch bag, and it's good to go.
  14. Meal Muffins. Certain types of muffins work as a lunch entree. If you bake them over the weekend and keep them in the freezer, you just have to pull one or two out in the morning. By lunch, they are nicely chilled and ready to eat. Try ham and cheese muffins, Mexican Cornbread muffins, or quiche muffins (quiche filling, baked with or without crust in a muffin pan).
  15. Turkey Jerky. You can round off a lunch packed with fruit, vegetables, and maybe trail mix or crackers by adding some high-protein turkey jerky. I found a turkey at Trader Joe's that is made without nitrites, MSG, or artificial ingredients, and the turkey is raised without added hormones. Can't argue with that. A 2-ounce serving of turkey jerky contains: 120 calories, 22 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrate, 540 milligrams of sodium, and 20 milligrams of cholesterol.

Published August 16, 2007.


Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

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