I grew up taking my lunch to school every day -- roast beef sandwiches on white bread with Miracle Whip and nacho cheese flavored Doritos, leftover fried chicken with a bread and butter fold-over, homemade cookies or pound cake, always the obligatory piece of fruit. Otherwise well-fed kids sat next to me in hopes of getting my scraps. My kids' lunches don't much resemble mine from the seventies, but are equally appreciated.
W is somewhat easy-going when it comes to the contents of his lunch box. Most days he would probably be happy with a couple of PB&Js. B, on the other hand, rarely eats a PB&J and is not a fan of your typical deli meat and cheese on sandwich bread. So, over the past few years, we've come up with a number of innovations.
Jalapeno Garlic Pimento Cheese: DH and I love it on rye bread or celery sticks, but the kids prefer my pimento cheese on wheat bread or Wheat Thins. W is especially a fan. Make a batch for Saturday lunch and have it on hand for a couple of lunches during the week.
Cheeseburger Sliders: When you grill burgers, make extra slider-size patties for the week's lunches. We make these with either ground beef or turkey. Store the patties separately from the buns, then assemble before adding to the lunch box. Go light on the condiments so they don't get soggy. Putting two sliders in a foil packet works well.
Ham, Salami and Provolone Panini or Smoked Turkey, Bacon and Swiss Panini: During the school year, our panini press lives on the kitchen counter. It takes little extra time to toss the sandwich on the press for a few minutes while breakfast finishes cooking, but the rewards are large. Ham, salami and provelone and smoked turkey, bacon and swiss are two of the kids' favorite combinations. If you don't have leftover bacon on hand, the pre-fried kind works fine in a panini.
Sliced Steak on a Mini-Bagel: Steak on a Mini-Bagel works equally well for breakfast or lunch. We first started making these when with leftover steak. Now, I occasionally pick up skillet steaks out of the marked-down meat bin and do a quick pan fry. Huge hit.
Cream Cheese on a Cinnamon Raisin Bagel: This is one of our more economical options and an easy fix when the kids are getting sandwich burn-out.
Iceberg Wedge with Blue Cheese Dressing and Bacon: Some might consider this steakhouse-style salad a bit much for a kid's lunch box choice, but it is one of B's favorites. Fry extra bacon one morning during the weekend. Pack the iceberg wedge, salad dressing and bacon separately -- the salad can easily be assembled at lunch time. Who else's kid is eating a quarter head of lettuce for lunch?
Caesar Salad (with or without chicken): Caesar salad is another of B's favorites. Pack the dressing in one container and the romaine lettuce, croutons and shredded parmesan in another large enough that it can be shaken to toss the salad with the dressing. Add leftover grilled, roasted or rotisserie chicken for a protein boost. Another variation would be to make a Pesto Caesar Salad.
Cheese Tortellini with Pesto and Parmesan (with or without chicken): This pasta combo can be served at room temperature or kept warm in a thermos. If you have homemade pesto, by all means use it. Otherwise the store-bought kind works fine for this, as does the pre-shredded Parmesan. Fresh pasta from the refrigerator section cooks quickly so tossing this together takes very little time.
Asian Grilled Chicken Wings: Asian-style marinated and grilled wings may be B's all-time lunch box favorite. When I find wings on sale, I buy several large packages for the freezer. Marinate and grill a batch for a great appetizer for a crowd or for a family dinner with a side of veggie fried rice. Throw on an extra package for a couple of easy lunches.
Some of these options require a little planning and prep work that can be done the weekend before when life is somewhat more leisurely. Others may take a little longer to prep in the morning. We compensate by having the kids pack the rest of their lunches the night before. The bonus is that I am happy taking most of these lunches in my brown bag as well.