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Cheap and Delicious Packed Lunches (For Kids and Grown-Ups!)

By Bonny Reichert

Published October 6, 2023 • 4 Min Read

Fall is here and all over the country, kids are marching off to school with lunches stuffed into their backpacks. Many of us are back at the office, as well. The cost of eating out has skyrocketed and packed lunch ideas are starting to wane, but that noontime meal is an important one.

For many years, school lunches were the bane of my existence. Every morning, I hopefully packed up sandwiches and Thermoses and red cheeked apples, and every night I cringed as I pulled bruised, soggy, wasted food out of backpacks and lunchboxes. My three kids weren’t especially picky and I thought I was a good cook – what was I doing wrong?

When I got a new job in a neighbourhood where the dining options were either expensive or terrible (or both!), everything changed. I began packing said lunches for myself and quickly realized that my boring tuna and egg salads weren’t exactly lighting up the lunch hour. Time to step it up. I experimented not just with sandwiches but with interesting containers and sides and slaws.

Here are some homemade ideas that can help you save money at the noon hour, avoid lunchbox letdown and put a spring in everyone’s step this fall.

Snazzy sandwiches

Lemony apple ambrosia: Cut up a green apple and bathe slices in a squeeze of lemon juice. Spread rustic, seedy bread with mayo and season with a bit more lemon juice. Layer cheddar, brie or a cheese of your choice and apple onto bread. Season with salt and pepper. A sprig of dill adds a little pizzazz. Wrap and pack.

Prosciutto pronto: I rarely find someone – child or adult – who doesn’t like prosciutto (vegans and vegetarians excepted, of course). Split a fresh square of focaccia bread in half. Drizzle with good quality olive oil and layer with thinly-sliced prosciutto. Add sliced mozzarella – fresh is delicious (dry it well first) but ordinary mozzarella will be great, too. Add a handful of basil leaves. If you’d like tomatoes on this sandwich (and I say, who wouldn’t?) pack them separately to be added just before eating.

Mushroom magic: A delicious, satisfying option for the vegans in your life. At dinnertime the night before, saute more mushrooms than you need, taking care to brown them nicely and evaporate their moisture. (I love oyster mushrooms but any kind will work.) In the morning, lightly toast two slices of sourdough bread and spread with hummus or olive oil. Pile on the mushroom filling, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Mix up a little kale slaw by slicing baby kale leaves into strips and drizzling with oil and balsamic vinegar. Add a puff of kale to mushrooms, close and pack.

Box it up

Bento boxes are fun, readily available and perfect for those who prefer to go sandwich-free at lunchtime. Here are a couple of ways to fill ’em:

Middle Eastern to-go: Fill the compartments of your box with your favourite Mediterranean treats: Hummus in one, fresh pita wedges in another; taboule, olives and maybe a little tahini in the remainders. Add snap peas and carrot sticks for dipping.

Oodles of noodles: Pick up a pack of cooked, preservative-free udon noodles at the grocery store. Cover with boiling water just long enough to loosen, then drain. While hot, dress noodles with a little vegetable oil to prevent sticking, then 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce, 2 teaspoons seasoned rice vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil. Mix well and chill. Transfer to box and accompany with a small handful of shelled edamame, toasted sesame seeds and a few strips of dried seaweed.

Make minis

Kids and adults alike love foods in miniature. Here are a couple of starter ideas, but anything bite-sized can be fun!

Taco time: Using a knife or a 3-1/2-inch cookie cutter, cut corn or flour tortillas. (Scraps can be toasted for chips.) Make into mini tacos by setting oven to 350 F and brushing tortillas lightly with oil on both sides. Drape each tortilla over a slat of your oven rack and bake until curled and firm, about 10 minutes. Pack up fillings of your choice: leftover chicken, shredded cheese and lettuce, salad and maybe some fresh lime wedges for zing.

Simple sushi: Make extra white or, even healthier, brown rice for dinner. In the morning, add a few drops of seasoned rice vinegar and a sprinkle of salt, and mix well. Spread a layer of rice over a sheet of nori and add vegetables such as peppers or avocado, carrots or cucumber, cut into sticks. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds, roll up and slice. Send with soy or tamari sauce, as your heart desires.