Whether you’re packing lunches for yourself, your kids or for everyone in the house, make-ahead lunches take so much stress off of the mornings. These are lunches that you can pack the night before or even days in advance. I pack lunches for my husband and my three-year-old son almost every day, and make-ahead and grab-and-go food is key. These are some of the tricks I use to fill out their lunchboxes, plus some ideas for recipes that make great leftovers.
A partitioned lunchbox has really helped me pack balanced lunches for my family. We use the Lock & Lock 3.6 cup lunchbox. It has four removable inner containers, which encourages me to pack a variety of foods. The Lock & Lock is just an example. Any partitioned lunch box would do the trick. If you don’t like plastic, this one from Lunchbots is a good option. I use a formula when it comes to packing lunches: leftovers from a previous meal (or a quick sandwich) for the main event, then a few side items to round things out.
Lunchbox Staples: Tips and Tricks
Stocking the fridge, freezer and pantry with lunchbox staples is so important when it comes to make-ahead lunches. Sometimes, if we don’t have leftovers, I don’t even follow the formula I mentioned above. My kid just gets a lunchbox full of sides, and I think those are sometimes his favorite lunches! You can see a week’s worth of my preschooler’s lunches here, if you want to get an idea of how our weeks map out. These are some of the side items I keep handy to toss into lunch boxes:
- baby carrots or carrots that I’ve cut into sticks
- black olives
- vegan cheese
- frozen corn and peas—pack these frozen veggies in the morning, and they’ll be defrosted but still cold by lunchtime!
- grape tomatoes
- whole grain crackers
- tangerines, fresh berries or your favorite fresh fruit
- salad greens or baby spinach—if you pack salad greens, be sure to include some hummus or dressing for dipping in another small container like this one
- cornichon pickles
- avocado—add a squeeze of lemon or lime juice, so it won’t brown.
- quick breads—my son’s lunch included a slice of my pumpkin banana bread every day this week. We baked it together on Sunday, so he was excited to see it in his lunchbox.
- baked sweet potato cubes
- tofu—my son likes plain, uncooked tofu, which I know is unusual. It’s such a lunchbox staple for us, though, I felt like I had to include it in this list. Seasoned baked tofu makes good finger food, if your lunch needs a protein punch.
- kale salad – If you love kale salads, you can make this a main event, but for kids it might be better as a side, in case they decide not to like kale today. It will keep for a couple of days, so make extra at supper to stuff into a couple of lunchboxes.
- nuts – Before my son’s school went nut free, cashews were a regular in his lunchbox
We don’t have all of those things in the house all of the time, but having a few on hand makes packing lunches easy. If the leftovers or sandwich are enough for half the box, I choose two of these items to include.
Recipes that Make Great Leftovers
Leftovers are my go-to when I’m packing a lunch. I’ve also included some great make-ahead sandwich fillings. You can use the salad greens, pickles, vegan cheese and avocado from the sides list to deck out your sandwiches. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MsbGtTfT9eQ?rel=0&controls=0&showinfo=0&w=650&h=400] 1. Creamy Kale Pasta – This—or really any—pasta dish is great in lunchboxes! Last night’s pasta is even tasty the next day at room temperature. Think of it as pasta salad. 2. Pasta Salad – Speaking of pasta salad! You can just make a big batch on Sunday and have yourself a few days of easy, scoopable lunches. 3. Tofu Salad – This is one of my husband’s favorites! Sometimes I pack this as a sandwich with sides. Other times, I just give him a big scoop and include veggies and crackers for dipping. 4. Salad – All of the fruits, veggies and nuts you stocked up on for sides make a great make-ahead salad! Throw it all into a big container the night before, and don’t forget to include a smaller container of dressing. 5. Hummus – There are so many delicious ways to enjoy hummus, and it keeps well for a few days. Spread it onto a sandwich with avocado, onion and tomato. Make a little mezze platter, with olive, pickles and pita or crackers. You can also cook with it, and a lot of these cooked hummus recipes make great leftovers!
6. Soups and Stews – If you have access to a microwave at work, pack up tonight’s leftover soup or stew in a mason jar or other glass container, so you can heat and eat tomorrow. Add a few sides, if you think a brothy soup might not be enough to fill you up. You can also warm it in the morning and pour into a thermos, if there’s no way to warm it at lunch time. 7. Pizza – Not everyone likes leftover, cold pizza, but I have found that people who like it LOVE it. My son is one of those people. When he discovers pizza in his lunchbox, it may as well be Christmas. If you’re packing pizza for yourself, you can warm it up in the breakroom toaster oven. 8. Burrito Bowl – Last night’s rice and beans are tomorrow’s burrito bowl! Add some salad greens and sliced tomatoes, mash up avocado with a squeeze of lime for a quick guac, and include a side of chips or tortillas and salsa. Or, if you’re planning burritos for supper, make extra filling and you have an instant burrito bowl. Do you have any favorite recipes that make great lunchbox leftovers? A favorite side item that I missed? Let’s keep the healthy lunch inspiration going in the comments!