Lunches Kids Can Make Themselves
If your kids will be home more this school year, enlist them in the lunch brigade. Here are easy recipes for kids from preschool to middle school.
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In our house, summer passed in a blur of late bedtimes, binge-reading fantasy book series, and sighs of exasperated boredom. Now we’re gearing up for remote classes, making back-to-school displays in stores seem especially bittersweet.
School is not the same for any family this year, no matter what their plan. But the seasonal reset is nudging us to break new ground with lunches in our home. The goal? Maximum enjoyment with minimum fuss. That means lunches that kids can make for themselves.
Lunches that kids make don’t need to be showy or perfect. My ten-year-old daughter spent summer alternating between grilled cheese and fried eggs. More variety would have pleased me, but she made the lunches herself, and we decided to branch out this fall — starting with her consulting me on the following recipes.
These lunch ideas are ones smaller kids (4 to 8 years) can assist with, and older kids (9 to 12) can more or less tackle on their own. Will it save Mom or Dad time to get the kids involved? Unlikely, especially at first! But making the kids part of the process will definitely encourage their buy-in, and long-term, who knows? They just might start cooking dinner.
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Tips for lunches kids can make
Here are some tips for pulling it off with maximum sanity intact.
Consider a weekly lunch menu. Schedules help maintain sanity and give kids something to look forward to. This way you can shop for what you need — and if you break from the plan, no big deal. Get the kids in on choosing the menu, and for variety, consider a “freestyle day” where you enjoy leftovers or just wing it.
Complete steps they can’t. If using a knife or cooking on the stove is more than young ones can manage, do those parts yourself, then hang out as kids mix or assemble. They can always grate cheese, peel carrots, and crack eggs. If you can manage, do light prep in the morning.
Go with the flow. Celebrate small gains: a few bites of a new vegetable, their delight in customizing their plates. Don’t dwell on recipes that bomb. If you have a child who detests cooking, give them clean-up duty instead. If you have a kid who blossoms in the kitchen, encourage them to continue exploring.
No-cook lunches for kids
The youngest cooks may need some help, but if you prep the ingredients, they can likely take it from there. For older kids who are more independent, these recipes work for days when they’re not in the mood for anything too involved. Some come together on the spot, but a few could be assembled the night before or in the morning.
Sticking veggies on a skewer somehow automatically increases the fun factor. Tiny balls of fresh mozzarella, colorful cherry tomatoes, ruffles of green lettuce, and olives make for a mash-up of lunchbox fare and cocktail chic. Other options for skewering could be pickle slices, cubes of ham, chunks of avocado, or pepperoni slices.
Cut up and freeze nearly-too-ripe bananas to have them at the ready for this simple smoothie with no added sweetener. The recipe offers ideas for add-ins like a blob of nut butter, a scattering of flax or chia seeds, or a dash of cinnamon.
Who said anything about breakfast? We’re here for lunch, and for kids who love to gobble up guacamole, here’s an incredibly simplified version they can mash up themselves; it even includes a smart tip to snip rather than chop the cilantro.
When sandwich burnout sets in, switch up the format. Starting out with pre-packaged cheese sticks make it easier for small hands to cube the cheese, but you can also use block cheese and give everyone a head start by cutting it into more manageable chunks yourself.
For fans of tortilla roll-ups, this recipe offers a buffet of filling combinations, including salad veggies, smoked salmon and cream cheese, and a tuna salad in wrap form. Use whole-wheat tortillas to bump up the nutrition.
Make-ahead lunches for kids
If you prefer the lunch break be for eating and some well-deserved time outside, making lunch the night before can be a new (and fun!) kind of homework.
Adventurous eaters — and fans of sushi — will love making these Japanese rice balls. Start with a pot of warm rice and tuck a bit of filling inside, then get creative decorating with strips of nori. Traditional fillings like cod roe might not be too kid-friendly, so try options like canned tuna, or even dream up your own. These are a bit more involved, but come lunchtime your work pays off. The recipe includes a link to a tutorial on making hot, plain Japanese short-grain white rice.
Shrinking down a big frittata into muffin tins makes these guys charming and simple, and older kids can likely pull off making the recipe unassisted. Bits of ham, corn, and cheddar give these awesome lunch appeal (you can leave out the chopped parsley, if your kids are wary of green bits). The baked frittatas can be frozen for up to a month, or refrigerated for up to three days.
A batch of this will last for more than a few lunches, and when you use store-bought pesto, the ingredients and work are minimal. Keep those grains whole by choosing whole-wheat pasta, and throw a handful of grated Parmesan cheese in to make it more substantial.
Deviled eggs are messy to pack in a lunch — but that’s not an issue at home! Cook the eggs for your kids, if needed (peeling will keep them plenty busy; get some tips for making it easy). For mess-free assembly, spoon the filling into a zip-top bag, cut off the tip, and use it like a piping bag. The paprika sprinkled on top may be divisive; let your kids decide.
Lunch ideas from the oven
Older kids love baking, and here are some recipes that go from minimal work to pulling off a full-blown meal.
As a young cook, I loved making casseroles. Putting together something so much bigger than a snack made me feel so accomplished. This takes about 20 minutes to prep, and another 40 in the oven, but you can assemble it a few days ahead (wait to add the cheese just before baking) and bake it for lunchtime. The diced green chiles might be too spicy for some; if so, just leave them out.
This easy lunch brings smiles all around. English muffins, pizza sauce, grated mozzarella: that’s it. There are directions for the microwave and regular oven, but you could also use a toaster oven. If you grew up savoring these as after-school snacks, go with the nostalgia and see if the kiddos will make a few extra for you.
Why wait for Halloween to eat yummy hot dog mummies? Two ingredients: hot dogs and crescent roll dough. Then you’re well on your way to these spooky takes on pigs in a blanket. If you prefer the classic version, check out this pigs in a blanket recipe that calls for cocktail wieners and cheese.
Stovetop lunch ideas for kids at home
Getting kids comfortable using pots and pans can raise anxiety, but if you emphasize safety and confidence, it pays off in their ability to make quick, basic meals from pantry staples.
Keeping tortillas on hand means quesadillas are always within arm’s reach. Adding apples brings a new twist. This calls for salsa, but of course you can skip it. You can even skip the chicken, or use turkey lunch meat instead.
There’s a whole class of recipes that start with instant ramen, and it’s no wonder — the noodles cook super fast, and their squiggly shape makes regular noodles boring in comparison. Pitch the seasoning packet and stir together a sauce from peanut butter, honey, soy, and sweet chili sauce.
Perhaps the first thing many kids make on their own is a grilled cheese sandwich. You can’t go wrong with the classics! This recipe includes a video, which might be helpful, though for safety, kids should flip bread with a spatula rather than with their fingers.
More ideas for kids who cook
If you're looking for kid-friendly recipes and easy dinners for young cooks, check out these additional articles about cooking with kids.