Not Just PB & J

Tips for Packing a Lunch Box That's Sure to Please

By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD

No one ever told me that once my daughter started kindergarten, I'd be packing a lunch 180 days a year. Let's see, 180 days times 13 years of school, times 2 kids — that's a lot of lunches! "Can't you just let them buy lunch sometimes?" my co-workers ask. I've thought about it, but the only veganish option at the elementary school is peanut butter and jelly, and at $2 plus for a sandwich, it seems crazy not to make lunches. The middle schools and high schools have a few more options, but my kids prefer homemade lunches.

What are the secrets of an appealing lunch? Good food goes a long way, whether it's leftovers or something planned especially for that day. Fun is important also — sandwiches cut into cute shapes, a clever note, or a colorful napkin. One of my daughter's friends had a family tradition of having a peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwich on the first Wednesday of the month, something she looked forward to eagerly. Just spread bread with peanut butter, sprinkle on a spoonful or two of vegan chocolate chips, press gently into the peanut butter, and top with another slice of bread. Even as simple a treat as a little bag of popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast or a homemade cookie can brighten up the day.

One way to jazz up the lunch box is to pack a theme lunch occasionally. A lunch can be based on a letter of the alphabet. For "A," try alphabet soup, apple slices with almond butter, an applesauce muffin, and apricot fruit leather. Another idea is to base a lunch on a color. Veggie chili, a fruit cup with watermelon and strawberries, and cherry tomatoes make for a Really Red Lunch. Other themes could be based on animals, a shape, the season, a holiday, or foods from another country.

Here are some lunch preparation tips as well as some lunch box ideas my family has enjoyed.

Lunch-Packing FAQs

How do you have time to pack a lunch? Planning ahead can markedly reduce the amount of time needed to put together a lunch. Think about what you're making for dinner and if you need to make a little extra to put in a lunch box the next day. Veggie burgers, soups, pasta, stir-fries, pizza, beans and rice, lasagna, barbecued tofu or seitan, and chili are all examples of foods that can be gently warmed and sent for the next day's lunch. Leftover pasta salad, hummus, grain salad, or sushi doesn't even need heating. Make extra pancakes for breakfast one morning and pack them in the lunch box another day with a small container of maple syrup. If you're sending soy yogurt or soup, make a quick batch of muffins for breakfast that morning and tuck a muffin into the lunch box, too. Quick breads, like banana or pumpkin bread, can also be made the night before.

It really helps to jot down ideas for quick and easy lunches your kids like. There's nothing worse than looking for inspiration in an unsympathetic refrigerator at 6 a.m. If you're not sure whether your kids will like a recipe or product, give it a test run on the weekend or during the summer.

Do as much as you can the night before and get your kids to help. For example, soymilk can be poured into a bottle, pretzels or cut-up vegetables packaged, utensils put in the lunch box, and dips or spreads made in the evening for the next day.

What are some ideas for entrées?

One way to think about the main dish in a lunch box is by category — beans, soy products, nuts and nut butters, and pasta and other grains. Some ideas from each category can be found below.


Vegetarian baked beans, beans and rice, bean burritos or tacos, bean dip with tortilla chips, a bean burger on a bun, a hummus wrap, hummus with vegetable dippers, chili, lentil soup, sloppy lentils, falafel in pita bread, curried chickpeas

Soy products

Tofu burger or tofu hot dog in a bun, deli slices on a sub roll with tomatoes and shredded lettuce, soy yogurt, chicken-less nuggets, barbecue tofu, tofu 'egg' salad (tofu mashed with vegan mayonnaise, mustard, celery, pickle relish, and seasonings), English muffin pizza with soy pepperoni

Nuts and nut butters

Nut butter spread on apple slices, nut butter dip with pretzels and carrot sticks, nut butter and crackers (If your school doesn't allow peanut butter, try soy nut butter instead.)

Pasta and other grains

Pasta salad, pasta and tomato sauce, noodles with peanut sauce, rice salad, ramen noodle soup with tofu cubes, sushi, rice balls, pancakes or waffles

What if my child wants to have a lunch that looks like everyone else's?

Sandwiches are a super way to blend into the crowd. Nut butter and jelly looks the same whether the lunch box is vegan or not. Deli slices between two pieces of bread look remarkably like your child's friend's sandwich. Many schools post the cafeteria menu online, publish it in the paper, or send home a monthly lunch calendar. Your child may like to have lunch box food that is similar to the cafeteria food — chicken-less nuggets, a tofu hot dog, pasta with tomato sauce, or a taco.

What about food safety?

The key to lunch box safety is making sure that hot foods stay hot and cold foods stay cold. Use a plastic thermos to pack hot foods. To help food stay hot, pour boiling water into the thermos, cover, and let it sit for 10 minutes, pour out the water, and then add the hot food. Use an insulated lunch box and frozen cold packs to keep food cold.

I'd like to put a note in my child's lunch box, but I'm not sure what to write.

Jokes, word scrambles, a comic clipped from yesterday's paper, a sticker, a geography fact, a limerick or other short rhyme, a note from the family dog or cat, a small origami figure, a quick drawing, or whatever else you can tuck in.

Maple Yogurt Dip for Fruit

(Serves 1)

Pack this recipe into your child's lunch box with fruit dippers like apple slices, strawberries, seedless grapes, orange sections, or pineapple chunks. Baby carrots are also delicious with this dip.

  • One 6-ounce carton or 3/4 cup plain soy yogurt
  • 1 Tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients. It's easiest to do this in a small container — not the yogurt carton — and then put the container right into the lunch box.

Total calories per serving: 157 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 30 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 24 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Peach-Mango Muffins

(Makes 12 muffins)

These muffins, along with Maple Yogurt Dip and fruit, can be the basis for a "Think Spring" lunch box. Tuck in pictures of flowers or a packet of seeds to plant at home.

  • 1 cup peach juice
  • 1 cup rolled oats (regular or quick but not instant)
  • Vegetable oil spray to prepare muffin cups
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 Tablespoons wheat germ
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 cup vegan brown sugar 11/2 teaspoons Ener-G egg replacer or 11/2 teaspoons ground flaxseed
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen mango cut into small pieces

The night before, combine the peach juice and oats and refrigerate overnight.

The next morning, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray 12 muffin cups with oil. Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, and wheat germ in one bowl.

In another bowl combine canola oil and sugar. Blend egg replacer or flaxseed with water and add to oil mixture. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in the mangos. Portion batter into muffin cups and bake 25 minutes or until done. Cool in pan on a cooling rack 2-3 minutes. Remove from pan to finish cooling.

Total calories per serving: 132 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 19 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 96 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Early Morning Pasta Salad

(Serves 3)

This salad is made from leftovers and can be put together quickly. Pack with lemonade, blueberries, a red checked napkin, and a scattering of plastic ants for a "Picnic in a Lunch Box."

  • 1-1/2 cups cooked leftover pasta
  • 1/2 cup cooked or drained canned beans
  • 1/2 cup thawed frozen mixed vegetables, peas, or corn or 1/2 cup of any chopped cooked or raw vegetables that your child likes
  • 2 Tablespoons reduced-fat salad dressing that your child likes (A mild Italian or sesame ginger works well with this recipe.)
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 Tablespoon orange or pineapple juice

Toss pasta, beans, and vegetables together. In a small bowl, mix salad dressing, mayonnaise, and juice together and pour over pasta mixture. Combine gently, adding more dressing to moisten if needed.

Total calories per serving: 177 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 196 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Hummus Roll-Ups

(Serves 1)

This recipe puts a fun twist on the classic hummus wrap.

  • 1/4 cup prepared or purchased hummus
  • 1 whole wheat tortilla
  • Shredded carrots, lettuce, and/or chopped olives (optional)

Spread the tortilla with hummus, completely and evenly covering the tortilla. Sprinkle on finely chopped vegetables and olives and press down gently. Gently roll the tortilla up into a tube. Use a sharp knife to slice the rolled-up tortilla into 6 or 8 slices. Each slice will look like a spiral or a cinnamon roll. Pack the slices into a container, cut side up.

Total calories per serving: 226 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 350 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Peanut Butter Balls

(Makes seven 2-ball servings)

These bite-sized treats will supply lots of energy for the playground. Pack several of them with the Hummus Roll-Ups above or with hummus on a bagel, cherry tomatoes, and grapes. Then, add a note on a round piece of paper for a "Round and Round Lunch."

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (or other nut butter or soy butter)
1/4 cup rice syrup
2 Tablespoons wheat germ
1 cup lowfat granola cereal, crushed or crumbled to eliminate any large chunks
Toppings, such as flaked coconut or chopped nuts (optional)

Stir together all ingredients except toppings. Roll the mixture into 14 balls, adding more granola if the mix is too sticky or liquid to work with. If you want to use toppings, sprinkle each topping on a plate and roll the balls in the toppings to coat.

Total calories per serving: 211 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 26 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 142 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, is one of VRG's Nutrition Advisors. She is the co-author of Simply Vegan.