I don’t know about you, but I think making a brilliant school lunch doesn’t have to be so hard. (Just open any parenting magazine and you’ll find glossy photos showcasing hula dancer sandwiches with cucumber skirts, rice pandas complete with sly little smiles and more.) These simple-but-special ideas will punch up your crew’s lunchboxes with nary a hand-carved cow sandwich in sight.
1. Rainbows and Butterflies Pasta Salad by Food Network Magazine: Did you know bow tie pasta is called farfalle in Italian and means “butterfly”? Ellie Krieger opts for this colorful cold pasta dish (pictured above) full of fresh carrots, corn, edamame, red peppers and, of course, a sprinkle of shredded Parmesan cheese.
2. Roly-Poly Sandwiches: This is the easiest way to impress any grade-schooler. Simply flatten out a regular piece of bread with a rolling pin, then pile on the regular toppings (PB&J, turkey and more). Roll up and slice like sushi with a bread knife. Our kids cheer every single time.
3. Strawberry Oatmeal Bars: What kid doesn’t want to find something bright and sweet in a lunch from home? Make a batch of Ree Drummond’s oatmeal bars on the weekend, then pack them in lunches all week long. Bonus: These wholesome treats work just as well as a ready-made breakfast or an after-school snack.
4. Crunchy Turkey Salad Sandwich: The Neelys give basic turkey and cheese sandwiches a new twist when they combine smoked turkey breast with sweet grapes, crunchy almonds and cubes of provolone cheese.
5. Mac-and-Cheese Mini Cups: Baked macaroni and cheese served at room temperature works wonders for little lunches on the go. Take it further: Add broccoli, spinach, pinto beans or as many kinds of cheese as your kids like (blue, cheddar, Parmesan and so on).
6. Fruit Leather Roll-Ups by Food Network Magazine: Yes, it’s easy enough to buy fruit roll-ups, but when recipes are this simple — three ingredients total and two of them are fruit — kids can help make a big batch, and you know that means this is something that won’t come home in the lunchbox uneaten.
7. Hummus and Pita Bread: Alton Brown’s homemade hummus starts out with chickpeas in the slow cooker and ends up as the richest, creamiest spread you’ll ever see in a lunchbox — one that’s just as nutritious for growing bodies as it is tasty.
8. Turkey and Cheese Roll-Ups (Hold the Bread): Our kids love crackers or pretzels served with a good slab of cheese smothered in tangy mustard and rolled up in deli-style turkey. Raw veggies round out this ultra-easy lunch.
Charity Curley Mathews is a former executive at HGTV.com and MarthaStewart.com turned family food blogger, editorial strategy consultant and mother of four. She’s a contributor to The Huffington Post and the founder of Foodlets.com: Mini Foodies in the Making…Maybe.