7 shelf-stable school lunches kids'll actually eat

No refrigerator or ice pack necessary!

Published October 1, 2021 11:59AM (EDT)

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich surrounded by several other food items that would make up a child's lunch. (Getty Images/steele2123)
A peanut butter and jelly sandwich surrounded by several other food items that would make up a child's lunch. (Getty Images/steele2123)

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A very specific sort of terror washes over parents when they realize their kid is departing for school momentarily...and has no lunch. What if said lunch also needs to stay fresh from drop-off until chow time — around four hours? What if frozen cooler packs are a no-go? Cue blind panic.

Take a deep breath, as Daniel Tiger would say: A cache of shelf-stable ingredients can conjure satisfying school lunches that don't require refrigeration. (Note: The USDA says that technically you should "avoid leaving cut, peeled and cooked fruit and vegetables at room temperature for more than two hours." So you could of course consider investing in a lunch box that includes an ice pack . . . but we'll be over here with our hours-old carrot sticks.

These kid-friendly lunch ideas are so good, you'll want to make an extra helping for yourself.

1. Soba Salad

Tots love noodles. Precooked Japanese soba noodles, which will last for months in a cool, dark place, have a pleasantly chewy texture and subtly nutty flavor. Trot them out for salads splashed with soy and dotted with fava beans or draped in a rich tahini and sesame oil dressing. The buckwheat noodles are also an excellent vehicle for vegetables like raw cucumbers and carrots, although you should skip cooked beets, which won't last more than two hours out of the fridge. If your crew can handle heat, consider soba tossed with peanut sauce and chile paste.

Spring Soba Noodle Salad with Fava Beans

Spring Soba Salad

2. Onigiri

Why reinvent the wheel? Onigiri, a popular Japanese snack food of balled rice, may well have been the original packed lunch, favored by samurai before battle. Roll onigiri in toppings like sesame seeds or umami-rich furikake, or pan-fry it to get crispy edges for a take on yaki onigiri. You can also stuff them with all manner of goodies, though we dig those that can last a few hours at room temp, such as purple cabbage and even pitted Manzanilla olives. To pack some protein, you can try tofu or tempeh, of course, but you also may want to call on another shelf-stable staple, wispy pork floss, which lands a salty-sweet punch and lasts indefinitely in the pantry.

Spanish Yaki Onigiri


3. Chickpea Salad

Canned chickpeas forever. We dig them sautéed in garlic and oil, tossed with roasted cubes of zucchini and sweet potato, and hit with a lemony tahini dressing for a warm side that's excellent even at room temperature. They're also great in a spiced salad of Israeli couscous, shredded carrots, sliced almonds, and tangy feta. (Yep, cheese can hang out sans refrigeration for four hours and still be A-OK.) For something that's the same but different, add toast on the side.

Sweet Potato, Zucchini and Chickpea Salad

Carrot Chickpea Couscous Salad

4. Savory Oatmeal

Psych your kids out! If they like oatmeal for breakfast, swerve it into lunch territory with savory ingredient combos like portobello mushrooms with spinach and Parmesan, or pesto with cheddar and avocado. (Just try, and see if they'll bite.) If you're short on time, opt for rolled oats over steel-cut varieties. They've been steamed and smashed, and therefore cook faster — in 10 minutes or less, compared to steel-cut oats' 20 to 25 minutes.

How to Make Oatmeal Perfectly Every Time

5. Pasta Salad

What do you do when your kid's daycare or school doesn't refrigerate lunches? Get creative. The big winner: pesto pasta. Cherry tomatoes make it a meal. Whether you're using bowties, fusilli, macaroni shells, or whatever their favorite shape is, pasta salads have massive lunchtime potential. Toss them with sautéed veggies, capers, nuts, herbs, and mozzarella, a no-cook tomato sauce, or even tempeh bacon.

No-Mayo Peperonata Pasta Salad 

Pesto Pasta Salad

6. Next-Level PB&J

Give the humble lunchbox standard a savory makeover: Swap out white bread out for eggier, richer challah. Sprinkle slices with curry powder before slathering with peanut butter, perky orange marmalade, and — if your kid can handle it — a squirt of sriracha. Then, add some fresh basil for an herbaceous brightness. Need something a little tamer? Trade plain old grape jelly for sour cherry and lime jam and regular peanut butter for almond butter sprinkled with sea salt. Once assembled, sizzle the whole thing in butter as if it were a grilled cheese. Va-va-voom.

Sour Cherry and Lime Jam

Spicy-Savory PB&J

7. Tuna Salad on Crackers

We know what you're thinking: "Tuna salad, really?" Yes, really. Look, not all tuna salads are created equal, and we're not talking about the dreary mayo varieties of the 1970s and 80s. Consider lighter, French-style tuna salad — the kind found on pan bagnat — tossed with sliced Niçoise olives, red bell pepper, parsley, and chopped artichoke hearts. If you have a baguette on hand, use it, but crackers from the pantry will also do nicely. Look for tuna tins with a certified seal from The Marine Stewardship Council, which highlights well-managed fisheries. (And do watch your kids' total tuna intake, for health reasons!)

Armed with these standbys, prepping kiddo lunches should be a whole lot easier and breezier from here on out.

Pan Bagnat: Le French Tuna Salad Sandwich

By Rachel Tepper Paley

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