Upgrade your desk lunch with these super-smart, packable meal combinations that provide a lunch worth looking forward to for both the grown-ups and kiddos (yes, even the picky eaters) in your house; one recipe= two distinctly awesome midday meals. When you can make something fresh and delicious for yourself and use the same ingredients to make something the kids will like... we call that a win-win. 

By Hannah Burkhalter
January 04, 2017
Photo: Max Kelly; Food Stylist: Katelyn Hardwick; Prop Stylist: Amy Stone

The whole, “back-to-school” mindset comes so much more naturally in August. When January rolls around, I'm left in a frenzy. Do I really have to pick myself up off of my semi-permanently indented couch, take down the Christmas decorations, and actually live out my typically wellness-driven New Year's resolution? I like to think that everyone else is scrambling to prepare for a fresh start, too. Because let’s be honest, getting it together and going back to "real life" takes effort real effort.

One of the most pressing, but daunting, back-to-life tasks: getting healthy, fresh food on the table without spending hours in the kitchen. Making a packed lunch for yourself, much less the rest of your family, is one of those things in life that just turns hard. It turns into a complicated scenario, with too many demands from different directions... lunch has to pack well, you don’t want the same thing every day, you don't have much time to spend pulling it together, and what you want isn’t necessarily what your kids want, like ever. Honestly, who has the time, money, or brain capacity to plan separate lunches each day? (I'm coming to live at your house.)

That’s why we created these mouthwatering lunch recipes that are dual-purpose. One recipe, one set of ingredients (plenty of which are common leftovers, which may even inspire what you cook for dinner too) that overlap to provide a flawless lunch for you, as well as a kid-friendly counterpart for your offspring. That’s right. No more sad desk lunch. And you’re about to score major mom points, too. Each combo below reads with the grown-up lunch first, followed by the kid lunch.

1. BBQ Loaded Baked Potato Bowl /  Potato Skin BBQ Nachos

BBQ Loaded Baked Potato/Potato Skin BBQ Nachos image

Photo: Max Kelly; Food Stylist: Katelyn Hardwick; Prop Stylist: Amy Stone

Use leftover baked potatoes for a wholly satisfying lunch. You’ll love the comforting flavors and the texture of a loaded potato bowl and your child is sure to love ditching the fork for cheesy potato skin "nachos." Try serving the nachos with fruit or carrot sticks. If you prefer, use rotisserie chicken instead of leftover shredded BBQ in your potato.

Serves 2 (serving size: 1 baked potato bowl/4 potato skins with toppings)

Active: 10 min. Total: 10 min.

  • 1 leftover baked russet potato (about 8 oz.)
  • 2 Tbsp. sour cream
  • 1 Tbsp. salted butter, melted
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 cup leftover shredded barbecue meat, such as chicken, pork, or beef, divided
  • 2 oz. sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1/2 cup), divided
  • Barbecue sauce
  • 1/4 cup chopped tomato
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped scallions
  • Ranch dip (optional)

1. Prepare the BBQ Loaded Baked Potato Bowl: Cut potato in half lengthwise. Using a spoon, gently scoop out potato flesh, leaving skins and a small amount of potato flesh intact. Place potato flesh in a bowl; reserve skins. Add sour cream, butter, chives, and pepper to potato flesh; stir to combine. Transfer mixture to an airtight microwave-safe container. Top with 1/4 cup each of the barbecue meat and Cheddar; seal container. When ready to serve, microwave on HIGH until heated through, 30 to 45 seconds. Top with barbecue sauce, tomato, and scallions.

2. Prepare the Potato Skin BBQ Nachos: Cut each reserved potato skin half in half diagonally. Place potato skin pieces in an airtight container. Top with remaining 1/4 cup each barbecue meat and Cheddar. Drizzle with barbecue sauce. Seal container; place in lunchbox with an ice pack. Serve with additional barbecue sauce or, if desired, ranch dip.

2. Caprese Chicken and Vegetable Penne / Grilled Chicken Pizza Bagel Stacks

Caprese Chicken and Vegetables Penne/Grilled Chicken Pizza Bagel Stacks image

Photo: Max Kelly; Food Stylist: Katelyn Hardwick; Prop Stylist: Amy Stone

The perfect balance of pasta, meat, and vegetables makes a wow-worthy lunch. The main components are dinner leftovers, so keep this lunch idea in mind while planning for supper during the week. The pizza bagel stacks are like an upgraded, secretly healthy Lunchable. Jarred marinara sauce makes this recipe super quick. Do note, this recipe will make enough pasta for two lunch servings, but is easily scaled to suit your needs.

Serves 3 (serving size: 1 1/2 cups pasta mixture/1 bagel stack)

Active: 20 min. Total: 20 min.

  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups leftover grilled vegetables, such as squash, zucchini, onions, and cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tsp. chopped garlic
  • 1 (6- to 8-oz.) leftover grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced, divided
  • 1 cup cooked mini penne pasta
  • 1 1/4 cups jarred marinara sauce, divided
  • 4 oz. fresh mozzarella cheese, torn, divided
  • 4 large fresh basil leaves, torn, divided
  • 1(1 3/4-oz.) miniature bagel, split

1. Prepare the Caprese Chicken and Vegetable Penne: Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high. Add vegetables, garlic, and half of the chicken slices. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is softened and chicken and vegetables are heated through, 5 to 6 minutes. Add pasta and 1 cup of the marinara; stir to combine. Remove from heat; stir in half of the torn mozzarella. Transfer mixture into an airtight microwave-safe container; sprinkle with half of the torn basil. Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Seal container, and chill until ready to serve. When ready to serve, microwave on HIGH until heated through, about 1 minute, stirring halfway through, or serve cold.

2. Prepare the Grilled Chicken Pizza Bagel Stacks: Pack bagel and remaining chicken, marinara, mozzarella, and basil in separate airtight containers. Place in a lunchbox with a cold pack for child to assemble bagel stacks at lunch.

3. Greek Chicken Salad in a Jar / Chicken Salad Pita 

Greek Chicken Salad in a Jar/Chicken Salad Pita image

Photo: Max Kelly; Food Stylist: Katelyn Hardwick; Prop Stylist: Amy Stone

A lightly dressed, flavorful salad packed conveniently in a jar will have you dreaming of lunchtime, while a kid-focused pita wrap is appetizing and fits easily in little hands. The chicken salad is lightly seasoned to appeal to both kids and adults. Make it up to 3 days ahead of time for a stress-free work week. 

Serves 2 (serving size: 1 jarred salad/1 chicken salad pita with bagel chips)

Active: 20 min. Total: 45 min.

  • 6 chicken tenders, boiled, cooled, and torn, or 2 cups torn rotisserie chicken breast
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp. black pepper
  • 1 Romaine lettuce heart
  • 1 Persian cucumber, sliced, divided
  • 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes
  • 5 pitted kalamata olives, halved
  • 3 Tbsp. crumbled feta cheese
  • Bagel chips
  • 2 Tbsp. bottled Greek vinaigrette
  • 1 pita bread pocket

1. Prepare the Green Chicken Salad in a Jar: Stir together torn chicken, mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl. Set aside 2 lettuce leaves; chop remaining lettuce, and place in the bottom of a wide-mouth 1-quart jar. Set aside 3 cucumber slices. Top lettuce in jar with tomatoes, remaining cucumber, all of the olives and feta, and 1/2 cup of the chicken salad. Crumble 3 bagel chips over salad. Cover jar with lid, and chill until ready to serve. Serve with Greek dressing.

2. Prepare the Chicken Salad Pita: Line sides of pita pocket with 2 reserved lettuce leaves. Spoon 1/2 cup of the chicken salad into pita. Reserve remaining chicken salad for another use. Tuck 3 reserved cucumber slices into pita. Place pita in an airtight container. Seal container, and pack in lunchbox with an ice pack. Serve with bagel chips.

4. Hummus Veggie Wrap / Hummus Pinwheels

Hummus Veggie Wrap/Hummus Pinwheels image

Photo: Max Kelly; Food Stylist: Katelyn Hardwick; Prop Stylist: Amy Stone

Make a vibrantly colorful vegetarian lunch for everyone to enjoy. You can pack your sandwich with bagel chips and try serving the pinwheels with cucumber spears and red bell pepper “chips” with ranch dressing to dip. Feel free to prep the veggies the night before, but we recommend assembling the wraps the morning of, so they don't get soggy. Spice things up by using a flavored hummus that you and your kids like. 

Serves 2 (serving size: 1 wrap sandwich/8 pinwheels)

Active: 10 min. Total: 10 min.

  • 2 (8-in.) spinach wraps or tortillas
  • 2/3 cup hummus, divided
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives
  • 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp. crumbled feta cheese, divided
  • 4 Bibb lettuce leaves
  • 1/2 cup grated carrot (from 1 carrot)
  • 1/4 cup grated zucchini (from 1 zucchini)
  • 4 pitted kalamata olives, halved
  • 4 cherry tomatoes, quartered

1. Place wraps on a flat work surface. Spread 1 wrap with 1/3 cup of the hummus. Place remaining 1/3 cup hummus in a bowl. Add chives, lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons of the feta into hummus in bowl; stir to combine. Spread hummus-chive mixture on second wrap. Place 2 lettuce leaves on each wrap; top each with 1/4 cup grated carrot.

2. Prepare the Hummus Pinwheels: Starting at 1 end of the wrap with plain hummus, roll up wrap as tightly as possible. Place wrap on work surface seam side down; cut crosswise into 1-inch rounds.

3. Prepare the Hummus Veggie Wrap: Top second wrap with zucchini, olives, and tomatoes. Roll up wrap, tucking sides in as you roll to seal wrap. Cut in half.

5. Spinach Salad Nicoise / Egg Salad on Rice Cakes with Veggies

Spinach Salad Nicoise/Egg Salad on Rice Cakes image

Photo: Max Kelly; Food Stylist: Katelyn Hardwick; Prop Stylist: Amy Stone

Fresh and lovely flavors and ingredients come together in this visually stunning meal. Enjoy a delicious salad with lively colors and crunch, topped with tuna (you could used canned here if you don't have leftover tuna steak). And the egg salad rice cakes are an innovative way to package mini sandwiches for your kiddo. Not to mention, they are packed full of protein.

Serves 2 (serving size: 1 salad Niçoise/5 egg salad sandwiches with vegetables)

Active: 15 min. Total: 15 min.

  • 1 1/4 cups firmly packed baby spinach leaves, divided
  • 4 oz. leftover seared tuna steak, sliced
  • 4 oz. steam-in-bag baby green beans, cooked according to pkg. directions, and cooled to room temperature, divided
  • 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes, divided
  • 4 hard-cooked eggs, quartered, divided
  • 1/4 cup halved pitted kalamata olives
  • 2 Persian cucumbers, sliced, divided
  • 1/4 cup bottled lemon vinaigrette
  • 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/8 tsp. black pepper 
  • 10 (1 1/2-inch) miniature Ranch-flavored rice cakes

1. Prepare the Spinach Salad Niçoise: Place 1 cup of the spinach in the bottom of a 1-quart airtight container. Top with tuna, 3 ounces of the beans, half of the tomatoes, half of the eggs, all of the olives, and half of the cucumbers. Seal container, and chill until ready to serve. Serve with lemon vinaigrette.

2. Prepare the Egg Salad on Rice Cakes with Veggies: Chop remaining eggs, and place in a small bowl with mayonnaise, mustard, salt, and pepper. Stir with a fork until well blended. Place 1 small spinach leaf on each of 5 rice cakes; top each with a spoonful of egg salad, 1 spinach leaf, and 1 rice cake, forming a small sandwich. (The spinach leaves keep the rice cakes crispy and separated from the egg salad.) Serve rice cake sandwiches with remaining beans, tomatoes, and cucumber. 

6. Spicy Asian Noodles with Seared Tofu / Asian Noodle Bento Box

Spicy Asian Noodles with Seared Tofu/Asian Noodle Bento Box image

Photo: Max Kelly; Food Stylist: Katelyn Hardwick; Prop Stylist: Amy Stone

Why eat a boring sandwich when you could have this? Seared tofu has incredible texture and robust toasty flavor. Pair it with dressed noodles and a crunchy, bright salad for an incredibly satisfying lunch that feels special. This meal is delightfully filling, but won't weigh you down. Cook your tofu and make the sauce up to 4 days ahead of time. Toss together whenever you’re ready to pack lunches. 

Serves 2 (serving size: 1 cup spaghetti mixture, 1/2 cup tofu, and toppings/1 cup spaghetti mixture, 1/4 cup tofu, and toppings)

Active: 35 min. Total: 35 min.

  • 1 (14-oz.) pkg. extra-firm tofu, drained and patted very dry
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce, divided
  • 2 1/4 tsp. toasted sesame oil, divided 
  • 2 Tbsp. canola oil
  • 2 Tbsp. almond butter
  • 1 Tbsp. Thai sweet chili sauce
  • 4 tsp. unseasoned rice vinegar, divided
  • 2 cups cooked spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup sliced sugar snap peas
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced red bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced Persian cucumber, divided
  • 1/4 cup, plus 2 Tbsp. grated carrot, divided
  • 1 tsp. toasted sesame seeds
  • 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. toasted sliced almonds

1. Place tofu, 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon of the sesame oil in a small ziplock plastic bag. Seal bag; chill 2 hours or overnight. Remove tofu from bag; discard marinade. Pat tofu dry, and cut into 1-inch cubes.

2. Heat canola oil and 1/2 teaspoon of the sesame oil in a large nonstick skillet over high until shimmering. Add tofu cubes, and cook, turning occasionally, until deeply browned on all sides and starting to crisp. Remove from skillet, and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Cool 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, stir together almond butter, sweet chili sauce, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the soy sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of the sesame oil, and 1 teaspoon of the rice vinegar in a medium bowl. Add spaghetti; toss to coat.

4. Combine snap peas, bell pepper, 1/4 cup each of the cucumber and carrot, and remaining 1 tablespoon rice vinegar, 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce, and 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil in a bowl; toss to coat.

5. Prepare the Spicy Asian Noodles with Seared Tofu: Place snap pea mixture in a small airtight container with 1 cup of the spaghetti mixture and 1/2 cup of the seared tofu cubes. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and crushed red pepper.

6. Prepare the Asian Noodle Bento Box: Toss remaining 1 cup spaghetti mixture with remaining 2 tablespoons grated carrot. Place in a small airtight container. Top with toasted almonds and remaining 1/4 cup each cucumbers and tofu cubes.

7. Gingered Carrot Cashew Soup/CB&B Sandwich + Yogurt Dip

Gingered Carrot Cashew Soup/Cashew Butter Banana Sandwich image

Photo: Max Kelly; Food Stylist: Katelyn Hardwick; Prop Stylist: Amy Stone

Smooth, creamy carrot soup seasoned with ginger and garlic is deliciously bright and satisfying. Enjoy is warm or cold, in a bowl or in a jar at your desk. Pack crackers, veggie chips, snap pea crisps, or pita chips. Cashew butter can be found on the same aisle as the peanut butter. 

Gingered Carrot Cashew Soup

Serves 2 (serving size: 1 1/2 cups)

Active: 45 min. Total: 1 hour 15 min.

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 12 oz. carrots, cut into 1/4-in. slices (about 2 1/2 cups)
  • 3 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped (about 2 Tbsp.)
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 1/2 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped peeled fresh ginger
  • 1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 2 Tbsp. creamy cashew butter
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
  • Bagel chips, vegetable chips, or other crunchy side

1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high. Add carrots, garlic, and salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until carrots start to soften, 5 to 6 minutes. Add stock and ginger; stir to combine. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium, and cook until carrots are very soft, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat; cool 20 minutes.

2. Process carrot mixture, yogurt, and cashew butter in a blender until smooth. Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Transfer to an airtight container; seal container, and chill until ready to serve. 

3. Serve soup cold, topped with cilantro. Serve with bagel chips or other desired accompaniments. 

Cashew Butter and Banana Sandwich  

This sandwich is a play on the classic pb&j for a familiar lunch with a new spin. Given that many schools now have restrictions on bringing peanut butter for lunch/snack because of the common food allergy, cashew butter is often a safer permitted option to keep on hand, and makes for an amazing flavor layer in the adult lunch above.

Serves 1 (serving size: 1 sandwich)

Active: 5 min. Total: 5 min.

  • 2 Tbsp. creamy cashew butter
  • 2 white bread slices
  • 1/2 ripe banana

1. Spread 1 tablespoon cashew butter on 1 side of each bread slice. Slice banana, and place banana slices on 1 buttered bread slice. Cover with second bread slice. Cut in half, and serve.

Greek Yogurt-Garlic-Cashew Dip

Pack this smooth and savory dip with carrot sticks or bagel chips for dipping. Make it ahead of time to make lunch prep even easier. 

Serves 2 (serving size: 1/2 cup carrot sticks, 1/4 cup dip)

Active: 5 min. Total: 5 min.

  • 1/2     cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1     tsp. creamy cashew butter
  • 1/2     tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4     tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/4     tsp. kosher salt
  • 1     cup carrot sticks

1. Stir together yogurt, cashew butter, lemon juice, garlic powder, and salt in a small bowl.  Serve with carrot sticks.