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5 adaptable lunch recipes for kids heading back to school — and parents, too

(Photos by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Gina Nistico for The Washington Post)

With the summer heat still lingering, it’s time for the kids to leave the pools and head back into classrooms. Meanwhile, although many companies have delayed a return to the office, some workers are heading back to a physical workspace, at least part of the time, after months of video calls.

If you’re like us, you might be excited about seeing your co-workers again and anxious about managing the logistics of yet another big shift in your daily routine. But there’s one thing that doesn’t have to stress you out: packing tomorrow’s lunch.

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Still, something about the process can zap the creativity right out of us. Instead of seizing the moment to create a nourishing, satisfying meal, we get stuck with the same old crutches: baby carrots and cheese sticks for our son; some sort of drab, uninspired sandwich for the two of us.

So here’s a solution for the 2021 back-to-school, back-to-the-office lunch conundrum: five delicious lunch ideas that work for everyone. They’re kid-friendly and adult-friendly, fun ideas that will have you counting down the hours until you get to open that lunch bag in the fridge. And they work just as well if that fridge is in your home kitchen rather than an office.

Each lunch idea starts with the baseline: a simple, pared-back option designed to make eating fun for children. Then, it uses similar ingredients and flavors to transform it into a lunch that no-nonsense adults will love, too.

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For example: What kid doesn’t love eating pasta ... on a stick? Thread colorful veggies and tortelloni onto kebabs for children. The same ingredients transform into an elegant, zingy pasta salad you can take to work for a few days. (We promise your co-workers will be jealous.)

Another idea? Getting kids to eat their vegetables in the cafeteria can be near impossible. But everyone loves a nugget! Our baked falafel nuggets are packed with flavor and veggies (and gobbled up by our 4-year-old). For more adventurous eaters, let them in on the secret that the nuggets are amazing on top of a main-course salad with a makeshift hummus-based dressing.

Of course, all the concepts actually work for everyone. Who says adults don’t want pasta kebabs and dipping nuggets, too? Mix and match these ideas to fit all the eaters in your house and keep you eager for lunchtime for weeks to come.

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Each recipe works in an insulated lunch bag with no refrigeration needed, and there are options for quick assembly or make ahead and freeze.

Use these ideas to break up the monotony of the brown bag boredom. And hey: Maybe you’ll have a little fun with it, too.


For the kids: Baked Falafel

These crisp, baked veggie-packed nuggets are super-dippable for children and are just as irresistible for grown-ups. The falafel are easy to make ahead and refrigerate or freeze, so consider making a double batch.

A twist for adults: Toss the nuggets on top of a salad dressed with a quick hummus-based drizzle.

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For the kids: Pasta Salad Kebabs

A pasta salad can easily be deconstructed into your kid’s favorite foods: pasta and cheese. Just build kebabs with the salad ingredients. The skewers might even persuade everyone to finish the veggies in the lunch box.

A twist for adults: Make a big-batch pasta salad: It lasts in the fridge for days. The individual ingredients stay fresh for days, so you could also mix and match: Make some kebabs today and make the salad later in the week.

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For the kids: Mediterranean Pinwheels

These brightly colored pinwheels are irresistibly tasty for children as lunch or a snack. You’ll be amazed by the zing that jarred roasted red peppers add to each bite. Hummus is a good stand-in for goat cheese-averse or vegan kids and/or adults. To pack in more protein, add canned tuna or leftover cooked chicken. Serve with canned chickpeas (drained, rinsed and sprinkled with salt), blueberries or sugar snap peas on the side.

A twist for adults: Turn the same ingredients into a Mediterranean wrap for adults, using more veggies and any leftover fresh herbs you might have on hand.

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For the kids: Lunchbox Charcuterie

This idea offers the convenience of those prepackaged finger-food meals, but you get to pick and choose for flavor and nutrition. We selected a variety that delivers a balance of savory, salty and sweet snacks.

A twist for adults and kids: Place all of the options on your kitchen counter and make it a DIY, pack-your-own-“board,” so everyone gets what they want.

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For the kids: Deli Salad Sandwich: 3 Ways

The classic deli “salad” sandwich still has a place in your lunch bag. This version works with a variety of proteins, including an abundantly flavorful plant-based chickpea salad, chicken and canned tuna.

More adventurous palates can spice it up to create different flavors to keep you interested week after week.

A twist for adults: Add a pinch of curry powder to the chickpeas, a little Cajun seasoning to the chicken, or a touch of smoked paprika to the tuna to kick things up a notch.

Low-effort sandwiches that make you look forward to lunch

Recipes from Sonja and Alex Overhiser, authors of the cookbook “Pretty Simple Cookingand bloggers at the recipe website A Couple Cooks.

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