When packing a hot lunch for school, there are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind so that food stays contained and warm. Start by investing in a high-quality stainless steel insulated thermos. Pre-warm the container by filling it with boiling water, and let it sit for five to 10 minutes. Then empty and dry the thermos right before packing it with the hot food. If you’re packing something that has a crisp coating (such as chicken nuggets or pizza rolls), place a paper towel in the bottom of the thermos to keep it from getting soggy. And don’t forget to pack a spoon or fork! Here are a few recipes that kids love and keep well in a thermos.
Grilled cheese dippers
Even the pickiest of eaters can’t resist dipping grilled cheese finger sandwiches into a thermos full of tomato soup. Momables suggests letting the sandwiches cool completely before cutting and packing, so you don’t end up with a soggy mess by the time lunch rolls around. Or pack two thermoses and place the hot sandwiches on top of a paper towel to absorb moisture. You can make your own tomato soup or pick up your favorite brand from the grocery store.
Everyone’s favorite lunch (and dinner), in an easy to eat and easy to pack muffin-size portion! Customize the toppings with your kids’ favorites using Spaceships and Laser Beams' easy recipe. Bonus: Make a whole muffin tin and freeze the leftovers for future lunches, then simply zap them in the microwave right before packing lunch in the morning.
Though ramen noodles are cheap, easy and tasty, we admit that they may not be the healthiest of lunch choices. That’s where Tasty Kitchen’s homemade version comes in. Using organic ramen, baked tofu and a bit of edamame and spinach, this recipe packs in kid-pleasing flavor, and parents can feel good about sneaking in some protein and veggies while leaving out the sodium found in the instant variety.
French toast sticks
Weelicoius knows that kids of all ages love breakfast, and not just for breakfast, but for lunch as well. These sticks are easy to hold and easy to dip. Don’t forget to send them with a small container of maple syrup, honey, jam or even flavored yogurt for fun dipping at the lunch table.
Easy meatloaf muffins
They’re cute, they’re filling and they’re packed with protein to make sure your kids have enough energy to last until the end of the school day. Easy meatloaf muffins from The Spruce Eats are a fun and tasty way to pack a hot lunch. You can even sneak in extra veggies by adding shredded carrots to the recipe.
Healthy chicken tortilla soup
This recipe from Must Have Mom pulls double duty: It’s great for dinner one night and perfect for lunch leftovers (for kids and grown-ups) a day or two later. Even better, the whole meal can be made in your slow cooker while you’re doing other things, such as hauling the kids back and forth from sports practice or other after-school activities. Pack the chips on the side so they stay nice and crisp, perfect for sprinkling on top of the soup when it's time for lunch.
Homemade spaghettios, plus veggies
There is no reason to tell the little ones that Super Healthy Kids’ homemade version of their favorite canned dinner is loaded with extra veggies, including carrots and celery. The sauce cooks up in less than 15 minutes and doesn’t contain any of the “extras” you might find in the canned version, such as high-fructose corn syrup or preservatives. For even more fun, try swapping out the traditional circle noodles with alphabet-shaped pasta.
Teriyaki fried rice
From Epicurious comes a hot lunch that both kids and adults will love eating: teriyaki fried rice. It’s healthy, tasty, packed with protein (hello, eggs and edamame!) and gluten-free. For the best bang for your buck nutrition-wise, use brown rice. If your kids are a bit picky, it’s perfectly okay to substitute white rice, and if they’re a bit adventurous, try emmer farro.
Chances are if you slap the name “nugget” on something, the kids will eat it! With a bit of zucchini, corn and egg, these vegetarian nuggets from Make the Best of Everything are perfect for school lunches. If you like, mix in a little cheese for extra creaminess, and send the nuggets along with ketchup or ranch dressing for dipping.
One-pot cheeseburger mac
Two kid favorites collide in this Produce for Kids recipe: cheese burgers and mac and cheese. Ground turkey makes this recipe a wee bit healthier than traditional ground beef, and feel free to mix and match the seasonings to something your kids will love. The best part besides being healthy? The whole recipe cooks up in about 20 minutes.
Ham and cheese pinwheels
You only need five minutes and three ingredients to whip up these easy ham and cheese pinwheels from Real Mom Nutrition. They can be sent to school warm or cold (though we like them best hot, so the cheese is still melt-y). If your kids aren’t a fan of Swiss cheese, swap it out for one of their favorites, such as cheddar or American.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2020, and updated in October 2021.