How To

Beyond the Brown Bag: Creative School Lunch Ideas

recycled paper bag

The clock is ticking down to Labor Day, which marks the start of a new school year — and a return to bagged lunches.

Higher food costs have translated to elevated lunch prices in some school districts, but buying “hot lunch” is still relatively cheap. For example, school lunch prices are approximately $2.75 per meal for high school students, $2.50 for middle schoolers and $2.25 for elementary schoolers.

Despite the low prices, ditching the brown bag in favor of the school cafeteria can still add up to more than $2,000 a year for frequent buyers, and there’s no guarantee the meals are healthy, as well as inexpensive.

We asked chefs, nutritionists, food bloggers and other experts to think beyond the brown bag and offer their best smart, healthy lunch recipes for both adults and kids. Most can be made for less than $5 per serving and many use a previous meal’s leftovers.

Here are 7 to try:

TLT Wraps

Turkey bacon (T) is a substitute for bacon (B) in this recipe from dietician Stacey Antine, author of Appetite for Life: The Thumbs-Up, No-Yucks Guide to Getting Your Kid to be a Great Eater.

For each wrap, cook a slice of turkey bacon and set aside to drain and cool on paper towels. Spread a teaspoon mayonnaise on one edge of a whole-wheat wrap.

Place a leaf of lettuce on top of the mayo, and fill with half of a diced tomato and the slice of turkey bacon. Roll tightly and cut in half.

Pasta Pie

Celine Cossou-Bordes, author of Cooking With Trade Joe’s Cookbook: Pack a Lunch, makes a pie with leftover spaghetti, which can be eaten hot or cold.

To make, preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, mix a half-cup ricotta, three-quarters cup of a shredded three-cheese blend, three shredded slices each of ham and salami, four beaten eggs, 
a pinch each of salt and pepper and a teaspoon fresh thyme.

Add two cups cooked spaghetti or angel hair pasta and mix well.
 Lightly oil a deep 9-inch pie pan. Pour pasta mixture into pie pan.

Bake for 20 minutes or until top is brown and the pie is set. 
Let cool slightly before cutting into wedges.

Nutty Noodles

This recipe from SparkPeople.com’s chef Meg Galvin uses kid-friendly peanut butter and a variety of healthy add-ins that can be mixed and matched to a suit young eater’s taste.

PB&J, Twisted

Frugal Foodie was seriously skeptical about this recipe that Care.com submitted, which pairs a leftover turkey burger with peanut butter and cranberry jam on a whole-wheat bun.

“It has healthy fats, packs tons of protein and is a perfectly 
good lunch choice,” says a spokeswoman. It’s also surprisingly good — give it a try.

Tuna in Tomato

For this version of stuffed tomatoes, Cossou-Bordes recommends cutting the tops off eight Roma tomatoes. Then spoon out the seeds and pulp.

In a bowl, mix a quarter-cup canned tuna in olive oil, a third-cup cooked quinoa, a pinch each of salt and pepper, a tablespoon olive oil and a teaspoon lemon juice.

Fill each tomato with quinoa mixture and press well. (Frugal Foodie’s mom used to make a similar version using canned chicken, which is equally as tasty.)

Fruit Kebabs with Coconut Yogurt

Fruit salad? Boring! Galvin makes it fun by skewering fruit and adding a fancy dipping sauce.

Chocolate Ladybugs

For a slightly sweet treat, Antine cuts the tops off strawberries and then slices each berry lengthwise.

Press a few semisweet chocolate chips, pointy side down, into the strawberries to create the ladybug’s spots.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.