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Lunchpail ideas beyond PB&J

A Taste of Fall

Lunchpail ideas beyond PB&J

Fun ideas for making a brown bag meal

I live in a two-kid household of devout brown baggers. I almost never bought a school lunch in my many years of schooling, and my children are only occasionally suaded by the temptations of chicken nuggets and taco salad on the monthly school lunch calendar.

One kid (third grade) finds daily satisfaction in the lunch standby of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Her specifications are clear: peanut butter on both slices of bread (to prevent soggy sandwiches) and just-enough-but-not-too-much jelly. The other kid (second grade) will eat about anything, from his newly discovered love of raw oysters to the spiciest, most piquant chicken wings we can find. For him, each meal is a chance to explore and taste the cuisines of the world, and the confines of a lunchpail should not squander his quest for flavor.

Generally, I’m not in favor of becoming a short-order cook before I’ve slurped my second mug of coffee, but the chance to foster my child’s tendency of curious eating means I’m often turning last night’s Halal cart-inspired meatballs or shreds of leftover roast chicken into a lunch suitable for a seven-year-old. The unintended bonus of packing a lunch of this caliber for my kid means I’m eating a more mindful lunch; instead of scarfing down a PBJ myself or eating tuna fish directly from the can at my desk, I’m eating more greens, smarter protein options, and a lunch that is reflective of the responsible person I like to pretend I am.

The only rules are whatever gets put into bento-style reuseable containers that snuggle into the soft walls of the lunchpail has to be relatively tidy to eat and fun to dig into. Sometimes, though, when putting lunch together is too much of a struggle, it’s nice to know that the PBJ is there as a novelty, and not merely a lunchtime staple.

Make-your-own tacos, left, and turkey and feta meatballs. (Marc Schultz)

Spring Rolls with Thai Peanut Sauce

Makes 4 rolls

Spring rolls are a great catch-all for leftovers and come together quickly. Don’t worry about stacking a few together in a lunchpail — they pull apart just fine. Make them the night before while you clean up from dinner.


  • Thai-style peanut sauce (recipe follows)
  • 1/2 pound boneless skinless chicken breast (poached, grilled, baked, rotisserie, or leftover chicken works great)
  • 2 cups assorted shredded or sliced vegetables of choice (carrots, cabbage, sprouts, avocado, radish, fresh cilantro, lettuce, bell pepper and cucumber all work well)
  • Rice paper spring rolls wrappers*


Working one at a time, wet rice paper for 10 seconds in a bowl of very warm water and then transfer to a clean, dry work surface. Spread 1-2 tablespoons of peanut sauce on one side of the spring roll, leaving a small border around the edge of the wrapper. Place chicken in the center of each wrapper and top assorted vegetables and herbs of your choice. Bring the bottom edge of the wrap tightly over the filling, rolling from bottom to top until the top of the sheet is reached, being careful not to tear the rice paper. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling. It helps to wet your fingers when rolling to prevent the wrapper from sticking to your fingers. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

*Rice paper wrappers can be found in most grocery stores (in the Asian or international aisle) or in specialty Asian markets. Keep them in a zip-top bag; they last (dried) indefinitely.

Thai-style Dipping Sauce

Makes about 3/4 cup


  • 1/4 cup garlic chili sauce (like sambal oelek)
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup canned coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 3 garlic cloves, pressed or finely minced
  • 1 tablespoon creamy peanut butter
  • 1 teaspoon-sized knob of ginger, grated (can also use ground ginger)
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • 1/2  tablespoon soy sauce


Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, whisking until combined. Heat over medium heat until mixture comes to a bubble, let boil for 1 minute then reduce to low and let simmer for another 2-3 minutes. Set aside until ready to use, or refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Turkey and Feta Meatballs

Makes about 24 meatballs

Spice up these meatballs however you like: try curry powder, ground sumac and cumin, or make it more traditional with the addition of basil and a dollop of tomato paste. The flavor combinations are endless.


  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1/3 cup bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano (or 1 tablespoon dried)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (or 1 tablespoon dried)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha (more or less to taste)
  • 3/4 cup feta cheese crumbles


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl with your hands to be sure all ingredients are thoroughly distributed. Form the mix into meatballs that are slightly smaller than a ping pong ball. Place the meatballs in a 13”x9” baking pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes. Serve as-is (room temperature, chilled, or warm) or as an accompaniment to salads, inside of a wrap or pita bread, or with hummus and vegetables.

Spring rolls with Thai peanut sauce, left, and chicken Katsu. (Marc Schultz)

Chicken Katsu

Serves 2

Katsu is the Japanese answer to chicken fingers and barbecue sauce. This is a speedy version made from pantry staples you probably have on hand now. Send Junior to school with a set of chopsticks for fun at lunch.


  • 4 thin chicken cutlets
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh black pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder


Pat the chicken cutlets dry with a paper towel and set aside. Combine the panko, kosher salt and pepper together in a wide, shallow dish or bowl, and in a second wide bowl, beat together the eggs until frothy. Dip each cutlet into the egg first, allowing any excess egg to drip off, then into the panko mixture to cover the entire cutlet. Repeat with each cutlet. Discard remaining egg and panko mixture.

Warm 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat and cook 2 of the cutlets until golden brown and cooked through, about 3-4 minutes per side. Repeat with the remaining oil and cutlets. Slice the cutlets into 1/2-inch wide strips and serve warm or chilled in lunchpails, alone or over rice or sauteed vegetables.

Combine the ketchup, worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, honey, dried ginger and garlic powder together in a bowl. Portion some of this katsu sauce into a container for dipping or drizzle over the sliced chicken cutlets.

Make-Your-Own Tacos

Serves 1

You can forget those pre-packaged lunch kits from the grocery store. Tacos are a great way to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables and will keep them entertained while they fuel up at lunch. Adjust the fillings to include your child’s favorite fresh taco toppings.


  • 2-3 fresh 6-inch tortillas (use crunchy shells if that is what your child prefers)
  • 2-3 ounces of protein (ex: shredded chicken, pulled pork, leftover steak that is sliced thin, or roasted chickpeas)
  • Assortment of veggies (ex: avocado*, shredded cabbage or slaw, shredded carrots, thinly-sliced radish, cooked black beans)
  • Dressings, relish, or other toppings (ex: sweet corn relish, salsa, guacamole, shredded cheese)
  • Lime wedges


Using a compartmentalized bento-style box or muffin tin liners placed inside a food storage container, arrange a taco-making kit. Start by nestling tortillas into the container, and place the proteins, veggies, and other toppings into their own compartment or muffin liner. Be sure to include a spoon or other utensils for scooping items onto the tortillas or taco shells.

*To keep avocado from turning brown, rub a cut onion over the avocado slices or include a piece of onion with the avocado or guacamole. The sulfur released from the onion slows the oxidation (browning) of avocado.

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