Not all kids are built alike. And not all lunchboxes have to be filled with the same things.

I used to roll my eyes at all those parent-magazine lunchbox tips. “All kids love dipping things! Send them to school with vegetables and a little container of ranch dressing!” Really? My kid hated any form of dip — especially ranch dressing.

“Tuck a fun note in with lunch!” He would have gouged his own eyes out if he’d had to open a note from his mother in front of his friends. “Cut sandwiches into cute animal shapes!” If I had turned his bologna into bunnies, he would have run away and joined the circus.

And you know what? I got it: Lunch is personal. It’s the oasis in the day, a meal we get to tailor just for ourselves. The lunchbox is our own turf.

It isn’t even just for kids. Adults probably carry lunch even more often than kids do. Given the time, cost and calories of the lunch options near most workplaces, packing your own is often your best choice.

With kids back to school, you have the next nine months or so to figure out the best way to game lunch for yourself and your kids. This time, I dug into cookbooks and websites in search of ideas for loading up those lunchboxes.

If you don’t find anything that inspires you, go to the website Food 52 and check out Amanda’s Kids’ Lunches. Writer Amanda Hesser documents what she packs for her twins’ lunches every day. Yes, Hesser’s kids apparently are willing to eat asparagus sandwiches, cold haricot verts, pickled onions and Milanese rice salads with tuna for lunch. In front of their friends.

Told you — not all kids are built alike. I bet Hesser’s kids are really happy. I hear the circus can be a really good career.

Kale Smash and Hummus Sandwiches

Makes 2 to 4 sandwiches, depending on how thickly you spread them.

Note: Adapted from “A Modern Way to Cook,” by Anna Jones.

• About 10 kale leaves, stemmed (about 5 c.)

• 4 sun-dried tomato halves

• Juice of 1 lemon

• 1 to 2 tbsp. olive oil, divided

• 1/2 tsp. salt

• 1/4 tsp. pepper

• Sliced sourdough bread

• Hummus


Wash the kale and shake dry. Place in a food processor with the sun-dried tomatoes, lemon juice, 1 tablespoon olive oil, salt and pepper. Process into a paste, adding more olive oil if needed.

Spread one slice of bread with hummus. Spread a second slice with some of the kale spread and place the slices together into a sandwich. Refrigerate any leftover kale spread in an airtight container with a little olive oil on top to keep it from darkening.

Nutrition information per sandwich w/¼ cup hummus):

Calories 530 Fat 12 g Sodium 1,240 mg

Carbohydrates 88 g Saturated fat 2 g Total sugars 7 g

Protein 21 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 8 g

Exchanges per serving: 5 starch, 1 carb, 1 medium-fat protein, ½ fat.

Spinach Pesto Pizza Rollups

Makes about 12 slices.

Note: Some of the cheese and pesto may leak out a little. Wait until the rolls cool and trim it away for a neater presentation. These take a little work in advance, but they can be kept for a week in the refrigerator, or frozen for 2 months. Adapted from “Little Bento,” by Michele Olivier.

• 1 c. packed fresh spinach leaves, larger stems removed

• 1/2 c. prepared pesto (refrigerated is usually better than jars)

• Dough for 1 pizza

• 2 c. shredded mozzarella

• 1 c. grated Parmesan, divided

• Pizza sauce


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with nonstick aluminum foil or parchment paper.

Combine the spinach and pesto in a food processor and process into a paste. Set aside.

On a lightly floured work surface with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll out the pizza dough as thinly as possible (about 14 or 16 inches long and 9 inches wide).

Spread the spinach pesto mixture over the dough, spreading all the way to the end on the short sides but leaving about 1 inch free on either of the long ends. Sprinkle the mozzarella over the pesto, then sprinkle with 1/2 cup Parmesan.

Starting with the long side nearest you and using a spatula or dough scraper to lift the dough, roll the dough over tightly, working it away from you until you have a log. Tuck any cheese that falls out back into the ends and press the seam closed with your fingers.

Using a serrated knife, slice into 1-inch-thick pieces and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Sprinkle the top with the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan.

Bake about 20 minutes, until the crust is golden. Cool for 5 minutes, then remove the slices to cool. Serve warm or at room temperature with pizza sauce.

Nutrition information per slice:

Calories 260 Fat 14 g Sodium 560 mg

Carbohydrates 20 g Saturated fat 5 g Total sugars 3 g

Protein 13 g Cholesterol 20 mg Dietary fiber 2 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, ½ carb, 1 ½ high-fat protein.

Salted Tahini Spread

Makes about 1 cup.

Note: Adapted from “Easy Vegan Breakfasts & Lunches,” by Maya Sozer. If you get really bored with nut butters, try this one for a change. It makes a great dip (for kids who like dips) with baby-cut carrots and apple slices, or as a spread on whole-grain crackers.

• 1/2 c. tahini

• 1/4 c. pure maple syrup

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

• 2 tbsp. almond or cashew milk

• 1/2 tsp. salt


Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend until combined. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Nutrition information per 2 tablespoons:

Calories 120 Fat 8 g Sodium 170 mg

Carbohydrates 10 g Saturated fat 1 g Total sugars 6 g

Protein 3 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 1 g

Exchanges per serving: ½ carb, ½ medium-fat protein, 1 fat.

Keen-Bean Quinoa

Serves 6.

Note: Adapted from “Leon Happy Salads,” by Jane Baxter and John Vincent.

• 1/2 c. uncooked quinoa

• 1 c. frozen, shelled edamame

• 1 c. frozen peas

• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

• 1/4 c. bottled Asian sesame-soy dressing


Rinse and drain quinoa. Place in a medium saucepan with 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the edamame, cover again and cook 5 minutes longer. Add the peas and remove from heat. Let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.

Stir in the salt, pepper and dressing. Chill in a resealable container until ready to serve.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 130 Fat 4 g Sodium 125 mg

Carbohydrates 18 g Saturated fat 1 g Total sugars 6 g

Protein 6 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 3 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, ½ medium-fat protein.

Southwest Rollups

Serves 1.

• 1 can vegetarian refried beans

• 1 tortilla, flavored or plain

• Quarter of an avocado, thinly sliced and peeled

• 1/4 c. diced tomato

• 1/4 c. shredded mozzarella

• 1/2 c. shredded lettuce


Open a can of refried beans. (Most vegetarian styles are thin enough to spread, but if it isn’t, mix it with 1/4 cup water.) Spread over the tortilla, reaching to the edges so it will help hold the roll closed.

Line up avocado slices down one side about 1 inch from the edge, then top with tomato, mozzarella and lettuce. Fold the edge over, then roll it up. Use a serrated knife to cut into 1-inch-thick slices.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 630 Fat 16 g Sodium 2,410 mg

Carbohydrates 90 g Saturated fat 5 g Total sugars 7 g

Protein 35 g Cholesterol 18 mg Dietary fiber 24 g

Exchanges per serving: 5 starch, 1 carb, 3 medium-fat protein.