Coming up with cold lunch ideas can feel really daunting—and like peanut butter is jelly is the only option! Good news though—there are actually a lot of options beyond sandwiches that you can pack to be served cold or at room temperature at daycare, preschool, big kid school, and camp.
Cold Lunch Ideas
Many kids lunches need to be eaten right out of their lunch bag without reheating and some can’t be stored in the fridge. So if you feel like you’re options are limited, I hope these ideas give you a few more ideas (even if your kids won’t eat every single one of them!). Each of these can be packed with an ice pack (ideally) or can be served at room temperature if you don’t have the option to send anything reusable.
TIP: You can always send a plastic baggie of ice or freeze one of the foods in my list at the bottom of this post to help keep the lunch cold as those frozen foods thaw.
Tips for Packing Cold Lunches
Aim to include foods that you are reasonably sure that your child likes. Which is just to say, this is not the time to experiment with a completely new set of foods. And try to make them easy to eat, so cut, dice, or otherwise serve the foods in ways that are appropriate for the age of your child. Consider if they have a teacher who can help them open packages too.
1. Sesame Noodles with Snap Peas
Pair pasta and green beans with a simple sesame sauce and easy sides like fruit cup (I like the ones packed in 100% fruit juice) and veggie straws. You can use any type of noodle that your kids prefer—and enjoy this for your own lunch too.
P.S. Scroll to the bottom of this post for the full recipe for Sesame Noodles.
2. Parmesan Noodles with Peas
Toss fully cooked noodles with a little olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese and pack with peas and a side of fruit like a banana.
3. Sunflower Seed Butter and Jelly Sandwich with Crackers, Fruit, and a Veggie
Make a simple sandwich with sunflower seed butter (or any nut or seed butter allowed in your center or school) with jam. Add some crackers, sliced cucumbers, and a clementine along side. (Peel the clementine for younger kids. This partially peeled option works for kids 3 or 4 and up who should be able to finish peeling it themselves.)
4. Sunflower Seed Butter and Apple Butter Sandwich with Banana
Make a simple sandwich with sunflower seed butter (or any nut or seed butter allowed in your center or school) with apple butter (which is often lower in added sugar, if any, than jam or jelly). Include a banana alongside and a shelf-stable milk or drink.
5. Granola Butter Roll Up with Applesauce and Snap Pea Crisps
6. Bagel Sandwich with Hummus or Sunflower Seed Butter with a Veggie and Fruit
Use a regular or mini bagel to make a simple sandwich. Try hummus, sunflower seed butter, or another nut or seed butter. Or just use jam! Add a fruit and a veggie and a drink.
7. Mini Bagel Sandwich with Sweet Potato White Bean Dip
Add a smear of Sweet Potato White Bean Dip for a new flavor combination in a cold lunch. Add simple sides like a small peach and fresh snap peas.
8. Pesto Pasta Salad with Fruit and Puffs
Pasta salad is a great cold lunch idea for kids since you can make it in advance and serve it for a few lunches in the same week. This Pesto Pasta Salad is easy to make and easy to pack and you can adjust it with veggies and beans your kids like (or just make it with pasta only). Add puffs and a fruit.
9. Pasta Salad with Italian Dressing and Tomatoes
10. Cheese and Crackers with Fruit and Veggies
Babybel cheese can be left at room temperature, which makes it a great option for a cold lunch. Pair it with crackers of choice, simple cucumber sticks, a clementine and a snack bar according to your kids appetite.
11. Cheese and Crackers with Applesauce Pouch and Soft Roasted Chickpeas
Add a few different sides to the cheese and crackers idea above like an applesauce pouch and Soft-Roasted Chickpeas.
12. Cheese Crackers, Applesauce Pouch, Halved Cherry Tomatoes
Cheese crackers—as in puffed cheese that tastes like a crunchy cracker like Moon Cheese–are a protein-rich idea that are great at room temperature. All of my kids love these. Pack with a few simple sides.
13. Hummus Roll Up with Shelf Stable Milk, Melon, Edamame, and Puffs
Spread hummus onto a whole grain tortilla, roll up, and slice with a serrated knife. Add edamame beans, puffs, fruit, and a drink.
14. Hummus and Pita with Cucumbers and Babybel
Try this cold lunch idea: Pack hummus with strips or triangles of whole grain pita and cucumber or snap peas and a Babybel cheese.
15. Pasta with Olive Oil, Frozen Mango, Snack Bar, Carrot Coins
Plain pasta is usually a hit with a kid and it’s so easy! Pair with a snack bar like a Larabar (naturally sweet and a good source of protein for kids), frozen mango (which will thaw in the time it takes to get to lunch time), and a few carrot chips.
16. Granola Bar, Fruit, Veggies
Try a snack lunch with a granola bar, fruit like a small apple or banana, bell pepper strips, and a drink. Not enough food? Add a yogurt pouch (try freezing it overnight so it stays cold and thaws).
17. Blueberry Zucchini Muffin with Carrots and Applesauce
Most muffins are perfectly great served cold or room temperature and we love these Blueberry Zucchini Muffins. Add an applesauce container and carrots. (Slice into thinner strips or shred for younger kids.)
18. Mini Carrot Cake Muffins, Almond Butter, Pear
19. Pancake Sandwich
Pack leftover pancakes as a sandwich! Spread on nut or seed butter or jam (or both!) and pack or dice as needed for a younger child. Add some simple sides as shown above.
20. Freezer Waffle Sandwich
Try the above idea with freezer waffles!
Foods You Can Freeze and Use as Ice Packs
If you aren’t able to send an ice pack with a lunch and there’s no fridge option, or you just want to keep the food colder, try freezing these items the night before and packing frozen. They all thaw in about 3-4 hours at room temperature. (Skip the dairy-based items if you expect the lunch to be in warm temperatures.)
- Yogurt pouches
- Applesauce pouches
- Veggie pouches
- Cheese sticks
- Frozen fruit (in a bag or bento box container)
- Milk cartons
- Juice boxes
TIP: You can always test these out at home. I’ve tried them and am sharing what has worked for us, but the size or brand of a certain item may thaw faster than others with smaller tubes and pouches thawing faster than larger ones.
Shelf-Stable Lunch Sides to Add
You can look at my favorite Healthy Kids Snacks for more ideas, but here are some great shelf-stable ones to add to lunches.
- Fruit cup in 100% fruit juice
- Applesauce pouches
- Yogurt pouches
- Freeze-dried fruit
- Raisin boxes
- Dino Bars
- Granola bar
- Cheerios or Kix
- Larabar (check the nut rules at your school or center)
- Veggie Straws
- Shelf-stable milk cartons
- Moon Cheese
- Sunbutter single serve packets
Disposable Containers for Packing Lunches for Kids
If you can’t use a reusable container, here are some options you can consider that can be tossed right after using.
- Eco-Friendly Parchment Bags
- Compostable brown paper food bags
- Plastic baggies
- Eco-friendly plastic bags
- Plastic wrap
- Disposable snack cups with lids
- Empty yogurt cups and lids (6-8 ounce)
- Empty cottage cheese containers and lids
Below is the recipe for the Sesame Noodles. The rest of the ideas are in the Notes so you can print them all for easy reference.
- 1 pound fettucini, linguine, or spaghetti
- 4 cups chopped green beans
- 1/4 cup reduced sodium soy sauce (or tamari if gluten-free)
- 1/4 cup maple syrup (or honey for kids over 1)
- 1 tablespoon grated ginger (optional; grate on a microplane)
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- Prepare the pasta according to package directions. Add the green beans for the last 6 minutes of cooking. Drain.
- In a large bowl, stir together the soy sauce, maple syrup, ginger (if using), and lime juice. Stir in the pasta.
- Pack in lunches or store in a container in the fridge for up to 5 days. Serve cold or at room temperature. (This can also be served warm.)
Here are the rest of the ideas for easy reference:
Parmesan Noodles with Peas
Sunflower Seed Butter and Jelly Sandwich with Crackers, Fruit, and a Veggie
Sunflower Seed Butter and Apple Butter Sandwich with Banana
Granola Butter Roll Up with Applesauce and Snap Pea Crisps
Bagel Sandwich with Hummus or Sunflower Seed Butter with a Veggie and Fruit
Mini Bagel Sandwich with Sweet Potato White Bean Dip
Pesto Pasta Salad with Fruit and Puffs
Pasta Salad with Italian Dressing and Tomatoes
Cheese and Crackers with Fruit and Veggies
Cheese and Crackers with Applesauce Pouch and Soft Roasted Chickpeas
Cheese Crackers, Applesauce Pouch, Halved Cherry Tomatoes
Hummus Roll Up with Shelf Stable Milk, Melon, Edamame, and Puffs
Hummus and Pita with Cucumbers and Babybel
Pasta with Olive Oil, Frozen Mango, Snack Bar, Carrot Coins
Granola Bar, Fruit, Veggies
Blueberry Zucchini Muffin with Carrots and Applesauce
Mini Carrot Cake Muffins, Almond Butter, Pear
Freezer Waffle Sandwich