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Back To school: 3 adaptable lunch recipes for kids heading back to school - and parents going back to work

Adaptable lunch recipes for kids heading back to school — and parents, too. Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.

Adaptable lunch recipes for kids heading back to school — and parents, too. Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.

Published Jan 10, 2022


By Sonja Overhiser and Alex Overhiser

With the summer heat still lingering, it's time for the kids to leave the pools and head back into classrooms soon. Meanwhile, although many companies have delayed a return to the office, some workers are heading back to a physical workspace, at least part of the time, after months of video calls.

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If you're like us, you might be excited about seeing your co-workers again and anxious about managing the logistics of yet another big shift in your daily routine. But there's one thing that doesn't have to stress you out: packing tomorrow's lunch.

Still, something about the process can zap the creativity right out of us. Instead of seizing the moment to create a nourishing, satisfying meal, we get stuck with the same old crutches: baby carrots and cheese sticks for our son; some sort of drab, uninspired sandwich for the two of us.

So here's a solution for the 2022 back-to-school, back-to-the-office lunch conundrum: five delicious lunch ideas that work for everyone. They're kid-friendly and adult-friendly, fun ideas that will have you counting down the hours until you get to open that lunch bag in the fridge. And they work just as well if that fridge is in your home kitchen rather than an office.

Each lunch idea starts with the baseline: a simple, pared-back option designed to make eating fun for children. Then, it uses similar ingredients and flavours to transform it into a lunch that no-nonsense adults will love, too.

For example: What kid doesn't love eating pasta ... on a stick? Thread colourful veggies and tortelloni onto kebabs for children. The same ingredients transform into an elegant, zingy pasta salad you can take to work for a few days.

Another idea? Getting kids to eat their vegetables in the cafeteria can be near impossible. But everyone loves a nugget! Our baked falafel nuggets are packed with flavour and veggies. For more adventurous eaters, let them in on the secret that the nuggets are amazing on top of a main-course salad with a makeshift hummus-based dressing.

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Of course, all these concepts actually work for everyone. Who says adults don't want pasta kebabs and dipping nuggets, too? Mix and match these ideas to fit all the eaters in your house and keep you eager for lunchtime for weeks to come.

Each recipe works in an insulated lunch bag with no refrigeration needed, and there are options for quick assembly or make ahead and freeze.

Use these ideas to break up the monotony of the brown bag boredom. And hey: Maybe you'll have a little fun with it, too.

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Baked Falafel (Makes 18 falafel)

Baked Falafel. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

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One (425g) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 1/2 cups (185g) frozen mixed vegetables such as corn, carrots, peas and/or green beans

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander (optional)

1/2 teaspoon table or fine sea salt, divided

1/2 cup loosely packed coriander leaves

1/4 cup (28g) all-purpose flour (may substitute with gluten-free flour)


Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 200 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large pan over medium heat, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the chickpeas, frozen vegetables, cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, coriander, if using, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Cook until the vegetables are warmed through and evenly coated in the spices, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl of a food processor.

To the chickpea-vegetable mixture, add the coriander, flour and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Pulse until the chickpeas are blended and a chunky mixture forms, 10 to 15 pulses, scraping once with a spatula (resist the urge to overprocess).

Using a 1 1/2-tablespoon cookie scoop, make the mixture into balls and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Lightly wet your palms, then flatten the scooped mixture into circular patties. Bake for 15 minutes, then use tongs or two forks to gently flip the nuggets. Bake for another 15 minutes, or until crisp and golden brown. Remove from the oven, let cool for about 10 minutes. Serve, or refrigerate/freeze until needed.

Pasta Salad Kebab. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.

Pasta Salad Kebab (Serves 6-8)


510g refrigerated cheese tortelloni

230g small mozzarella balls

1 cup (140g) cherry tomatoes

2 bell peppers, any colour, cut into bite-size pieces

1/4 cup pitted olives

For the Salad Dressing

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1/2 teaspoon dried dill

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

3/4 teaspoon table or fine sea salt, plus more to taste

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package instructions, Once cooked, rinse the pasta in a colander under cold water. While the pasta cooks, prepare the ingredients and make the dressing.

If making the kebabs: Make 1 to 2 skewers per serving, using bamboo skewers. For each skewer, alternate approximately 3 tortelloni, 2 mozzarella balls, 3 olives, 3 bell pepper pieces and 3 cherry tomatoes. The kebabs are ready to serve, or can be lightly dressed.

If making the pasta salad: Halve the mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes and olives.

In a large bowl, whisk together the white wine vinegar with the sugar, Italian seasoning, dill, garlic powder and salt. Then whisk in the olive oil. Once the pasta is done, shake off as much water as possible and add it to the large bowl along with the mozzarella balls, bell peppers, tomatoes and olives. Toss gently to combine and serve.

Mediterranean Pinwheels (Serves 1)

Mediterranean Pinwheels. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.


56g (about 1/4 cup) goat cheese or hummus

One (25cm) flour tortilla or spinach tortilla

3 tablespoons (about 56g) diced roasted red pepper

1/8 teaspoon dried dill


In a small microwave-safe bowl, soften the goat cheese in the microwave on HIGH power for 10 seconds (you may need another 10-second burst) to make it easy to spread. Spread the goat cheese over the tortilla, leaving about 0.5cm space around the edges.

Add the diced red pepper evenly across the goat cheese and sprinkle with the dill. Roll up the tortilla very tightly, especially as soon as you start rolling, to avoid a large gap in the centre.

Slice the wrap into 2cm pinwheels and serve.

VARIATION: To make a wrap, once you spread the goat cheese, scatter the roasted pepper and sprinkle with the dill, add 1/3 cup of canned, drained and rinsed chickpeas mashed with 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt. Mix in 1 small handful of torn fresh herbs, such as chives or basil; spread this mixture over the pepper. Top with a handful of salad greens. Fold the bottom of the tortilla over half of the filling, then tuck it around and underneath the filling, forming a tight roll. Fold in each side of the tortilla, then roll it up from the bottom. Cut the wrap in half and serve.