Hands up how many times you’ve opened the kids’ lunchboxes at the end of the day only to be greeted by the very same sandwich that you made the night before. It was a pretty common occurrence in our house until it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps my daughter was not born in the 90s and conditioned into dredging up a barely covered in cling wrap peanut butter sandwich and eating it in all of 2.5 seconds because that’s all there was to eat. I don’t know about anyone else, but that was certainly a regular theme throughout my schooling years.

Fast forward 25ish years and the lunchbox game has certainly been turbo charged largely in part to the bento box phenomenon. Every time I diligently pack my daughter’s lunch, I can’t help but feel an enormous sense of pride in seeing the end result but that, of course, is pretty quickly shattered when taking a peek inside the box at the end of the day.

Having finally worked out that neither jam nor that hideously awful chickpea “peanut butter” is going to cut it as a lunchbox staple, I’ve had enormous success by switching things up and tossing the sandwich out of the lunch box as quickly as I’d scoff mine as a kid. So, here’s my top 10 lunchbox ideas that don’t involve sandwiches.

Pasta Salad: It’s a fabulous way to incorporate carbohydrates, vegetables and protein in a sure to be enjoyed way. For us, the bow pasta in particular is a huge hit accompanied with cherry tomatoes, grated carrot, peas, cooked chicken, spinach and a light dressing of garlic, olive oil and a sprinkle of rosemary. Any time that you’re sending high-risk foods to school, make sure they stay safe in an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack.

Mini Pizzas: Whether you’re making your own dough (flour and Greek yoghurt is all you need), or making use of a slice of bread or morning muffin, mini pizzas are such a versatile option. It’s also an easy to grab and go option from the freezer if you’re like me and enjoy prepping a whole month’s worth of school snacks in advance. I like to store the bases in the freezer and then top with sauce and any other bits and pieces from the fridge before cooking in the air fryer as needed.

Chicken Nuggets: Just like mini pizzas, whether you buy chicken nuggets or make them from scratch, they’re a guaranteed hit in most households and freeze exceptionally well. If you need to keep them warm until lunch time, an insulated food jar will be your best friend. Just make sure your child can open it independently – your child’s teacher will thank you.

Hummus and Veggie Wrap: Whist arguably there’s not much difference between a wrap and a sandwich, according to our 3.5 year old they’re from a completely different universe. To make them fun, intriguing and exciting to eat, I like to cut ours up into small rounds and pop on a skewer, or our wrap’d reusable wrap holders to avoid all the mess.

Turkey or Ham Roll Ups: Take away the bred and you’ve got yourself a turkey (or protein of choice) roll up. Simply lay out a slice of protein and spread with cream cheese (hummus works well too), add some thinly sliced carrots, cucumber, lettuce, capsicum or anything else in the fridge, and roll it up. Either cut into bite-sized pieces and use our skewers to secure, or leave whole and keep it all together with a wrap band.

Pizza Wheels: Quite possibly my favourite lunchbox snack to make in bulk and freeze ahead of time. Just grab a few packets of puff pastry, some pizza or pasta sauce, ham/bacon, cheese and vegetables and get rolling. Allow the pastry to come to room temperature, spread the sauce and then lightly layer with fillings – avoid what Tim does and jam it full, it’ll always end up in a messy disaster. Unlike my chocolate addiction, in this case, less is more. Once you’ve spread out your fillings, roll up and leave in the fridge for at least 30 minutes to make slicing easier. Once chilled, grab a sharp knife and cut into small rounds. You can then either lay on a baking tray and brush with milk or egg and bake in the oven or air fryer. Or, you can do what I like to do, and freeze them uncooked. That way, they can be served fresh and only take 6-8 minutes in the air fryer to cook. Freezing them uncooked also takes us less precious freezer space.

Mini Meatballs: Whilst it’s probably the Italian genes, meatballs are definitely a staple in our house. They’re cheap, quick to make and last really well in the freezer. This month’s favourite flavour is chicken but we’re also a big fan of 50/50 pork and beef and turkey. Hot tip – add a touch of bacon to make them extra juicy.

Antipasto Skewers: Living with a husband whose Italian means that he can’t be trusted in the deli section at the supermarket. Inevitably he’ll come home with all kinds of delicious goodies that were definitely not on the shopping list. But they do make for inventive lunchtime snacks. Using our skewers, we add cubes of cheese, a rolled-up slice of delicious deli meat, capsicum, cherry tomatoes and an olive for good measure.

Air Fried Ravioli: Whilst my MIL almost banished me from her house when I asked to borrow the air fryer to whip up a quick snack, airfryer ravioli is now a staple snack in our house for lunches or an afternoon snack. We keep packets in the freezer so they’re ready to go whenever we need and they quickly cook in as little as 6 minutes. My daughter has now taken to calling them her favourite fluffy ravioli pillows.

Mac and Cheese with Veggies: The perfect accompaniment particularly on a cooler day. It also goes exceptionally well inside a food jar and is perfect when eaten warm.

You also can’t go wrong with any of the following inside a bento lunchbox without the sandwich:


Boiled eggs

Mini quiche

Mini savoury muffins

Rice paper rolls

Zuchinni and carrot fritters

Dinner leftovers are also always a winner.

March 05, 2023 — Michelle Leach

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