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10 cool school lunches your kid will actually eat

Ready-made pizza dough, found in the refrigerated section of a grocery store, can speed up preparation for these creative bites.
Ready-made pizza dough, found in the refrigerated section of a grocery store, can speed up preparation for these creative bites.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

When I was little, my mother’s inspiration for our school lunches usually revolved around chocolate chips and food coloring. I kid you not. Chocolate chips appeared in normal desserts, but they also found their way into our sandwiches — peanut butter, but even bologna or cheese. And then few drops of food coloring might add color Rice Krispie bars, muffins and cake.

I never had a dull lunch, though I didn’t fully appreciate my mom’s humor and ingenuity until years later.

For many parents, there’s nothing more daunting than packing the school lunch. What do you pack? What if your kid gets bored? What even constitutes lunch?

Here are 10 ideas for school lunch. They’re not recipes so much as rough outlines you can use to suit your family’s needs, creatively repackaging last night’s leftovers or using a few handy staples. No matter your skill level in the kitchen, there’s something here for everyone.

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Empanadas or hand pies: A great way to recycle last night’s dinner: Take leftover stew, draining the excess liquid, or combine leftover meat and vegetables to use as the filling for these little packets. Wrap the filling in homemade pastry dough or use pre-made pie or biscuit dough and bake.

Wraps: Keep a package of tortillas or flatbread on hand, along with an assortment of deli meats and cheeses. Layer them in the tortilla, along with tomatoes and lettuce or other greens (spinach! kale!), along with some mayonnaise or mustard. Not into gluten? Wrap everything in lettuce.

Skewers: Lots of things are more fun on a stick. Skewer cubes of cheese and leftover roast or chicken, or roll and skewer slices of deli meat. Add tomatoes and crudités, such as carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. This also works with fruit and dessert nibbles. If your kids are too young or the school doesn’t allow sharp skewers, popsicle sticks or coffee stirrers are a creative alternative.

Salads: Chop up leftover steak or other meat, along with vegetables, and toss with chopped lettuce, pasta, rice, quinoa, grains or beans for a colorful salad. Add bits of colorful bell pepper or cheese too.

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Soup: Like a salad, leftover mains and sides can often be combined in a simple soup. Fix the soup from scratch or use a pre-made soup and maybe get creative by adding some leftovers.

Onigiri: Have you seen all the creative photos of onigiri on Pinterest? It’s not much more than rice molded into shapes. Use cookie cutters or mold the rice into cute little bears or other shapes. Flavor with bits of vegetable — peas, carrots, etc. — and then add sesame seeds and nori sushi wrap. (Another great project for kids.)

Calzones: Just like empanadas or hand pies but using pizza dough. Sure, you can mix the pizza dough from scratch, but many stores now carry ready-made versions in the refrigerated section. Slather the dough with pasta sauce and add meatballs (homemade or frozen) or other meats or vegetables and top with cheese, then fold over the dough and seal. The calzones bake in about 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven. Be sure to pack a little extra pasta sauce on the side for dipping.

Quesadillas: Sprinkle cheese over a tortilla and add leftover meats or vegetables, then fold and cook over a griddle until the cheese is nice and gooey.

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Dips: Fix an assortment of crudités and cold cuts, maybe adding some bread or crackers, and serve alongside a fresh bean dip or hummus. To make the dip, rinse and drain a can of beans and purée in a food processor with a touch of garlic, oil, salt and pepper, and maybe a dash of cumin and paprika and a touch of fresh cilantro.

PB&J: There’s a reason this is a classic. If peanut butter is not your thing, try another nut butter, such as almond or cashew. Or better yet, have your kids help you make homemade nut butter. The process is simple: Toast nuts until lightly colored and aromatic, then grind in a food processor for a few minutes until the nuts are reduced to a buttery consistency (you shouldn’t need to add oil; as you process the nuts should release enough oil for a moist butter) and, finally, sweeten to taste with a touch of sugar, honey or maple syrup. Jams are just as simple and recipes are readily available.

Love cooking as much as I do? Follow me @noellecarter

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