Prep School

8 Spreads, Sauces, And Ingredients That Take School Lunches To The Next Level

With a few simple ingredients and a few minutes of prep time, you can make a school lunch that sends the right message. Here’s what I rely on.

by Mike Diago
The Back To School Issue 2023

I remember my school-lunch awakening. One morning, a few years ago, I prepared our first-grader’s lunch as my wife was stuffing folders into his backpack. I swiped the two remaining stiff, cold slices of pizza from the previous night’s takeout box, wrapped them in cling wrap and tossed them into a plastic grocery bag with an apple — boom, done. My wife grabbed the bag from me with one hand as she hustled toward the front door with our son, helping him put his backpack on with the other hand. She paused and, without turning around, said, “Wait, Mike. What’s this? You can’t send him in there looking crazy.”

My son likes cold pizza, but she was worried it looked careless. I walked over to her and inspected the bag. It was one of the worst and saddest lunches I’d seen. My son sat slumped on a leather swivel chair with his huge backpack still on.

My mother would have never sent me with such a ragged lunch. She packed school lunches filled with variety: peanut-butter crackers, a juicy orange, a ham sandwich with mustard, and a note decorated with smiley faces, all in a themed lunch box that I’d picked out at summer’s end. She knew the lunch she packed was the only communication from home throughout the school day. When your kid opens that lunch box (or peers apprehensively into that plastic grocery bag), they get a message even if there isn’t a note.

If you know your kid and show it at least a couple of times a week in the meal you pack, they’ll be nourished when the bell rings.

When it comes to school lunch, you have to show you care. That doesn’t mean you need to prepare a chef’s tasting menu like the ones you see in those bento boxes on social media — though, if you’re motivated, and you think your kids will eat cucumber caviar bites, please, go ahead. It just means you need to pack things that they’ll like, add a few personal touches, and try not to humiliate them. Your kids may be more likely to eat their favorite cheesy pasta, or even ham-and-cheese on sliced bread, than the sesame cauliflower you found in a cookbook. If that sandwich comes with a drawing on a napkin, and the chocolate peanut-butter cup you don’t usually allow, it’ll brighten their mood and show that you’re paying attention, especially if they’ve had a few bad days.

That morning, I returned to the kitchen, slammed a pot of salted water over a high flame, sliced the apple, and packaged it with peanut butter. Then I slid half a box of rigatoni into the water, peeled the top of a can of peas, and grated a mound of parmesan while the pasta boiled. Finally, I strained the pasta and mixed everything with a bit of pasta water and a lot of butter for the most creamy and delicious mac and cheese the school cafeteria has ever seen. I drew a quick picture of Valt Aoi, my son’s favorite character from BeyBlades, on a napkin, packed everything up along with a baggie of Goldfish into an actual lunch box that I dug out of the cupboard, and off they went. I stood over the stove, shoveling the remaining pasta into my gullet, proud of my work.

That all took 15 minutes. My son bopped through the door at the end of the day, smiling, carrying an empty lunch box. I’ve made similar pasta a thousand times, and he always eats it, happily. If I hadn’t immediately hogged the leftovers, we would have had it for dinner, alongside a salad.

No, we all can’t send cheesy pasta every day. But we can make simple, tasty lunches for kids that are mostly healthy and hit a few food groups. In an effort to assist your prep, below are some staples that don’t take much time to prepare but go a long way in making next-level lunches in my kitchen. The ingredients I suggest you prepare set you up to make a wide variety of meals; in many cases, they take the prep work out of dinner, too.

The emphasis on ingredients over meals is intentional. Efficiency and appeal are equally important. If you batch-cook chili on a Sunday, they may hate it by Tuesday. But if you make ground beef and beans separately, you can make different lunches and dinners from those ingredients three days in a row (say, chili, beaned-up mac and cheese, and some burritos). Having ingredients prepared in the morning also lets you experiment. Though attempts at fanciness don't often get you very far, it’s still good to expose your kids to new foods. I like playing a sure hand with one wild card in the mix. Of course, what I make is often paired with a snack and piece of fruit, too.

OK, all that said, here are the low-on-effort, big-on-success spreads, sauces, and ingredients that help streamline lunch prep in my household. I hope they do they same in yours.

1. Homemade Tomato Sauce

As long as you don’t buy the sugary stuff at the supermarket or add much sugar to yours, tomato sauce is pureed fruit. In other words, it’s healthy. It’s also famously great for hiding greens and other ingredients kids might struggle to eat.

Sauté garlic in olive oil in a pot; add spinach, mushrooms, canned anchovies, or ground meat, and cook those down. (Zucchini, bell peppers, onions, and carrots also work well hidden in sauce.) Then, add a jar of canned tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and mix and mash until it cooks down to your desired taste and consistency.

Tomato sauce can, of course, be used with meatballs, pasta, and pizza. But its wildly versatile. Smear it on sturdy sandwiches for some extra flavor, or use it as a dipping sauce for grilled cheese. Poach fish or beans in tomato sauce, and you can also use it to brighten and deepen the flavor of soups.

2. Pesto

The classic Italian spread, traditionally made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, good olive oil, and lots of Parmesan cheese, is healthy, adaptable, and comes together in very little time. Best of all, you can create a tasty one out of almost anything wilting in the fridge — parsley, basil, arugula, dandelion greens, spinach, pea shoots.

To make it, add a tablespoon of pine or walnuts and a garlic clove for every packed cup of greens. Blend those in a food processor while drizzling in a quarter cup of olive oil. Then mix in a quarter cup of grated parmesan.

Sure, you can dress pasta with it and it makes for a delicious sandwich spread (it’s especially exceptional with grilled chicken cutlets). But you can — and should — also toss it with potatoes and blanched or roasted veggies for a potato salad, or add a bit of sour cream or Greek yogurt and use it as a dip for raw or pickled vegetable sticks. A smear on the inside of a grilled cheese is especially great, and it’s dynamite mixed in with rice.

3. Hummus

Once, late to a party, I put store-bought hummus into a glass container, topped it with lemon juice, olive oil, and paprika, and got compliments all night. If adults don’t know the difference, your kids won’t either. Whether you make it from scratch or go store bought, hummus is a kid-pleaser all the way.

To whip it up, in a food processor, add a can of chickpeas, half a cup of tahini, a quarter cup of olive oil, two garlic cloves (if you’ve roasted garlic cloves, throw a couple of those in as well), the juice from a lemon, and a half tablespoon or so of both cumin and paprika and let it rip.

The Mediterranean dip goes well on sandwiches and with pretty much any vegetable. For an excellent vegetable sandwich, use it as a spread and add something roasted and something pickled. One tasty idea is roasted broccoli and pickled onions. If you think your kids will eat them (one of mine does), add jarred artichokes to the sandwich.

4. Shredded Chicken

I always buy a whole chicken. If I have more than four people at home, I’ll buy two on a Sunday. There are so many meals to make with all the components, and none require super-human effort. And yeah, if you don’t feel energetic, you can also buy one or two rotisserie chickens from the grocery store; they cost only a bit more than the raw bird and are usually one of the best deals around.

When I buy a bird, I braise the thighs and legs and shred them to make sandwiches, a hot or cold topping for tostadas, a shredded chicken salad, or ranch-drizzled and on top of a simple salad, all of which the kids love. Salt the legs and thighs, brown them in oil in a Dutch oven on both sides, return them skin side down, and pour some liquid (stock, white, wine, water) until it comes halfway up the meat (don’t submerge them). Cover and place into a 275-325 degree oven until you can pull the chicken apart with forks. At 325 degrees, it should take about 45 minutes.

5. Chicken Cutlets

When I buy a chicken, I pretty much always make cutlets, too. The only problem here is that there’s often very little left by the time I come to store them in the fridge. They are so delicious and easy to grab off the plate I keep next to the stove that my wife, son, and I always eat as I cook. If you show restraint, however, you’ll set yourself up for three or four days of great lunches (and dinners).

I slice the breast lengthwise two or three times, season with salt and pepper, sauté two smashed garlic cloves in a couple of glugs of olive oil and then pan-fry them in the garlicky oil. Alternatively, I’ll dredge them in seasoned flour, eggs, and bread crumbs and deep fry them in 350-375 degree oil. (Pro tip: while the oil’s hot, make yourself a quick batch of buffalo wings as a chef’s treat. Combine equal parts hot sauce and butter in a pot until it simmers, deep fry the wings naked and toss with the sauce. This will help satisfy your peckish tendencies.) You can send the cutlets to school on sliced bread with mayo and lettuce, throw them into that pesto pasta, or slice them thin and serve them with a dipping sauce.

6. Tostadas

Portable, sturdy, and easy to customize, tostadas are like a giant tortilla chips. There's often no good way to heat corn tortillas at school, but your kid can throw anything you’d put in a taco on a tostada. You can make your own by frying corn tortillas in a thin layer of oil, about a ¼ inch, on both sides until crispy — about a minute on each side. Or buy packs of them, pre-made. Top it with shredded chicken (hot or cold), pickled onions, avocado, refried beans, or chili. Throw down a swipe of pesto as a base, dice up some of cutlets you fried, and add a few vegetables on top. The possibilities are endless.

7. Stock

On a recent Sunday, I prepared a minestrone to clean out my fridge. I didn’t even have white beans, so I used chickpeas, which may make it another dish entirely. I thought this mixture of conspicuous leafy chard, limp carrots, and other fridge scraps would repel my kid, but a few minutes after serving him, he was tilting the bowl to slurp the last spoonful. I don’t know if your kids will like it too, but it’s so healthy, easy, and efficient that it’s worth a shot.

You don’t need an exact recipe. When I buy chicken, I make a quick stock from the carcass of the bird (Simply throw it into a pot with water and aromatics and simmer for a half hour or more). I heat up that stock and add cooked or canned white beans, canned tomatoes, or even some of that homemade tomato sauce (only if you haven’t added ground beef) along with vegetables and cut pasta, tasting as you go. It comes together in 20-30 minutes. Minestrone is traditionally a vegetable soup, but there’s no reason you can’t make it something else and add some of that shredded chicken. It’s simple to customize for my kids’ palates.

8. Pickled, Blanched, and Roasted Vegetables

As a rule, I add vegetables to everything I can. What helps my kids actually eat them is that I vary their flavor and texture.

For instance, slicing and quick-pickling carrots and asparagus spears make them tangier, snappier, and tastier when paired with your kid’s favorite dip. Pickled sliced red onions can go on a grilled chicken and pesto sandwich, potato salad, tostadas, and more.

To quick pickle any vegetable, pack it in a glass jar, boil equal parts water and vinegar (anything but balsamic or malt), and pour it over the veg, leaving a half-inch gap. Give the jar a few taps on the counter to release some bubbles, screw the top on tight, and as soon as it cools off, pop it in the fridge for 48 hours. If you want, you can dissolve granulated sugar and salt in the pickling solution as it boils, and you can pack herbs and aromatics with the vegetables (I always do both). Those will last two months. (Sometimes, it pays just to buy pickles. My favorites are the carrots and asparagus from Tillen Farms.)

Blanching vegetables is another simple trick. This technique preserves their flavor, texture, and color and makes them quicker to work with. All it requires is for you to dunk them in boiling water for 30 seconds to three minutes. (Carrots would take about three minutes, green beans closer to a minute). Transfer them into an ice bath, strain, dry, and store. Put them directly on a sandwich or into a salad, or crisp them under a broiler or over a grill. Some people blanch before they pickle (or do almost anything else with vegetables). It’s not a bad idea, but it’s also not necessary.

Finally, roasting almost any vegetable long enough makes its flavor sweet and deeper. Toss vegetables in olive oil and salt and throw them on sheet pans in a 400-degree oven until they are as soft as you want.

Roasted garlic heads, carrots, broccoli, potatoes, and carrots will improve all sorts of hot and cold lunches. Add the garlic to your hummus or spread it on toast for a sandwich. Add shredded cheese and bread crumbs to the broccoli and for a quick blast in the oven or school microwave. Toss the potatoes in your pesto, add cinnamon and maple syrup or za’atar and yogurt to the carrots.


Ultimately, kids menus all contain the same things — pizza, chicken fingers, french fries, pasta, and hot dogs — for a reason: kids are picky. But if you keep playing a wild card, they will shock you, the way my son shocked me when he gobbled up that bowl of minestrone and consecutive bowls throughout the week. In any case, saccharine as it sounds, the most important ingredients to a great school lunch are love and attention. If you know your kid and show it at least a couple of times a week in the meal you pack, they’ll be nourished when the bell rings.