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School lunch ideas for pint-size vegetarians

Do you have a vegetarian living in your home? Even a little one? There are many kinds of vegetarianism, but many folks are reducing the amount of meat in their diets, or cutting it out altogether. And these choices are being made by kids, too.
This image shows a vegetarian recipe for Artichoke, Feta and Roasted Pepper Couscous Salad, a nourishing, protein-filled, meat-free meal for lunch. (Cheyenne M. Cohen via AP)

Do you have a vegetarian living in your home? Even a little one?

There are many kinds of vegetarianism, but many folks are reducing the amount of meat in their diets, or cutting it out altogether. And these choices are being made by kids, too.

So with the new school year, the question becomes: How can we pack lunches that are nourishing, protein-filled, meat-free and kid-friendly? Luckily, there are lots of choices.


Let’s start with the sandwich, the mainstay of many lunch bags and boxes. Instead of traditional ham and turkey, explore the ever-growing number of vegan and vegetarian cold cut options out there.

Tofurky makes sliced, plant-based “turkey” in varieties like Oven-Roasted and Hickory Smoked. Lightlife makes sliced “turkey,” and also plant-based ham and bologna, so you can recreate some of the classic combos. Unreal Deli makes faux “corn’d beef.”

A perusal of the cheese offerings at your local market will open up a world of possibilities: Think mozzarella and sliced tomatoes with fresh basil or pesto, or brie with a fruit preserve. Perhaps cheddar, thinly sliced apples and honey mustard. My kids grew up on grilled cheese sandwiches all melted up in the morning but eaten at room temperature during lunch, which have a charm all their own.

And if your kid is a vegan, there are so many vegan cheese options now, including Daiya and Kite Hill, two readily available brands.

Other sandwich and wrap ideas: hummus, chopped tomatoes and shredded lettuce in a pita; sauteed or baked tofu, tempeh, or seiten with the seasoning or sauce of your choice. (Think about barbecue sauce, Cajun seasoning, curry blends, and so on.) And there is always protein-packed PB&J (or PB&banana). Use sunflower butter or another alternative if your school is nut-free.


You can pack a hearty soup into a thermos (there are SO many cute containers these days designed to keep foods hot or cold). Soups made with a vegetarian protein, like beans, are terrific.

Think about lentil soups, white bean soups, black bean soups. Make a batch of vegetarian chili over the weekend, or red or black beans and rice. You can pack that up and, if you’re feeling energetic, pack little containers of sour cream, shredded cheese or avocado to top the chili just before eating.


Speaking of avocado, this fruit (we all remember it is a fruit, right?) can become lunch in many guises. Guacamole with pita chips or whole grain tortilla chips is always a hit, or stuff a pita with sliced avocado, chopped tomatoes, shredded lettuce, bean sprouts, and Caesar or Greek dressing. Or, put a whole avocado into the lunch box and let your kid peel and smash it onto a piece of whole grain toast, topping it with anything from salsa to crumbled queso.


Let’s hear it for eggs, an amazing source of non-meat protein. Egg salad, hard boiled eggs, deviled eggs, frittatas. Plus there are a bunch of highly packable, egg-based meals and snacks on the market, such as Nellie’s Sous Vide Egg Bites and Organic Farms’ Egg Bites with Cheddar and Chives.


Salads don’t have to feel flimsy or unsubstantial. Add some kale, chickpeas, sunflower or pumpkin seeds, and nuts if those are allowed at school. Beyond vegetable salads, think about grain-based ones built with quinoa, farro, bulgur wheat or millet.

Don’t forget about fruit salads, using the best of what’s in season.

And remember good old pasta salads, too. Whole grain or plant-based pasta adds extra nutrition and fiber.


Check out the deli counter for other vegetarian-prepared foods, like a cauliflower or broccoli salad or slaws. Vegetarian sushi is readily available, including at many supermarkets.

Look in the refrigerator and freezer aisles for other heat-and-eat vegetarian foods like Mexican tamales or Indian curries. You can cook them in the morning and pack them in a container designed to keep them warm, or perhaps it’s possible to reheat the food on site. Other packaged vegetarian foods like Aahana’s lentil and rice bowls, Maya Kaimal’s vegan chanas, and Kitchen & Love’s cauliflower- and grain-based bowls are also good to keep on hand for last-minute lunches.

Some of the plant-based meat products are fine to eat at room temperature, so consider adding meatless chicken or other varieties to salads, rice bowls and so on. Check the labels to be sure.


Don’t forget to get creative with leftovers! Extra black beans can be made into a wrap with some shredded romaine, slivered bell peppers and crumbled queso. Last night’s rice can be made into a vegetarian stir fried rice. Roasted squash can become a pureed soup, and roasted eggplant can become a dip for pita. A leftover pasta dish might be perfect at room temp, or reheated.

Truly, there’s no reason why a vegetarian lunch shouldn’t hold as many possibilities as any other!


Katie Workman writes regularly about food for The Associated Press. She has written two cookbooks focused on family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.” She blogs at She can be reached at [email protected].


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Katie Workman, The Associated Press