With the summer heat still lingering, it’s time for the kids to leave the pools and head back into classrooms. 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.

If you’re like us, you might be excited about seeing your coworkers 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 uninspired sandwich for the two of us.

So here’s a solution for the 2021 back-to-school, back-to-the-office conundrum: delicious lunch ideas that work for everyone.

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 flavors to transform it into a lunch that no-nonsense adults will love, too.

For example: 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 flavor and veggies (and gobbled up by our 4-year-old). For more adventurous eaters, let them in on the secret that the nuggets are amazing on top of a main-course salad with a hummus-based dressing.

Of course, all the concepts work for everyone. Who says adults don’t want dipping nuggets, too? Mix and match these ideas to fit all the eaters in your house and keep everyone 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.

Baked Falafel

Active time: 15 minutes | Total time: 45 minutes

3 servings (18 falafel)


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

One 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1½ cups (6½ ounces) frozen mixed vegetables such as corn, carrots, peas, and/or green beans

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

¼ teaspoon ground coriander (optional)

½ teaspoon table or fine sea salt, divided

½ cup loosely packed cilantro leaves

¼ cup (1 ounce) all-purpose flour (may substitute with gluten-free flour)


Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees. Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil until shimmering. Add the chickpeas, frozen vegetables, cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, coriander, if using, and ¼ 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 cilantro, flour, and the remaining ¼ 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 1½-tablespoon cookie scoop or No. 40 disher, scoop the mixture into balls and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Lightly wet your palms (this will prevent the mixture from sticking to your hands), 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.

From Sonja Overhiser and Alex Overhiser of ACoupleCooks.com.

Mediterranean Pinwheels

15 minutes

1 serving

Storage Notes: The pinwheels are best when served the day they’re made, but can be wrapped in parchment or wax paper and refrigerated for up to 1 day.


2 ounces (about ¼ cup) goat cheese or hummus

One (10-inch) flour tortilla or spinach tortilla

3 tablespoons (about 2 ounces) diced roasted red pepper from a jar, blotted dry

⅛ 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 1/4-inch space around the edges.

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

Slice the wrap into ¾-inch pinwheels and serve.

From Sonja Overhiser and Alex Overhiser of ACoupleCooks.com.

Lunchbox Charcuterie

15 minutes

1 serving


1 ounce salami or prosciutto, sliced and rolled

1 ounce Manchego cheese, aged cheddar cheese, or smoked Gouda cheese, cut into strips

½ apple, sliced

½ cup red grapes

2 mini sweet peppers

¼ cup peanuts or smoked salted almonds

¼ cup raisins, dried cherries or apricots

2 Scandinavian seeded crackers or 2 handfuls almond crackers

4 pitted Castelvetrano olives

2 tablespoons coarse mustard, jam, or chutney for dipping


For each lunchbox, select an assortment that fits each eater’s taste. We’ve suggested amounts for one person. Choose a container that allows the food to fit snugly. To keep crackers crisp, wrap them in wax paper. Use silicone cupcake liners and combine the nuts and raisins and apples and grapes. Use a small, lidded container for your favorite dipping option.

From Sonja Overhiser and Alex Overhiser of ACoupleCooks.com.

Deli Salad Sandwich 3 Ways

15 minute

2 servings

Storage Notes: Leftover salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for 3 days.


One 5-ounce can tuna, ¾ cup (7½ ounces) canned no-sodium chickpeas, or ¾ cup (about 3 ounces) chopped leftover cooked chicken

1 medium celery rib, chopped

1 scallion, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons mayonnaise or vegan mayonnaise

1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

⅛ teaspoon table or fine sea salt (omit if the chicken is seasoned), or more to taste

3 grinds black pepper, or more to taste

1 teaspoon smoked paprika, curry powder, or Cajun seasoning (optional), or more to taste

4 slices sandwich bread (or almond crackers)


If using tuna or chickpeas, drain them, then in a small bowl mash them with a fork (if using chicken, chop, and add to a small bowl). Stir in the celery, scallion, mayonnaise, mustard, Parmesan, if using, salt, pepper, and seasoning, if using. Taste, and adjust seasoning as desired. Split the salad between two pieces of the bread, top with the remaining bread and serve. If desired, spread the bread with mayonnaise or hummus before building the sandwich, and add lettuce or other greens for crunch.

From Sonja Overhiser and Alex Overhiser of ACoupleCooks.com.