RECIPES: 5 colorful, family-friendly lunches for kids going back to school

Five adaptable lunch recipes for kids heading back to school and parents, too. (For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)

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 co-workers 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 drab, uninspired sandwich for the two of us.

So here's a solution for the 2021 back-to-school, back-to-the-office lunch conundrum: five delicious lunch ideas that work for everyone. They're kid-friendly and adult-friendly, fun ideas that will have you counting down the hours until you get to open that lunch bag in the fridge. And they work just as well if that fridge is in your home kitchen rather than an office.

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.

Mix and match these ideas to fit all the eaters in your house and keep you 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.

Baked Falafel
(For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)
Baked Falafel (For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)

These crisp, baked vegetable-packed "nuggets" are super-dippable for children and are just as irresistible for grown-ups. The nuggets are easy to make ahead and refrigerate or freeze, so consider making a double batch.

You may also enjoy these atop a salad with a quick hummus-based drizzle.

Here is our suggestion for making a falafel salad: Place 4 cups of mixed greens on a plate and top with 1 carrot (chopped), ½ cucumber (chopped) and a handful of cherry tomatoes. Top with 6 falafel nuggets. In a small bowl, stir together ¼ cup of hummus with 1 ½ teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1 ½ tablespoons water and ¼ teaspoon dried dill and whisk together until it forms a loose dressing. Drizzle over the salad and serve.

Baked Falafel

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 ½ cups (6 ½ 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 use

½ cup loosely packed cilantro or parsley leaves

¼ cup all-purpose flour

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and heat 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 or parsley, 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).

Scoop the mixture into 1 ½-tablespoon 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.

Makes about 18 falafel.

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Pasta Salad Kebab
(For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)
Pasta Salad Kebab (For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)

A pasta salad can easily be deconstructed into your kid's favorite foods: pasta and cheese. Just build kebabs with the salad ingredients. The skewers might even persuade everyone to finish the vegetables in the lunchbox.

If you prefer, make a big batch of pasta salad with all of these same ingredients. It lasts in the refrigerator for days. The individual ingredients also last for days, so you could mix and match: Make some kebabs today and make the salad later in the week.

Serve with green grapes or veggie chips.

Many schools have safety policies regarding what objects are allowed in schools. If you plan to send the skewered kebabs to school with your child, check with the administration to see if they are allowed. If not, the pieces could be placed in a small container as finger food.

Pasta Salad Kebab

18 ounces refrigerated cheese tortelloni (large cheese tortellini, see notes)

8 ounces small mozzarella balls (also called ciliegine)

¼ cup pitted green olives such as Castelvetrano

2 bell peppers, any color, cut into bite-size pieces

1 cup cherry tomatoes

For the salad dressing:

¼ cup white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

½ teaspoon dried dill

½ teaspoon garlic powder

¾ teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package instructions. Once cooked, rinse the pasta in a colander under cold water until it is warm. While the pasta cooks, prepare the ingredients and make the dressing.

If making the kebabs: Make 1 to 2 skewers per serving, using bamboo skewers. For each skewer, alternate approximately 3 tortelloni, 2 mozzarella balls, 3 olives, 3 bell pepper pieces and 3 cherry tomatoes. The kebabs are ready to serve, or can be lightly dressed (see notes).

If making the pasta salad: Halve the mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes and olives.

In a large bowl, whisk together the white wine vinegar with the sugar, Italian seasoning, dill, garlic powder and salt. Then whisk in the olive oil. Once the pasta is done, shake off as much water as possible and add it to the large bowl along with the mozzarella balls, bell peppers, tomatoes and olives. Toss gently to combine and serve.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Notes: Tortelloni are large tortellini found in the refrigerated section in your local grocery. Avoid frozen or dried tortellini: they're typically much smaller and shaped in a circle, so they don't work well on skewers.

In a rush? Use ¾ cup store-bought vinaigrette (such as Italian) in place of the homemade dressing. If you like, you can leave the kebabs undressed or you can brush them with vinaigrette.

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Mediterranean Pinwheels
(For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)
Mediterranean Pinwheels (For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)

These brightly colored pinwheels are irresistibly tasty for kids as lunch or a snack. Or, turn the same ingredients into a Mediterranean wrap for adults, using more vegetables and any leftover fresh herbs you might have on hand (see variation).

Either way, you'll be amazed by the zing that jarred roasted red peppers add to each bite. Hummus is a good stand-in for goat cheese-averse or vegan kids and/or adults. To pack in more protein, add canned tuna or leftover cooked chicken.

The pinwheels and wrap 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.

Mediterranean Pinwheels

2 ounces (about ¼ cup) goat cheese OR hummus

1 (10-inch) flour tortilla or spinach tortilla

3 tablespoons diced roasted red pepper from a jar, blotted dry

1/8 teaspoon dried dill

If using goat cheese, in a small microwave-safe bowl, soften the goat cheese in the microwave on 100% power for 10 seconds (you may need another 10-second burst) to make it easy to spread. Spread the goat cheese or hummus over the tortilla, leaving about ¼-inch space around the edges.

Add the diced red pepper evenly across the spread and sprinkle with the dill. Roll up the tortilla very 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.

Makes 1 serving.

Variation: To make a wrap, once you spread the goat cheese, scatter the roasted pepper and sprinkle with the dill, add 1/3 cup of canned, drained and rinsed chickpeas mashed with 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt. Mix in 1 small handful of torn fresh herbs, such as chives or basil (optional); spread this mixture over the pepper. Top with a handful of salad greens. Fold the bottom of the tortilla over half of the filling, then tuck it around and underneath the filling, forming a tight roll. Fold in each side of the tortilla, then roll it up from the bottom. Cut the wrap in half and serve.

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Lunchbox Charcuterie
(For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)
Lunchbox Charcuterie (For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)

This lunchbox charcuterie offers the convenience of those prepackaged finger-food meals, but you get to pick and choose for flavor and nutrition.

Below you'll find a suggestion for a balance of savory, salty and sweet snacks to pack.

Better yet: Place these and any other options you like on your kitchen counter and let everyone pack their own "board." Don't like olives? Pack some pepperoncini. Want a less salty meat? How about sliced turkey or chicken? Is string cheese your jam? Throw it in the mix.

See where your imagination takes you.

Lunchbox Charcuterie

For each lunchbox:

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 dried fruit, such as raisins, dried cherries or apricots

Crackers, such as 2 Scandinavian seeded crackers or 2 handfuls almond crackers

4 pitted green olives such as Castelvetrano

2 tablespoons coarse mustard, jam or chutney for dipping

Choose a container that allows the food to fit snugly. To keep crackers crisp, wrap them in wax paper. Use silicone cupcake liners to hold the nuts, meat, cheese and fruits. Use a small, lidded container for your favorite dipping option.

Makes 1 serving.

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Deli Salad Sandwich 3 Ways
(For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)
Deli Salad Sandwich 3 Ways (For The Washington Post/Tom McCorkle)

The classic deli "salad" sandwich still has a place in your lunch bag. This version works with a variety of proteins, including an abundantly flavorful plant-based chickpea salad.

For more adventurous palates, spice the salads up to create different flavors to keep you interested week after week. Try adding a pinch of curry powder to the chickpeas, a little Cajun seasoning to the chicken or a touch of smoked paprika to the tuna.

Serve with dill pickle spears, vegetable chips or fruit on the side.

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

Deli Salad Sandwich 3 Ways

1 (5-ounce) can tuna, ¾ cup canned chickpeas OR ¾ cup (about 3 ounces) chopped leftover cooked chicken

1 medium celery rib, chopped

1 green onion, thinly sliced

3 tablespoons mayonnaise or vegan mayonnaise

1 ½ teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon grated parmesan cheese (optional)

Fine salt 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, green onion, 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.

Makes 2 sandwiches.