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73 Cold Lunch Ideas That Go Beyond PB&J

Packing lunch has its perks: It’s cheap, nutritious and rewarding to eat something homemade. But what do you do when there’s no microwave to reheat your hard work? Brown-bag one of these cold lunch ideas instead, of course. Here are 73 meals we love, from avocado chicken salad to Mediterranean couscous.

75 Easy Lunch Ideas for Stressed-Out People


1. Smashed Chickpea Salad Sandwich

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegetarian, beginner-friendly, make-ahead, ready in <30 minutes, no cook

Just like its cousins chicken and tuna, this lightning-fast salad is riffable, protein-packed and will keep in the fridge for a few days. But unlike the competition, it’s meatless Monday friendly.

2. Make-ahead Spicy Chicken And Rice Salad

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, gluten free, less than 500 calories, dairy free

It’s not just that you can make this one in advance; it’s that you should. An overnight rest in the fridge will allow the flavors to meld before you dig in. (Don’t like the way the purple cabbage stains? Swap it for green.)

3. Caesar Pasta Salad

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, kid-friendly, make ahead

If you can’t possibly choose between a crisp lettuce salad and a creamy pasta salad, don’t. This franken-meal has the best of both: a salty-savory dressing, crunchy croutons, toothsome pasta and plenty of Parm.

4. Aran Goyoaga’s Niçoise Salad

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, make ahead, crowd-pleaser, vegetarian

Pack everything in separate containers to keep it from turning to mush before lunchtime, then assemble it when you’re ready to eat. Easy, right?

5. Salmon Noodle Bowls With Chili-yuzu Relish And Pickled Radishes

  • Time Commitment: 40 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, high protein, dairy free

This dish is just as delicious served cold as it is served warm (if not more). Even better, it’s customizable: Whatever veggies are in your fridge are fair game.

6. Lemon-roasted Potatoes, Chicken And Spinach With Tzatziki

  • Time Commitment: 35 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, kid-friendly, high protein

It’s not just the adorable bento box that makes this lunch look irresistible. It’s the fact that everything tastes amazing straight from the refrigerator (and will keep for up to five days). Make a double batch for you and your kids.

7. Pearl Couscous With Chickpeas, Eggplant And Peaches

  • Time Commitment: 35 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegetarian, make ahead, dairy free

If peaches aren’t in season, you can easily swap them for another fruit, and the whole thing can be made ahead. (Need more convincing?)

8. Citrus, Shrimp And Quinoa Salad With Feta

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, make ahead, <10 ingredients

A cold quinoa salad is right up our alley, but the mixed citrus and shrimp take it over the edge. (And FYI, it only takes 20 minutes to make.)

9. Colorful Peanut Noodle Jar

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, gluten free, vegan, make ahead

On days when you’re sick of eating the same sad kale salad for lunch, look to this convenient and quick noodle mason jar salad for something exciting and new. (It’s also a cute and easy way to get your kids to eat some veggies, just saying.)

10. Avocado Chicken Salad

  • Time Commitment: 45 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, make ahead, kid-friendly

Chicken salad recipes are a dime a dozen, but skip the outdated grapes, cranberries and nuts and add avocado to the cold lunch classic instead. It’s creamy with less mayo and packed with healthy fats—a win-win.

11. Greek Yogurt Chicken Salad Stuffed Peppers

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: kid-friendly, make ahead, no cook

Or, skip the mayo entirely and swap it with Greek yogurt. Bonus: These stuffed bell peppers are super easy on the eyes (and kid-friendly).

12. Yellow Tomato Gazpacho

  • Time Commitment: 45 minutes
  • Why I Love It: special occasion–worthy, make ahead, less than 500 calories

Cold soup for lunch? Yep, it’s a thing, and it’s delicious. Everyone at work will think you’re some kind of chef.

13. Kamut And Sour Cherry Meze

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour
  • Why I Love It: vegetarian, low sugar, less than 500 calories

Meze just means appetizer, but we’re packing this cold grain salad up and serving it for a filling, healthy lunch.

14. Zoodles With Avocado And Mango Sauce

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, ready in <30 minutes, vegan

It’s creamy, a little bit spicy and requires zero cooking. What’s not to love? (Hint: nothing.)

15. Avocado, Radish And Walnuts With Carrot-miso Dressing

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegetarian, ready in <30 minutes, less than 500 calories

An avocado salad might not seem like much on paper, but it’s quickly becoming one of our go-tos. Good thing it takes just 20 minutes to whip up.

16. Sumac And Fennel Fattoush

  • Time Commitment: 25 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, less than 500 calories, vegetarian

This is basically a salad made of pita chips, and we’re not complaining at all. The zingy honey-sumac vinaigrette pulls it all together beautifully.

17. 15-minute Gazpacho With Cucumber, Red Pepper And Basil

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, ready in <30 minutes, dairy free, gluten free, <10 ingredients

You had us at 15 minutes (and again at no-cook). Cold soup sounds like just the thing for your next alfresco dinner party.

18. Meal-prep Creamy Pasta Salad With Broccoli And Raisins

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, kid-friendly, ready in <30 minutes

If you’re going to pack lunch, you’ve got to upgrade from PB&Js and carrot sticks. This budget- and kid-friendly pasta salad will do the trick. (It’s just $1.50 per serving!)

19. The Ultimate Grilled Chicken Sandwich

  • Time Commitment: 45 minutes
  • Why I Love It: high protein, special occasion–worthy

All those in favor of topping every sandwich possible with crispy frizzled onions say, “aye.”

20. Salami, Artichoke And Ricotta Pasta Salad

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, make ahead

Pasta salad is a cold lunch no-brainer, but this one feels extra-special, thanks to creamy ricotta and salami. Feel free to go the extra mile by using fresh artichokes instead of canned.


21. Green Bowl With Chicken, Citrus And Herbs

  • Time Commitment: 25 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, high protein, less than 500 calories

This nourishing bowl is a great way to use up lingering chicken and herb leftovers. We won’t tell if you use a store-bought dressing, either.

22. Indian Salad Bowl With Crunchy Chickpeas

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, vegetarian

Fresh, vibrant and full of crunchy, spiced and roasted chickpeas? This will do quite nicely.

23. Blt Pasta Salad

  • Time Commitment: 40 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, kid-friendly

What’s more fun than both a sandwich and a salad? A pasta dish that combines both, is what. (The bacon doesn’t hurt, either.)

24. Avocado And Black Bean Pasta Salad

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, kid-friendly, low sugar, ready in <30 minutes

It’s almost like pasta, avocado and our lunch were meant to be together. The beans will keep you full through the three-o'clock slump to boot.

25. Shrimp Fajita Salad With Avocado Cilantro Dressing

  • Time Commitment: 25 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, high protein

Want to make it dairy free? Use olive oil instead of yogurt. Craving a wrap? Toss it in a tortilla (or better yet, make lettuce wraps). You’re the artist and the lunch is your palette.

26. Roasted Broccoli And Bacon Pasta Salad

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour
  • Why I Love It: kid-friendly, beginner-friendly, crowd-pleaser

Packing a lunch for kids? This broccoli-bacon combo will be an instant hit. (Extra breadcrumbs on top couldn't hurt, either.)

27. Roasted Squash Salad With White Beans, Bread Crumbs And Preserved Lemon

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour (+ soaking time)
  • Why I Love It: vegan, gluten free, make ahead

This room-temperature salad hits all the right notes: briny from the lemon, crispy from the breadcrumbs and creamy from the squash and beans. Yum.

28. Meal-prep Creamy Kale Caesar Salad

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, ready in <30 minutes

Even self-professed kale haters will eat this salad up. That’s thanks to the creamy Caesar dressing, which takes less than 15 minutes to make.


29. Roasted Delicata Squash Salad

  • Time Commitment: 50 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, crowd-pleaser, <10 ingredients

We love delicata squash for its sweet nutty flavor and low-effort prep (you don’t even have to peel it), but you could use any winter squash here, or even sweet potatoes if that’s what suits you. Not into eating it cold? Pull it from the fridge 20 minutes before lunch to let it come to room temp.

30. Butternut Squash And Goat Cheese Pasta Salad

  • Time Commitment: 50 minutes
  • Why I Love It: crowd-pleaser, <10 ingredients, make ahead

With pine nuts, cinnamon and apple cider vinegar, this bowl has all the flavors of fall…but we’ll be making and eating it all year long, thank you very much.

31. 15-minute Mediterranean Couscous With Tuna And Pepperoncini

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, high protein, <10 ingredients, dairy free

Tuna salad but make it fancy—except that this whole dish only takes a mere 15 minutes to put together.

32. Buffalo Chicken Wraps With Blue Cheese And Celery

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: kid-friendly, <10 minutes, ready in <30 minutes

Served hot or cold, buffalo chicken is always a good idea. This version uses a rotisserie chicken and store-bought buffalo sauce for the easiest lunch ever. (Feeding kids? They’ll love it too: Just dial down the spice with a milder sauce, or even swap it for barbecue sauce.)

33. Italian Deli Pinwheel Sandwiches

  • Time Commitment: 25 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in<30 minutes, no cook, kid-friendly

Deli meat and squishy bread? Pass. These adorable pinwheel slices take almost no effort and are a step up from your usual cold-cut sammie.

34. Avocado Egg Salad Sandwich

  • Time Commitment: 25 minutes
  • Why I Love It: low sugar, high protein, beginner-friendly

Forget the gloopy, overly mayo-ed egg salads you’re used to. This avocado version is creamy and tangy, but not over the top.

35. Grilled Lemon-herb Chicken And Avocado Salad

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour, 35 minutes
  • Why I Love It: low sugar, high protein

Oh hello, salad to end all others. We recommend grilled chicken slices for their appealing smokiness, but you can use whatever you have on hand.

36. Salmon And Smashed Cucumber Grain Bowls

  • Time Commitment: 55 minutes
  • Why I Love It: dairy free, high protein, low sugar

More satisfying than a bowl of leafy greens but not too heavy, this might be the grain bowl of our dreams. It also solves the whole reheating-fish-at-work conundrum: Just don’t.

37. Slow Cooker Meal-prep Burrito Bowls

  • Time Commitment: 7 hours, 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: slow cooker meal, make ahead, low carb

Toss everything in your slow cooker, then assemble your bowls and go. Psst: These low-carb beauties will keep for four days in the fridge and are even better served cold than warm.

38. Salmon Bowl With Farro, Black Beans And Tahini Dressing

  • Time Commitment: 40 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, high protein, low sugar

This salmon bowl is the tastiest way to get your omega-3s. We also love that eating it cold means no stinking up the microwave with fish…but that’s another story.

39. Vegan Fiesta Taco Bowl

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegan, high protein

We never thought we could have a crush on a packed lunch, but here we are. (It might have something to do with the homemade vegan sour cream.)


40. Lemon-tahini Salad With Lentils, Beets And Carrots

  • Time Commitment: 45 minutes
  • Why I Love It: <10 ingredients, vegetarian, make ahead, high protein

Want to make this meal even easier? Look for pre-cooked lentils and vacuum-packed beets at the grocery store. It can be our little secret.

41. Make-ahead Farro And Brussels Sprout Salad

  • Time Commitment: 45 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, vegetarian, dairy free

Consider this the hip, cool cousin of the quinoa salad. The farro has a satisfying chew, and paired with Brussels sprouts, it feels special without being fussy—a guaranteed hit at work or home.

42. Chicken Pesto Focaccia Sandwiches

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: high protein, less than 500 calories, low sugar

Homemade pesto and crisp chicken make for an extraordinarily tasty cold sandwich. Use freshly baked bread if you can get your hands on it.

43. Lunch Kebabs With Mortadella, Artichoke And Sun-dried Tomatoes

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, no cook, kid-friendly

Sandwich, meet kebab. Choose your favorite fixings for a customized meal for you or your kid.

44. Quick Guacamole Quinoa Salad

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegan, gluten free, low sugar, less than 500 calories

This is basically like eating guacamole for lunch. Hellooooo, healthy fats.

45. Rainbow Collard Wraps With Peanut Butter Dipping Sauce

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, make ahead, vegetarian

Lettuce wraps are great, but they can get wilty. Hearty collard greens will pack well and hold until lunchtime rolls around, and they taste great cold.

46. Veggie Niçoise Salad With Red Curry Green Beans

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour
  • Why I Love It: low sugar, gluten free, dairy free

Not a tuna person? No problem. This Niçoise salad has plenty going on, so no one will miss the fish.

47. Cold Sesame Cucumber Noodles

  • Time Commitment: 10 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, ready in <15 minutes, vegan

Zoodles on their own aren’t a complete meal, so we added marinated tofu for extra protein in this ten-minute dish.

48. Soba Noodles With Peanut Sauce

  • Time Commitment: 25 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, gluten free, vegetarian

They’re just like your favorite takeout noodles and come together in three easy steps. And FYI, the peanut sauce is kid-friendly to boot.

49. The Ultimate Quinoa-avocado Bowl

  • Time Commitment: 45 minutes
  • Why I Love It: dairy free, gluten free, high protein

Introducing the homemade version of that $16 bowl you bought at work last week. It’s cheaper and tastier, in our opinion.

50. Grilled Peach, Prosciutto And Mozzarella Sandwich

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, <10 ingredients, beginner-friendly

We bet they don’t serve this lunch in the cafeteria. Grill the peaches in advance for some smoky nuance or skip the grilling entirely.

51. Shredded Thai Salad With Avocado

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, vegetarian, dairy free

Have we mentioned we really like avocado? Because we’ll put it on almost anything.

52. Kelp And Zucchini Noodle Pad Thai

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: gluten free, no cook, make ahead

Kelp noodles, common in Korean cuisine, are soaked instead of boiled, which means they’re great for a cold lunch. Plus, they’re gluten free, Paleo and packed with nutrients like iron, vitamin K, calcium and fiber.

53. Meal-prep Mayo-less Potato Salad

  • Time Commitment: 40 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, crowd-pleaser, less than 500 calories

The classic cold salad got a makeover: With a little bit of sour cream and red wine vinegar, you get a creamy dressing without all the calories. Sorry, mayonnaise.

54. Radicchio, Lentil And Apple Salad With Vegan Cashew Dressing

  • Time Commitment: 35 minutes (+ soaking time)
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, dairy free, gluten free, vegan

Even non-vegans will swoon over this creamy cashew dressing. (We double-checked: There’s not a drop of dairy in there.) Pack it for work and you’re guaranteed to inspire some lunch envy.

55. Delicata Buckwheat Bowls

  • Time Commitment: 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, vegan, dairy free

This make-ahead beauty is delicious served warm, but we love it just as much eaten cold, straight from the fridge.

56. Roasted Beet And Citrus Salad

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour, 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegan, gluten free, <10 ingredients, make ahead

When you’re tired of kale but still want something light, this bright, sweet, nutritious and meal-prep-friendly salad will hit the spot.

57. Keto Instant Pot Greek Cauliflower Rice

  • Time Commitment: 10 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, Instant Pot recipe, ready in <15 minutes, keto

We can’t decide what we’re most excited about: that this lunch takes 10 minutes from start to finish, or that it’s diet-friendly and delicious. (It serves eight as a side, but makes a heartier main for four.)

58. 20-minute Shrimp Scampi Zoodles

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: gluten free, ready in <30 minutes, <10 ingredients

Whip this up on a Sunday night and you’ll have four days’ worth of gourmet lunch ready for work. (It’s good warm or cold.)

59. Apple, Grape And Pecan Pasta Salad

  • Time Commitment: 25 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegetarian, ready in <30 minutes

Who knew pasta and fruit made such a delightful combination? We can’t get over the balance of textures. (And your kids are going to love this one.)

60. Keto Steak And Blue Cheese Salad For One

  • Time Commitment: 5 minutes
  • Why I Love It: keto, ready in <15 minutes, no cook

You’ve already got cold leftover steak in the fridge. Why not put it to good use and make a fancy little lunch? It takes five minutes, promise.

61. Cauliflower, Pomegranate And Apple Salad

  • Time Commitment: 55 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegetarian, gluten free, dairy free

The cauliflower won’t be quite as crispy the next day, but with that tahini-honey dressing, we don’t mind one bit.

62. Vegan Avocado Caesar Salad

  • Time Commitment: 40 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegan, low sugar, less than 500 calories

At work, you’d normally grab a $15 Caesar salad from the chain place down the street. We implore you to try this homemade version instead. You’re worth it.

63. Vegetarian Sushi Cups

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour
  • Why I Love It: vegetarian, kid-friendly, gluten free, dairy free

They’re almost too cute to eat, but we have a feeling you (and your kids) will find it easy to overlook that fact—this fish-free take on sushi is just too darn tasty. Don’t forget to pack some chopsticks.


64. Summer Rolls

  • Time Commitment: 45 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, gluten free, dairy free

Crisp veggies. Chewy rice noodles. Juicy shrimp. All the fresh herbs. Yup, these Vietnamese-inspired handhelds are sure to satisfy (and make your coworkers jealous). Pass the sweet chili sauce.

65. Ritz Crackers With Whipped Honey Ricotta And Bacon

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, less than 500 calories

Cheese and crackers is hands-down our favorite in-a-pinch meal. This take only requires 15 minutes of your time—even less if you make the bacon ahead.

66. Mini Chicken Shawarma

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour, 40 minutes
  • Why I Love It: kid-friendly, make ahead, low sugar

Hear us out: These tiny sammies are even more delicious the second time around, and don’t need to be served warm. Just pack the leftover ingredients separately, so you can assemble it the morning you pack your lunch or at your desk. That way, nothing gets soggy.

67. Orecchiette With Spring Greens

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, vegetarian

This 15-minute gem tastes just as good cold as it does hot, promise. It’s also loaded with nutritious spinach and peas, plus a handful of protein-rich almonds.

68. 15-minute Mezze Plate With Toasted Za’atar Pita Bread

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, vegetarian, <10 ingredients

It may look like a plate of snacks (OK, it is a plate of snacks), but that doesn’t mean it won't fill you up. Between the hummus, salami, Greek yogurt and whole-wheat pita, we have a feeling you’ll stay satisfied until dinnertime.

69. Crispy Quinoa Cashew Granola

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour, 10 minutes
  • Why I Love It: vegan, make ahead, less than 500 calories

Having a batch of homemade granola on hand is always a good idea. Nosh on it with yogurt, top it off with milk, sprinkle it over a smoothie bowl—the possibilities are endless.

70. Heirloom Pan Con Tomate

  • Time Commitment: 15 minutes (+ chilling time)
  • Why I Love It: <10 ingredients, vegetarian, dairy free

Take a siesta in the middle of the day, then kick back with the Spanish equivalent to Italian bruschetta. The tomato mixture is as simple as grating the tomatoes, chopping their skins, seasoning them and spreading it on sliced ciabatta.

71. Tarragon Chicken Salad Sandwiches

  • Time Commitment: 1 hour, 30 minutes
  • Why I Love It: make ahead, high protein, low sugar

Chicken salad may have a blah reputation, but this iteration is far from boring. Think tarragon Dijonnaise, quick-pickled onions and peppery arugula.

72. Cold Lemon Zoodles

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: ready in <30 minutes, no cook, gluten free, vegan

Buy pre-spiralized zucchini noodles and most of the work is already done. Take it from us: Once you taste it, you'll want to make this refreshing dish for every picnic or barbecue you ever host.

73. Fruicuterie Board

  • Time Commitment: 20 minutes
  • Why I Love It: no cook, ready in <30 minutes, crowd-pleaser

When in doubt, you truly can't go wrong with an assortment of your favorite cheese and produce. Spruce it up with cured meats for even more fun.



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Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...

taryn pire

Food Editor

Taryn Pire is PureWow’s food editor and has been writing about all things delicious since 2016. She’s developed recipes, reviewed restaurants and investigated food trends at...