Maple dressing

Photo: Vanessa Rees

Give Oil and Vinegar a Break
We often look to the dynamic duo of olive oil and vinegar (or olive oil and lemon juice) to transform greens, roasted vegetables or any protein, really, into a delicious lunch. But then we learned of this new combo from cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz. She simply mixes mustard and maple syrup for a just-sweet-enough, incredibly versatile dressing. Give it a quick zap in the microwave before pouring on your lunch to help smooth out the texture and bring the flavors together.

Get the recipe: Warm Maple-Mustard Dressing

Photo: Thinkstock

Lighten Up Your Chicken Salad
This lunchtime standby doesn't have to be a slacker in the nutrition department: Stir in a small handful of bran cereal—we prefer the stick-shaped kind, such as All-Bran, over the flakes or pellets—and use yogurt or cottage cheese, instead of mayo, to help hold everything together. In a flash, you've got yourself a healthy and tasty meal.
Tuna sandwich

Photo: Thinkstock

Upgrade Your Tuna
This lunch box heavyweight gets a lot of love from American eaters—we consume 31 percent of the world's canned tuna products, about 3 pounds per person, per year. And lately, more sustainable and even better-tasting cans of the healthy fish are hitting supermarket shelves. Henry & Lisa's Natural Seafood is one name to look for; it's a noncommercial fishery which gets smaller fish that contain less mercury. Wild Planet is another; its BPA-free cans of albacore and skipjack varieties contain 3,460 mg of omega-3s (which is six times more than some conventional brands). Even Bumble Bee is joining the movement: It recently introduced Wild Selections, a new line of canned seafood certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and benefiting the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
BUILT lunch bowl

Photo: BUILT

Pack It Like a Pro
Using the right container for your Cobb salad or ham and Swiss sandwich will ensure a neat, nonsquished and perfect-temperature meal—and the newest crop of bowls, bags and packs are so gorgeous, you'll actually look forward to packing lunch. BUILT's new Bento Salad Bowl includes an airtight, microwave-safe hard container that fits inside a neoprene sleeve (with a beautiful range of patterns to choose from); the company also just started selling neoprene sandwich and snack bags that zip shut so food stays fresh. Then there's Cuppow's BNTO lunchbox adaptor, a plastic cup that splits a canning jar into two compartments. It's great for salads and dressing, peanut butter and pretzels, hummus and veggies, fruit and yogurt, or cinnamon-cream cheese and apple slices (which just might become your new addiction).
Cookie sandwich

Photo: Matthew Mead

Don't Forget a Smart Sweet
You could just throw a few cookies into a baggie and call it dessert...or you could steal one of the brilliantly simple ideas from J.M. Hirsch's upcoming book Beating the Lunch Box Blues. Here are three of his most ridiculously easy—and delicious—brown-bag lunch upgrades: Dunk fruit in chocolate yogurt; dip pretzels into soft goat cheese that you've topped with all-fruit grape jelly; or take those aforementioned cookies and turn them into sandwiches filled with nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew or sunflower are all excellent options).
Copyright © 2013 by J.M. Hirsch, from Beating the
Lunch Box Blues
, published by Rachael Ray/Atria
Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Sandwich not soggy

Photo: Thinkstock

Build Your Sandwich the Night Before (and No Mushy Bread, We Promise)

Nothing against egg salad on spongy whole wheat, but the textural difference between dry bread and juicy fillings is one of the things we love best about sandwiches. Susie Cover, a former caterer and private chef and a mother of two, has figured out how to prepare the standard lunch food the night before and still have it taste fresh. Her first choice for bread is a wrap; she finds whole wheat or whole grain versions keep best. She also likes a hearty baguette or ciabatta. But bread alone won't combat mushiness. It's important to keep any sauce—like honey mustard or pesto mayonnaise—on the side. Cover packs the sandwich along with a container (these test tube-like vials are perfect) of sauce that you or your child can dip the sandwich into as you eat. Another idea, straight from the streets of Nice in southern France: Make a pan bagnat, a tuna sandwich that actually improves the longer it sits.

Photo: Thinkstock

Eat Leftovers That Don't Taste Like Leftovers

Repurposing last night's meal sounds admirable...until 1 p.m. rolls around and you open up a plastic container holding the suddenly pathetic-looking remains of Parmesan-crusted chicken breast and potatoes with onions. Your homemade food deserves better. One tactic is to toss cooked vegetables with a versatile vinaigrette, like this one from Colin Cowie, which has infinite variations. Another is to take whatever vegetables and protein (chicken, pork, beef, shrimp) you used the night before for dinner, chop them all into a uniform size and combine them with a cooked grain, like whole wheat Israeli couscous, for a brand new dish (just watch out for fish and other foods that tend to have a strong smell when warmed in a microwave). We also love this ingenious use of last night's pasta for Chilled Peanut Noodles.

Photo: Thinkstock

Go Beyond Mayo and Mustard

Spreads don't just add flavor; they also act as glue to hold a sandwich's other ingredients together. Picky eaters can carry on with mayonnaise and mustard, but there are many fruited, spiced sauces and spreads that can make a plain turkey sandwich taste exotic. Fischer & Wieser Mango Ginger Habanero Sauce, for instance, is ideal with roast beef and Cheddar on a dark pumpernickel, and Harvest Song Sour Cherry Preserves adds a bright flavor to roast turkey, arugula, a semisoft cheese like robiola and seven-grain bread.
Apple sandwich

Photo: Emma Boys

Put an Apple on It (Instead of with It)

Chef and caterer Kate McMillan, who has three daughters, makes sandwiches with fruit for everyone in her family. Some of her favorites include mashed avocado with sliced Asian pear or pomegranate seeds; strawberry jam, strawberry slices and goat cheese; honey, almond butter and banana; and apple, Cheddar and peanut butter. (If peanut and almond butters aren't allowed at your child's school, try NoNuts Golden Peabutter, I.M. Healthy SoyNut Butter, Omega Nutrition Pumpkin Seed Butter or SunButter Sunflower Seed Spread.)
Rubix Cubewich

Photo: Adrian Fiorino

Take Inspiration from the Rubix Cubewich

This tribute to the popular '80s game, which put Adrian Fiorino's extreme sandwich blog, Insanewiches, on the map, might be a little complicated to assemble on the average Monday morning. But its concept—a 3-D block made from cubes of pastrami, kielbasa, pork belly, salami, and yellow and white Cheddar—is adaptable to any lunch box, whether it's yours or your child's. Cut meat or cheese into strips and eat it with toothpicks. Or use kitchen shears, like Fiorino does, to make specific shapes. Turn square slices of bread into moons, stars or fish using a cookie cutter, or write a note with edible markers on the outside of a sandwich. For more ideas, see Fiorino's new book, Insanewiches: 101 Ways to Think Outside the Lunchbox (sandwich dominoes, anyone?), and the Tumblr and the book Scanwiches, which has turned photographs of Fluffernutter and other sandwiches into works of art.