Lunches You Don't Have to Refrigerate

Keep your summer camp lunch ideas fresh. These tips, tricks and recipes work for school lunches, too.

Jane Hawes
Packed lunches for camp and school can have lots of options beyond PB&J.

Most day camps require its participants to pack their own lunches. And complicating the task often is a requirement to make it a meal that doesn't have to be refrigerated. So that means PB&J and PB&J and by the start of the second week of camp, you've got a camper in a state of lunch-time mutiny.

So Columbus Parent enlisted the help of local chef and culinary instructor Laura Robertson-Boyd to come up with guidelines and a few recipes that will get families through the pack-a-lunch challenge.

Building Blocks for Tasty, Safe Food

  • Peanut butter and other nut butters, such as almond, cashew, sunflower, and soybean nut
  • Jams and jellies
  • Condiments such as ketchup, mustard, relishes and pickled foods, honey
  • Dry grains, such as bread, crackers, pretzels, cereals
  • Dried meats, such as pepperoni, salami, and jerky
  • Fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables, such as apples, bananas, oranges, berries, carrots, celery, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower
  • Canned foods (when unopened), from fruits and vegetables to tuna and chicken
  • Dried fruits
  • Nuts

Bad Bacteria

  • Bacteria grows most rapidly between the temperatures of 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit. This is known as the "Temperature Danger Zone," and potentially hazardous foods (those high in protein and moisture content) should not be left out in the Temperature Danger Zone for more than 4 hours.
  • Bacteria will also grow more rapidly the warmer the food is, so avoid packing hot foods in a sack lunch that will be sitting out for several hours. It is difficult to keep hot foods (i.e. soup, macaroni and cheese) hot enough so that they are safe to eat. It is better to pack a cold lunch as bacteria grows much slower at cold temperatures.

Did You Know?

Yogurt is safe for several hours at room temperature because of the helpful living bacteria cultures that exist in the yogurt.

More:Simple School Lunch Ideas Your Kids Will Love to Pack and Eat

Go Zero

Here's something else to think about when packing a sack lunch - Zero Waste.

Though pre-packaged foods are certainly more convenient, they are also much more expensive and generate much more trash than using reusable containers.To save money and be more eco-friendly, try to pack a "Zero Waste" lunch. Here are some tips from the Center for American Progress:

  • Use a Thermos or a reusable water bottle to carry liquids.
  • Pack a reusable lunch bag.
  • Buy in bulk, rather than individually packaged snacks, and then pack the desired amount each day.
  • Use reusable containers for food, including old food containers.
  • Bring utensils and washable cloth napkins from home.

Chill Out

To pack a sack lunch of cold foods (i.e. deli sandwiches, pasta salads), use an insulated lunch bag and an ice pack. Foods should remain safe to eat for several hours when properly chilled.

Sandwich Substitutes

  • Hard-boiled egg
  • Canned or ready-to-use pouch of tuna
  • Make-your-own "lunchable": whole grain crackers, dried or cured lunch meat, and cheese slices
  • Frozen, ready-made meatballs or vegetarian meatless "meatballs" (Trader Joe's makes good ones)
  • Pasta salad with oil-based vinaigrette dressing
  • "Protein" salad, such as Black Bean Salad served with tortilla chips or on a bed of lettuce, or a concoction like Robertson-Boyd's Tuscan Tuna & White Bean Salad (see recipe left)
  • English muffin "pizza" or leftover cold pizza
  • Hummus and pita chips and/or raw vegetables for dipping
  • Trail mix: There are plenty of ready-made trail mixes available (Trader Joe's has a nice selection). But it's easy (and cheaper) to make your own with any of the following: sesame sticks, pretzels (you could also add yogurt-covered or chocolate-covered pretzels for a treat), dry whole grain cereals (such as Cheerios, Quaker Oat Squares, Life cereal, Chex cereals), dried fruits (blueberries, raisins, "Craisins" or cranberries, apricots, cherries), nuts (peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds, cashews, pecans, walnuts).
  • Ham, Cheddar & Corn Muffins (see recipe below)


  • Use a variety of grains for the bread, keeping in mind that whole grains are healthier. Replace white sandwich bread with whole wheat bread or try using other types of bread, such as: whole wheat tortillas, spinach wraps, pita bread, sandwich buns, crackers, bagels, and "FlatOut" brand wraps.
  • Roll-ups or pinwheels (sliced from a roll-up) made with peanut butter, honey, & sunflower seeds
  • Turkey & cheese roll-up with alfalfa sprouts
  • Hummus & veggie wrap (try red pepper strips, carrot sticks, or cucumber sticks)
  • Cream cheese & jam on whole wheat - choose a jam made with real fruit, avoiding high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener
  • Bagel with cream cheese, peanut butter, or meat-and-cheese filling

Did You Know?

The French leave their cheese out at room temperature. They believe cheese is a living thing - like a pet - and they ask: "You wouldn't put a cat in the refrigerator, would you?"

Our rule of thumb in America is that hard cheeses such as cheddar, asiago, parmesan, gruyere, and Swiss are safe to eat at room temperature.

RECIPE: Tuscan Tuna & White Bean Salad

Ingredients for the salad:

  • 2 cans (15 ounces each) white beans, such as Cannellini, Navy, or Great Northern, drained and rinsed
  • 1 large 12-ounce can or 2 small 6-ounce cans of water-packed solid albacore tuna, drained
  • 2 fresh tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 red onion, diced
  • 1/4 cup of fresh basil leaves, cut in ribbons

Ingredients for the dressing:

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


  1. Toss the beans, tuna, tomatoes, onions, and basil together in a large mixing bowl.
  2. In a separate small bowl, whisk together the dressing ingredients. Pour over salad and toss gently to coat.
  3. Serve over a bed of lettuce or with a crusty Italian bread on the side.

RECIPE: Ham, Cheddar & Corn Muffins

Yield: 1 dozen muffins


  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour (can use half whole wheat flour if desired)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup low-fat milk
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup diced, cooked ham
  • 1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed


  1. Preheat oven to 400F.
  2. Line 12 muffin tins with paper baking cups and spray lightly with cooking spray.
  3. Combine dry ingredients (cornmeal through salt) together in large mixing bowl and stir well.
  4. Add in milk, egg, and melted butter. Stir just until blended. Then stir in cheese, ham and corn.
  5. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups, filling them 1/2 full.
  6. Bake 18-20 minutes until golden brown and a wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

For more information about how to pack a safe lunch, check out this Washington State University brochure:

Laura Robertson-Boyd is the Food Matters Chef for Local Matters and teaches cooking classes for both kids and adults at Franklin Park Conservatory and Wild Goose Creative.