In the spirit of back-to-school season, it's time for a fresh start—and that extends to every brown-bag lunch you pack for your family.

kimchi chicken sandwich and homemade guacamole
Photography by Marcus Nilsson
| Credit: Photography by Marcus Nilsson

Is that a sad desk salad you're eating? Did you just pay $11 for a sandwich? Or put another turkey and cheese into your kid's lunch box? Thanks to these tips, tricks and recipes from our favorite lunch spots across the country, your midday meal is about to get a lot more delicious. Let's do lunch (better)!

Back-to-School Done Right

Darren Carbone of New York's El Vez and El Vez Burrito and Chef Sue Torres are married with three kids who love anything that involves dipping, Carbone says. So he'll pack up a bento box lunch for them with a combo of fresh and dried fruits and vegetables and a variety of dips. Note to parents: You might want to put some of these in your lunch, too!

Guacamole with Cilantro, Bell Pepper & Tomato

guacamole with cilantro bell pepper and tomato
Credit: Photography by Marcus Nilsson

Lebna with Dried Figs

lebna with dried figs
Credit: Photography by Marcus Nilsson

Pickle it!

Pickled Red Onions with Fresh Herbs

L.A. residents are making their way to Culver City for the BäcoShop's signature "bäco" sandwiches: homemade flatbread folded around everything that's delicious. Chef Josef Centeno pickles his own vegetables (like the onions here) and uses them to add acidity and crunch. At home, he uses the onions for "just about anything—in sandwiches, with grilled meats, in grain bowls, you name it."

pickled red onions with fresh herbs
Credit: Photography by Marcus Nilsson

Cook Your Own Cold Cuts (Really!)

DIY Roast Beef

Homemade roast beef couldn't be easier (beef, salt, pepper) and the results are sooo much better than store-bought. Chef Jonas Boelt at the Great Northern Food Hall, a Nordic food court in NYC's Grand Central Terminal, suggests making it for Sunday dinner, then slicing up the leftovers for sandwiches throughout the week. "Roast beef is always best the day after it's cooked," he says. "The meat has time to soak up the juices and become wonderfully tender." Use two slices of bread or go full Scandinavian by making smørrebrød (aka an open-face sandwich). In Denmark, where Boelt is from, parents wrap them in parchment and pack them for school lunch.

diy roast beef
Credit: Photography by Marcus Nilsson

Try Cool Condiments

Mint & Almond Pesto

Condiments are king at Figlia Americana, one of Portland, Oregon's cutest breakfast and lunch spots. On the menu: a shrimp roll with green goddess dressing, a turkey sandwich with bacon aioli, and a carrot salad with mint pesto. And these flavor bombs are adaptable. Figlia's pesto is great on a chicken sandwich or stirred into cooked orzo with peas for a new take on pasta salad.

mint and almond pesto
Credit: Photography by Peter Ardito

A Chicken in Every Lunch

VERTS Mediterranean Grill is a Texas-based fast-casual spot where tzatziki, cauliflower tabbouleh and harissa bring new life to salads, grain bowls and pitas. Culinary Director Brent Mills uses those same bold Mediterranean flavors (plus punchy ingredients from other cuisines) when he's making lunch from leftover rotisserie chicken. "Rotisserie chicken from the local takeaway shop was a dinner staple when I was growing up," he says. "We would have leftover chicken for the next day. My granddad would make a basic sandwich, using good-quality white bread, lots of butter, pulled cold rotisserie chicken and a generous amount of pepper and salt." Mills whipped up a Korean twist on his granddad's classic, and plenty of other ideas to take you all the way to Friday. 

Chicken Tagine

chicken tagine
Credit: Photography by Marcus Nilsson

Kimchi Chicken Sandwich

kimchi chicken sandwich
Credit: Photography by Peter Ardito

Chicken & Hummus Wrap

chicken and hummus wrap
Credit: Photography by Peter Ardito

Simple Chicken Soup

simple chicken soup
Credit: Photography by Peter Ardito

Make a Salad You’ll Actually Wanna Eat

salad with carrot-chili vinaigrette
Credit: Photography by Marcus Nilsson

With its fresh approach to veggies, Sweetgreen has reminded us that salads can be more than just a bowl of greens. Five times a year, the chain introduces new seasonal items at its 70 locations in seven states and Washintgon, D.C., but there is a basic formula. Culinary Director Michael Stebner starts with a hearty base (he loves wild rice), then layers in protein and seasonal produce, and finally sprinkles in cheese, nuts or seeds for texture. The kicker? A supercharged homemade dressing. "Making dressing from scratch is an easy way to add flavor and avoid added sugars," says Stebner. Whip up a batch of this sweet-savory carrot dressing and stash it in the office fridge. Just make sure you label it so your coworkers don't "accidentally" use it all.