leftovers school lunch ideas
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Wondering what to do with your extra beef, chicken, and other dinner leftovers? Don’t let them go to waste—give them a second life as lunch with these helpful tips and recipes.

It’s back to school time! For many parents, this time of year brings a sigh of relief, as the kids head back to the classroom and get out from underfoot 24/7. Things aren’t so simple this year, of course; if they are going back, you’re probably more worried than usual, and if they’re safely distance learning at home, you have extra hassles to deal with, from constant demands for snacks to shifting Zoom schedules and last-minute technical difficulties. In any case, there are still all the usual issues too, from fighting over homework to finding enough time in the day to make a lunch. 

Take a TripGet Inspired by These School Lunches Around the WorldWhile some kids enjoy the same old sandwich day after day, others are dismayed by what they find in their lunchbox. How do you keep things interesting without adding hours to your day? Luckily, I’ve got your hacks to help with that second problem and last nights dinner leftovers are comin’ in hot with a big assist.

Before you pooh-pooh the idea“My kids hate leftovers for dinner, they won’t eat them at school!”consider that these aren’t mere recyclings of last night’s dinner menu. Instead, they’re creative repurposing of that dinner into something totally new with just minimal effort. They also help cut down on the estimated 40 percent of household food that Americans throw away every year.

The focus here is on repurposing main ingredients, like a primary protein or leftover vegetables, into a brand new dish that will be exciting yet healthy. Do your kids love pizza? Pasta? Tacos? Here are some ways to create them seemingly out of thin air.

If last night’s dinner was…

Seasoned Meat:

Make your own taco bar. If last night’s dinner was any sort of seasoned meat, such as chicken breast, steak, or pork, you’ve got your base for everyone’s favorite hand-held food. Simply shred or chop the meat into long strips and put it into a container. Add two flour or corn tortillas to the lunch bag, then fill a multi-compartment container with any combination of shredded cheese, pepper strips (or leftover veggies), avocado, salsa, and sour cream. Let your kids assemble it at school and voila, you’ve got instant tacos.

Transform it into a fajita bowl. Did that chicken/steak/pork dish also come with a side of rice? Mix it all together! Again, chop or shred the meat, add it to a bowl with the rice and toppings listed above, and toss. It’s less messy to eat and uses fewer containers, but tastes just as good. 

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Ground Beef, Turkey, or Hamburger Patties:

red curry bahn mi sloppy joes

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Create the ultimate patty melt. Yes, tacos would work here too. And so would a leftover burger; after all, what kid doesn’t like a burger? But for the sake of less complaining about leftovers, a good patty melt is a great recycled product. All you need is rye bread, swiss cheese, and a little sauce and you’re good to go. (Find our recipe below.)

Assemble sloppy Joes. This meal also gets rid of any leftover hamburger buns from dinner. Simply chop up the beef and mix with some brown sugar, green bell pepper, garlic, and either ketchup or yellow mustard, and you have a completely different sandwich. And it helps get some veggies into their diet that they won’t throw in the lunchroom trash!

Roasted or Rotisserie Chicken:

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Make soup. Ah, the reliable rotisserie chicken. A complete meal that requires nothing more than a stop at the grocery store or just an hour in the oven. Inevitably you’ll have both leftover meat and an enormous carcass. Don’t throw either of those out! Add the carcass to a giant pot with water, chunks of celery, carrot, onion, and a bay leaf. Add salt, pepper, and oregano. Bring to a boil then lower to a simmer, cover, and cook for at least 12 hours, adjusting the water level as necessary. Once it’s ready, strain into a container with a fine-mesh sieve. You’ll end up with a rich, hearty stock that’s perfect for so many dishes: Add some chicken and noodles to make instant soup, or use it to cook rice or quinoa instead of water. Granted, this may not be ready until the kids are about to run out the door the next day, but it’ll last in the fridge for about four days and in the freezer for much longer.

Related Reading: How to Make Chicken Stock in Your Slow Cooker

Make chicken salad. Like Ina Garten taught us the best chicken salad comes from a rotisserie chicken. Jazz it up however you like with a curry, if your kids are adventurous, or perhaps some Kewpie mayo for a little extra tang. From there you’ve got fabulous lunch sandwiches. Chicken salad should keep at least a few days in the fridge if sealed properly.

Lots of Vegetables and No or Very Little Meat:

pasta primavera

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Toss a pasta primavera. Do you live in a vegetarian household, or have kids who will happily eat all the protein and barely touch the veggies? Disguise the leftovers into a delicious pasta. Just chop the vegetables into bite size pieces and toss with cooked penne. Top with a little olive oil and seasonings or your favorite canned pasta sauce. Voila! You’ll give them the carb boost they need for afternoon sports (or running around the backyard as the case may be). As a bonus, cold pastas are just as delicious as hot ones, perfect for young children who don’t have access to a microwave at school.

Related Reading: 9 Easy Slow Cooker Pasta Sauces to Last You All Week

Cook a cauliflower crust. Cauliflower is all the rage these days, but that doesn’t mean that kids will suddenly enjoy it after a millennium of feeding it to the dog under the table. Luckily, the current cauliflower craze has led to a number of inventive ways to use it. Mash or puree your leftover florets or cauliflower rice, press it into a pan, and bake. Guess what? Now you have a delicious cauliflower pizza crust and your kids will be none the wiser. Cover with sauce, cheese, and their favorite pizza toppings. You’ll be their hero.

Leftover Bread, Rolls, and the Like:

Pizza Pizza! I dare you to find a kid who will say no to pizza for lunch. Have leftover hamburger buns? French bread? Tortillas from tacos? They make great mini-pizzas. Again, just top with sauce and shredded cheese along with their favorite meats or veggies. Best. Parent. Ever.

Leftover School Lunch Recipes

Now that you’ve got at least a week of creative ideas, see below for more specific recipes to utilize them. And never worry about wasted food, or the dreaded lunchroom trade, again.

Patty Melt

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The Patty Melt is a hearty meal and can be made with either ground beef or turkey for fabulous flavor. This recipe suggests using mayo instead of butter for browning, but whatever your preference, you’ll get a great golden crust. Don’t skimp by not caramelizing the onions. It’s totally worth it. Get our Patty Melt recipe

Related Reading: 21 Things to Do with Leftover Hamburgers

Sloppy Joe

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Kids love sloppy Joes, probably because sloppy foods are fun to eat. This recipe substitutes tomato sauce for the traditional ketchup for more depth of flavor. That being said, if you prefer ketchup, go right ahead. Even better? It’s a quick one-pot meal, so you’re not really adding any additional pots to your nightly cleanup. Get our Sloppy Joe recipe.

Chicken Noodle Soup from Leftover Chicken

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Here you go, a stock and soup recipe all in one. Roasting the bones a bit definitely adds to the flavor. Personally, I prefer to add in the celery, carrots, onion, and bay leaf while making the stock so it carries the flavor into anything else you may use the stock for. Also, feel free to cook it for longer than 1.5 hours—the longer you cook, the deeper the flavor. The rest of this recipe is a winner. Get our Chicken Noodle Soup recipe.

Cauliflower Crust

cauliflower pizza crust recipe

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Cauliflower crust pizza is low-carb, gluten-free, healthy, and virtually (though not totally) indistinguishable from real pizza crust. And frankly, your kids will be so happy to have pizza for lunch they won’t care. The great thing about making this crust from your leftovers is that the cauliflower is already cooked and cooled, so you won’t burn yourself wringing out the extra water. You can also use this recipe to make cauliflower breadsticks, too. Get our Cauliflower Pizza Crust recipe

Basic Chicken Fajitas

Easy Chicken Fajita recipe

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Truthfully, you can just take your basic chicken breast and add a few seasonings to transform it into fajitas. But if you want your original dinner to be super tasty, use this recipe. The marinade is simple but delicious, and it’ll work as a regular chicken dish even before you transform it into a fajita bowl for the next day’s lunch. Get our Basic Chicken Fajitas recipe.

Chicken Salad

Chicken Salad Sandwich

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A good chicken salad is all about quality chicken and the right proportions of everything else. From there you can take it in any flavor direction you (or your kids) like from spicy to curry, sweet and even umami and Asian territory. Get our Chicken Salad recipe.

Related Reading: 9 Chicken Salad Recipes That Are Anything but Basic

Everything Else You Need to Know

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