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. However, the start of a school year can bring its own hassles, from fighting over homework to finding enough time in the day to pack a lunch. Luckily, I’ve got your hacks to help with that second problem.
While 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? Behold the mighty leftover!
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 ideas on how to repurpose that dinner into something totally new with minimal effort. They also help cut down on the estimated 40 percent of household food that Americans throw away every year.
The focus is on repurposing the main ingredients, such as the 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…
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 to 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.
Ground beef, turkey, or hamburger patties:
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. Check out the ultimate patty melt 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!
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 an 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.
Lots of vegetables and no/little meat:
Transform to 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. 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.
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 pizza crust and your kids will be none the wiser. Top with sauce, cheese, and their favorite pizza toppings. Pizza for lunch? 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.
Now that you’ve got at least a week of creative ideas, see below for recipes on how to use them. And never worry about wasted food, or the dreaded lunchroom trade, again.
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.
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.
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 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. Check out this Cauliflower Crust recipe.
Still have more leftover cauliflower? Wow, that’s a lot. Another way to get your kids to eat their veggies and like it, you can make baked fries from this versatile veggie. The beginning is similar to the pizza crust but the seasonings and baking are slightly different. Your kid’s lunch with pizza and french fries will make them the envy of the school. Only you will know it’s healthy, though. Check out this recipe for Cauliflower French Fries.
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.