10 Dinner Leftovers That Make Great Packed Lunches
One thing I learned from nearly two decades of packing school lunches for my kids: Leftover dinner is a lunch packer’s best friend.
Whether you’re making school lunch for little ones or a desk lunch for yourself, the “cook it once, eat it twice” approach is the secret weapon for any lunch packer. All it means is that you can pack leftovers from last night's dinner for lunch today! It's so smart, I even devoted a whole chapter to it in my first cookbook, “Prep: The Essential College Cookbook.”
The key is to pick the right type of dinner recipe and upping the amount you make. Do that and you can get leftovers into lunch containers before the dinner dishes are done. Here are a few tips for packing up leftovers:
- Invest in a sturdy thermos that keeps hot food hot. The old-school Thermos brand is a reliable option.
- Heat soup, chili, or any food that you want to keep warm until piping hot. Then, get it into the thermos straight away.
- If you have time, preheat your thermos by pouring in boiling water. Dump it out just before you add the reheated food.
- For chilled items, you’ll need a small cold pack. Alternatively, fill a water bottle nearly to the top and freeze it overnight. It can serve as an ice pack that will defrost by lunch time, so it doubles as an icy cold way to stay hydrated.
Now the question is, "What to cook for dinner, so you have extras the next day?" Below you’ll find 10 recipes that make great leftovers and can be scaled up with ease.
Caprese Pasta Salad
Pasta salad is terrific for packed lunches since it holds up well in the fridge for a few days. This one is a classic combo of cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. Make things extra easy on yourself by filling your lunch containers as soon as dinner is done. That way, you can wake up in the morning knowing that lunch is ready to go.
Ground Turkey Chili with Black Beans
A good hearty chili is certainly something to look forward to in a lunchbox. This one takes all of 15 minutes to pull together and can easily be doubled. Another plus? It’s on the milder side, so it’s suitable for heat-sensitive kids and grown-ups. Simply reheat the chili on the stove top and spoon it into a thermos. A little container of tortilla chips makes a good side to either scoop up the chili or crumble on top.
Easy Vegetable Fried Rice
I’d argue that fried rice is even better on day two, making this a winner for lunchbox eats. It's a flexible recipe—switch up the vegetables based on what everyone likes and what’s in your fridge. Reheat the rice in the microwave or on the stove top or pack it at room temp, if that’s your jam.
Baked Chicken Parmesan
Chicken Parmesan is a real crowd pleaser for dinner and just as appealing in a lunchbox. Double the recipe and reheat leftovers the next day in a toaster oven until piping hot. Cut the chicken into “fingers” and stash them in a thermos. Include a side of marinara sauce for dipping. Alternatively, tuck the chicken parm in a crusty roll with a swipe of sauce and you’ve got yourself a terrific sandwich.
Sesame Noodle Salad
This cold noodle salad is tailor made for lunch-on-the-go. The flavorful soy honey sesame dressing is a snap to make and tasty when tossed with noodles, scallions, and bell peppers. You could even toss in shredded chicken, edamame, or cubes of baked tofu for added protein.
Homemade Veggie Pizza
Cold pizza is as classic a leftover lunch (or breakfast) as it gets. This recipe calls for either homemade or store-bought dough, depending on what you have time for. Bring the kids into the kitchen when it comes time to add toppings. They’ll be that much more excited to open their lunchboxes the next day.
Creamy Tomato and White Bean Soup
Tomato soup is a lunchbox classic and this one is worth adding to your repertoire. This soup gets its lovely texture not from cream, but from white beans. That means it’s got more fiber and protein than a typical cream soup, which makes it both nourishing and filling. Pack a little container of croutons, shredded cheddar, sour cream, or all of the above, to add to the soup at the lunch table.
Easy Burrito Casserole
Casseroles are terrific leftover lunches, and this one is a baked version of your favorite chicken burrito. The casserole gets assembled in an 8-inch square pan, but you can easily increase the recipe by 1 1/2 and do it in a 9x13-inch dish, allowing for plenty of leftovers. It’s kid-friendly and freezer-friendly, too. Reheat leftovers in the microwave or toaster oven and stash in a thermos to keep warm until lunch.
Slow Cooker Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
Cooking meatballs can seem like a bit of a production, so make the most of it by doubling or tripling the recipe. They’ll keep well in the fridge for up to four days and they freeze well too. Pack them in a thermos with a fork on the side or enjoy them sandwich-style on a crusty baguette.
Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers
Consider this a good leftover for grown-ups and kids who are a bit more adventurous on the culinary front. They’re ideal to take on the go, since they have their own built-in travel case—the pepper! Reheat in the microwave and pop into a thermos, or keep it in the fridge to reheat just before serving if you have access to a microwave at work.