When I think about easy school lunches to pack, I know the world would tell me to buy a Lunchable.
Not my style.
I’d rather go easy by using up leftovers, and I often wish I could just take someone’s dinner plate and serve it to them for lunch.
That’s harder to do with packed lunches for school, but in our family, we’ve definitely perfected the art form of healthy leftover school lunches.
Best Time to Pack a School Lunch
I always tell people that when you pack is a key to success. It’s so stressful to be packing lunches in the morning before school. So that’s definitely the worst option.
The second worst is when a lot of parents pack their kids lunches, which is late at night after the kids are in bed. I can think of a lot of other things I would rather be doing between 9 and 11 p.m.
In our family, we either pack lunches right after school when the lunchboxes are coming out of the backpacks or — most of the time — right after dinner.
I choose dinnertime because a lot of food is already out, and it’s easy to just take dinner and put it in a Bento box for lunch.
But Katie, don’t you mean a Thermos? Do your kids really eat cold leftovers for lunch?
Yes, they do. And I do too. Let’s talk about the secrets to leftovers for lunch.
(If you’re curious why we sometimes pack right after school, check out my tips for packing a double lunch in my Healthy Lunchbox ebook, along with 45 great lunchbox-friendly recipes, most of which we make for dinner first …)
Leftovers People Often Eat Cold
Okay, think about it. A cold bowl of soup is rather disgusting. But there are actually a lot of dinner foods that normal people eat cold all the time.
- cooked chicken
- roast beef
- pasta salad
- potato salad
- rice pudding
- cold pizza (you bet some people do this even when they’re not in college!)
- bean dip or hummus
Just because your pasta from dinner isn’t technically a pasta salad doesn’t mean it won’t translate well to eating cold.
If we can eat a pasta salad cold, why not leftover dinner pasta?
If we can eat rice pudding cold, why not leftover rice with some meat on top of it?
And it’s no big deal to have a refried bean layer in those lovely chip-dip appetizers, so why not refried beans or other pureed beans? Even in fancy restaurants, you see cold meats on top of salads all the time.
Benefits of Eating Leftovers for Lunch
I figure there are so many benefits to both your time and your budget when you serve leftovers for lunch.
It’s definitely striking the balance, the way we always try to do here at Kitchen Stewardship® ®.
You definitely save time because you’re just planning for one meal, maybe doubling a recipe and reusing it a few times that week.
You save time shopping because you’re buying fewer specialty items for lunch.
And you save time packing, because, as I mentioned, when you’re already putting away dinner leftovers for later, it hardly takes any extra time to put a serving into a lunchbox.
“Packing a lunch” is just part of “cleaning up after dinner” instead of having to be its own item on your to-do list.
This preserves brainpower for other more important endeavors!
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Nobody likes that realization when you open the jar or leftovers container at the back of your fridge and realize that you’ve created a science experiment. You’re throwing away what was really good, edible food two weeks ago.
So anytime you have a planned opportunity to use up your leftovers, you’re definitely saving money.
Besides that, if you compare regular lunch fare like prepackaged crunchy snacks, fruit cups, single-serve yogurts, and especially lunch meat (which is very pricey per pound), the ingredients that you used to make dinner almost always cost less than half.
Bonus: Better Nutrition
And of course, I think it’s so much easier for kids to pack their own balanced lunch when they’re already looking at a fairly balanced dinner.
When my kids pack their lunches, which they do on their own starting at about third grade, they get pretty used to “filling the squares,” as I call it.
We use Bento boxes, and it’s almost a game to think of what four items you’ll pack for the next day. When everything is out from dinner, it can be easy.
- main course
- raw veggies
- salad or side veggie.
Sometimes our main course has multiple parts, and that makes it even easier.
Packing dinner leftovers for school lunches is easier on all accounts, budget-friendly, time-saving, and nutritious. Everyone wins.
What Leftovers Work Best for School Lunch?
As I’ve mentioned, there are definitely some leftovers that lend themselves better to being packable.
Here are some of our favorite categories.
Slow-Cooker Meats, Sometimes with Rice
I always figure when that meat is just falling apart in a slow cooker, it reminds me of a barbecue beef or chicken sandwich.
If it can be made into a sandwich, why not cold?
Here are some of our favorite recipes.
- Slow Cooker/Instant Pot BBQ Chicken
- Slow Cooker/Instant Pot BBQ Beef
- Instant Pot Chipotle Beef Barbacoa
- Instant Pot Chicken Curry
- Instant Pot Curried Lemon Coconut Chicken
Other Cooked Meat and Protein
Similarly, with any cooked meat I imagine that classic picnic basket in the Golden Age movies with the fried chicken legs.
I don’t do fried chicken much — okay, not ever. But anytime we grill or bake meat or fish, it makes a great leftover lunch, such as the following recipes.
- Roast Chicken
- Salmon Patties
- Homemade Fish Seasoning
- Creamy Alaskan Halibut
- Grilled, Marinated Beef or Chicken
- leftover hamburgers
- Garlic Maple Chicken
Handhelds to Go
If you can pick something up for dinner with your hands, chances are it’s delicious cold.
Finger food is a kid’s favorite. Especially if you can dip it!
How about putting some of these in a school lunch to use up those leftovers?
- Chicken Nuggets
- Grain-Free Pizza
- Chickpea Crust Pizza
- Sourdough Pizza
- Whole Wheat Crispy Crust Pizza
- Meatless Chickpea Wraps
What other handheld, messy-finger meals are part of your staples that could get packed right after dinner?
Imagine your favorite potluck or appetizer spread: I’m sure you would see a number of Mexican-flavored dips, and no one seems to avoid them once they’re cold.
Here are some of our favorites.
- Veggie Bean Burritos
- tacos (in our Kids Cook Real Food eCourse, we teach our littlest ones to make homemade taco seasoning, which we use at least once a week)
- quesadillas (of course, use homemade tortillas or keto, Italian tortillas for a pizza-style quesadilla)
Pasta Leftovers and Cold Grains
Some people think it’s crazy when they see my pictures on social media of what we packed our kids for lunch.
“Is that cold spaghetti? Do your kids really eat that?”
Again, I point you to the fact that we eat cold pasta all the time as a culture in pasta salad.
So when we make pasta for dinner, it’s actually one of my kids’ favorite things to pack; and if we don’t have enough leftovers to go around, there are some serious battles.
Here are some of our family’s favorite recipes, but obviously, use your own as well.
- Dad’s Cheeseburger Helper
- Instant Pot Mac and Cheese
- Protein-Packed White Sauce with Chicken and Rice
- Homemade Chicken Rice-a-roni
- Mexican Beans and Rice
- Sausage & Spinach Pasta Toss
Did you notice we had some cold rice in there as well?
This one depends a little more on personality, but I find most of my children don’t mind eating cold rice at all. Especially if it crosses over into the Mexican category, like the gallo pinto in Paul’s cookbook, Chef Junior.
A lot of our family’s favorite recipes that include pasta and rice are found in my ebook Better than a Box, where I remade traditional favorites without the processed foods.
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Potatoes and Other Random Ideas
Sometimes I will say to my kids that they probably don’t want to take this dinner as a leftover for lunch.
Then later I’m surprised to find that we have no leftovers in the fridge because they’ve all gone into the lunchboxes.
Potatoes are one of those things that has been harder for me to get the hang of than my kids. However, when I think about one of our family’s favorite picnic dishes, homemade potato salad, I guess we do eat cold potatoes all the time!
Plus, I know people who as kids loved those “bag fries” at the bottom of the McDonald’s takeout bag, the cold French fries that were orphaned down there.
Here are some starchy and veggie sides that my kids will also eat cold.
- French Fries
- Parsnip Fries
- Mashed Potatoes
- Spicy Buffalo Potato Wedges
- Fried or grilled potatoes
- Cheesy Spinach Bake
Pancakes for Lunch
Out of bread?
Tough to source gluten-free bread?
Try making a sandwich with pancakes!
We use butter/honey, nut butter/jam, or just maple syrup on all these fav recipes at lunch:
- Whole Grain Soaked Pancakes
- Sourdough Pancakes
- Grain-Free Pumpkin or Squash Pancakes
- Grain-Free Apple Almond Pancakes
Soups and Other Thermos Items
We don’t send soup cold, don’t worry.
But every so often, we will fill a Thermos with soup, chili, pork, and beans, or just about anything you would serve with a ladle.
It’s a nice diversion from the norm and really feels like you’ve had a hearty lunch.
Thermos tip: Follow these strategies to make sure your kid’s soup is still hot at lunchtime.
- Fill the thermos with hot or boiling water while you’re heating the soup up.
- Heat the soup on the stovetop, not the microwave. Anything hot from the stove always stays hot longer than the microwave.
- Boil that soup really hard, and it will stay warm in the Thermos that’s already preheated.
Here are some of our favorite soups.
- Cream of Potato Soup
- Turmeric Chicken Soup
- Cheeseburger Soup
- Black Bean Soup
- Sausage, Kale, and Bean Soup
- Three Bean Soup
Do You Use Leftovers for Easy School Lunches?
I’m telling you if you’ve never tried this, it’s absolutely time.
You don’t have to do anything special to get this habit started. Just peek at your meal plan for the week, or make a note to plan one of these categories in next week’s meal plan.
Obviously, you can use my recipes or follow the template, use my categories, and make your own family’s favorite recipes.
Try to include the kids in the packing process so that they are excited to eat what they already know they enjoy. May it go well for you as you save time and money with this not-so-fancy, easy, leftovers-for-lunch habit.