Even though we love to cook here at ChopChop Family, we all have been a part of a morning panic that includes staring into the fridge hoping something will appear to grab for lunch. We also know that caregivers have to find creative ways to make and pack lunch for kids every day. Our editor, Catherine Newman, once said something that made us laugh: she couldn’t believe her kids wanted dinner again after she had just made them dinner the night before! Sometimes, packing lunch feels like that—didn’t I just do this yesterday?
As kids go back to school, it’s important to have some tricks up your sleeve when it comes to packing lunch. One of our favorite lunch hacks is to make as many lunches as you can from leftovers. Make some of these dishes on a slower day, like Sunday, and then use parts of the meals all week for lunches. Here is some inspiration, but we’re always looking for more tips and tricks. If you have some, send them our way: [email protected]ly.org.
A roasted chicken is one of those easy-but-great meals, perfect for the cooler season. It makes a great dinner; plus, leftover chicken can be used for many lunches all week long.
- Monday: If you have leftover chicken on Sunday night, turn it into chicken soup and pack it in a thermos.
- Tuesday: Shred some chicken for chicken salad—either on a sandwich or on its own. Spice it up with a Mexican or tarragon version.
- Wednesday: Send some shredded chicken in a container with a few tortillas, shredded cheese, and a small container of salsa. And kids can put together their own chicken tacos for lunch. Or make a quick chicken quesadilla.
- Thursday: Top any salad greens with chicken and throw in other vegetables you have on hand. Put dressing in a separate container so the salad doesn’t get soggy.
- Friday: Use this math: tortilla + any leftover chicken + whatever salad greens or vegetables you have left = a great lunch.
Pasta and Whole Grains
If Sunday night is pasta night at your house, you can use the leftovers all week long. Cook grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and barley, to use them in one-bowl meals or add them to stews, soups, or chilis.
- Monday: Leftover pasta can be eaten cold in pasta salads with just a few vegetables, pieces of cheese, and toppings added in.
- Tuesday: Make a grain bowl with leftover grains as a base. Add anything you want (or need to use) as a topping including meat, vegetables, dried fruits, fresh fruit, cheese, nuts, tofu, seafood, and dressing.
- Wednesday: Top leftover pasta with pesto. It’s great cold and gives your midweek meal a pop of green.
- Thursday: Turn leftover rice into a burrito bowl. Top it with beans or meat, tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and salsa.
- Friday: Add corn and tomatoes to grains for a quick Corny Tomato Salad.
Over the weekend, buy a big box of mesclun (or another favorite green) and add any of these combinations. When packing a salad, make and pack an easy dressing separately so kids can pour it on later and the lettuce doesn’t get soggy.
- Monday: Top your greens with sliced cucumbers, diced tomatoes, diced bell peppers, and crumbled feta cheese.
- Tuesday: Get fishy with tuna fish, sliced red onions, cubed tomato, and cut celery. Add some greens and make a sandwich. (Or turn it into a nicoise.)
- Wednesday: Throw in sliced hard-boiled eggs, diced tomatoes, and cut celery.
- Thursday: Use last night’s dinner protein (meat, beans, tofu, fish), crumbled cheese, and thinly sliced red onions. Eat it as a salad atop greens or add the greens and stuff it into a tortilla for a wrap.
- Friday: Get rid of whatever proteins, nuts, vegetables, and fruits are in the house and turn them into salad add-ons.
Tip from Sally: These adds-ons work in almost any salad:
• Dried fruit, especially raisins, craisins, and currants
• Lightly toasted nuts, whole or chopped
• Fresh fruit, especially apples, grapefruit, peaches, pineapple, and pomegranate arils
• Leftover poultry, beef, pork, or fish
• Tofu squares
• Sunflower and pumpkin seeds
• Carrot ribbons
Hummus takes just about 15 minutes to make and is really dynamic. Of course, you can always pack it as a snack with pita chips, but hummus is a great base for a variety of lunches.
- Monday: Grab a tortilla and add your hummus to a wrap with turkey and cheese.
- Tuesday: Pack hummus into a container for dipping and include cut dippable veggies like carrots, bell peppers, celery, cucumber, and zucchini.
- Wednesday: Slather hummus onto bread for a sandwich filled with tomato, spinach, and avocado.
- Thursday: Make “hummus pizza” by topping an open-faced pita or lavash bread with hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and feta cheese.
- Friday: Prep a pita pocket by filling it with hummus, hard-boiled eggs, and roasted or raw vegetables.
These ideas should give you about four weeks worth of lunches–that’s an entire month. And we know that once you get the hang of turning leftovers into lunches, your own creative ideas will start flowing. Soon you’ll be able to come up with even more stress-free, easy options that not only taste great but also are nutritionally solid. Remember, we’d love to hear your tips and tricks for making school lunch a breeze, so don’t forget to email us your ideas: [email protected].