Got leftover pasta? You’ve got the makings of killer salads!

Want to know the fastest and easiest way to get more creative with the lunches you pack? Stop thinking of them as lunches. Seriously.

The reason so many of us falter for lunch box inspiration is because we get trapped by our own preconceived notions of what lunch foods — particularly packed lunch foods — are supposed to be.

So after we’ve exhausted our handful of go-to sandwiches and salads, we find ourselves in a lunch rut.

But once you abandon ideas of what lunch is “supposed” to be, you open up all sort of possibilities.

Suddenly, pulled pork sliders (made from leftover roasted pork and a bottle of barbecue sauce) is an easy option. So is fried chicken and waffles (frozen whole-grain waffles and leftover chicken). Gazpacho packs easily. So does cold leftover pasta carbonara (consider it an Italian take on Asian peanut noodles).

The point is, lunch is just another meal and anything goes.

And that’s why whenever I make pasta for dinner, I always cook more than I need. If you’re willing to think outside the (lunch) box, it’s a fast and easy way to make awesome lunches.

Tossed with a bit of olive oil (to prevent it from sticking), leftover pasta can be refrigerated for several days. So what do you do with it? Here’s 10 easy ways to use it to jazz up your salads:

  1. Turn the pasta (think penne or elbows) into croutons. Heat a bit of oil in a skillet, then add the cooked pasta and saute until lightly browned. Add them as you would any crouton to any salad (chicken Caesar would be something awesome).
  2. Think traditional pasta sauce ingredients, but rethink them as a salad. Sliced oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, marinated mushrooms and herbed olives tossed with leftover pasta and some chopped fresh basil is a pretty fine salad.
  3. Make panzanella (bread and tomato salad), but use pasta instead of bread. Gobs of sliced tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, fresh basil and pasta.
  4. Toss cold leftover pasta with a little low-fat sour cream, a splash of hot sauce, some thawed frozen peas and sliced smoked salmon for the taste of a bagel, lox and cream cheese, but as a salad.
  5. Combine canned tuna with pasta, a bit of mayo and whatever seasonings you like, perhaps a bit of grated Parmesan. Spoon it into a whole-wheat tortilla with greens for a tuna salad wrap.
  6. Get herby. Buy a mess of fresh herbs — cilantro, basil, parsley, mint, thyme and anything else you like — and finely chop them. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, then toss with cold pasta. Now add any leftover roasted or fresh veggies.
  7. Make a hummus pasta salad by tossing leftover pasta with all of the components of hummus — canned chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini, chopped garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika. Serve on a bed of greens.
  8. Toss pasta with vinaigrette, chopped hard-boiled eggs, chopped celery and chopped red bell pepper.
  9. Blend peanut butter with vinegar, soy sauce and a splash of hot sauce. Toss the pasta with the peanut sauce, then add leftover roasted or fresh broccoli florets for peanut noodle salad. If you like, sprinkle with chopped peanuts.
  10. Make a guacamole salad. Toss pasta with chopped avocado, lime juice, cilantro, chopped tomatoes and — if you want protein — shredded cooked chicken.

J.M. Hirschis the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at His upcoming cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, will be the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.

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