Strategic leftovers? 8 Ways to Stay Sane While Packing Lunch

America has its strategic oil reserve. Canada has it’s strategic maple syrup reserve. And smart parents keep their wits about them by maintaining strategic reserves of dinner leftovers.

Because let’s be honest… Packing lunches — whether for your kids or yourself — can be a soul-sapping day-after-day drudgery. And there aren’t a whole lot of ways around it.

Sure, you could buy those lunch “kits” aimed at kids sold at the grocery store. But America’s kids don’t exactly need more processed food. Particularly that sort of trash masquerading as lunch.

Still, my desire to pack healthy, satisfying lunches that my son will love doesn’t mean I have a ton of time or energy to put into making that happen.

Hence, strategic leftovers. This is what keeps me sane while doing time in the lunch box trenches.

My theory is simple. Every night some sort of dinner needs to get on the table. If I intentionally make too much of that dinner — which rarely requires any extra work — those leftovers make fine building blocks for the next day’s lunch.

Even if I don’t know how I will use the leftover whatever the next day, it sure makes my morning packing routine go more smoothly when I at least have something to work with.

Obviously, any leftovers are fair game. Making chili or lasagna or pizza? No need to overthink it. Reheat the leftovers, pop them in a thermos and call it a day.

But there are some leftovers that work particularly well in a blank slate sort of way. These are the foods that when I’m making for dinner, I always make too much of.

  • Baked or roasted potatoes: In the morning, heat up the leftovers and pop them in a thermos. Just top them with canned baked beans. Or pack some veggies, sour cream, cheese and salsa on the side.
  • Pasta: Shape and size don’t matter. Heat leftovers and toss with Parmesan for an easy Alfredo. Or toss with bottled peanut sauce and chopped veggies for cold peanut noodles. Or make pasta salad.
  • Chicken: Tossing a couple extra breasts on the grill (or roasting a slightly larger bird) takes no extra effort. But the meat can be used in wraps, salads, soups, whatever. Try this: shred leftover chicken, toss with bottled barbecue sauce, then pack hot and accompany with buns. Barbecue pulled chicken sliders!
  • Bacon: Health food? Not really. But I know that a bit of crumbled bacon over the top of a salad seriously ups its appeal for my kid. And if I’m already frying some for breakfast, another slice won’t kill us.
  • Vegetables: Whether you are roasting, steaming or stir-frying them, extra veggies are easy to love. The leftovers can be tossed in salads, used in wraps, or tossed with leftover pasta. They even can be packed straight up and used for dipping with hummus. Way tastier than raw.
  • Pancakes and waffles: The leftover approach works at breakfast, too. Making pancakes? Make too many, then use the extra as “bread” for a PB&J or grill cheese.
  • Chili and stews: This is so easy, it’s stupid. In them morning, pop a potato in the microwave. When it’s “baked,” toss it in a thermos, then top with leftover chili or beef stew. Done. Cheese on the side is nice.
  • Salad: Set aside some of the dinner salad before adding the dressing. Pack as is (with dressing on the side) or use it as filling for a veggie wrap.

  • J.M. Hirsch is 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.

What's Fresh from @RachaelRay

Rachael Ray