Lunch Packing Made Easy, One Grain of Rice at a Time

I’m a big believer in cooking once, eating twice. Or more.

Planned leftovers really are what keep me sane while serving time in the lunch box trenches. As much as possible, I turn the remnants of last night’s dinner into the building blocks of today’s lunch.

And while most dinners can be repurposed somehow, someway, there are some foods that are so versatile they practically demand that you make too much of them, just to have the leftovers to work with. For my must-have list of leftovers check out this earlier post.

But I somehow forgot to include on that list one of the most useful leftovers of all — rice.

Rice is right up there with pasta in terms of ease of making too much. Cooking up 1 cup of rice for dinner? It takes no more time or effort to make 2 cups. And once you’ve got that extra cooked rice, there’s so much you can do with it.

Let’s start with the cooking. It’s easy. In fact, if you are lucky enough to own a rice cooker, it’s pathetically simple. Dump in the rice and water (or broth for more flavor), hit the button and walk away. Most models even automatically shut off and keep the rice warm until you’re ready for it.

No rice cooker? It’s still easy. For brown rice, it’s a basic 1:2 ratio of rice to water. Starting with 1 cup of uncooked brown rice? You’ll need 2 cups of water. To cook, combine the rice and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to the lowest setting, then walk away for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let stand for another 10 minutes. Done.

For white rice, the method is the same, but the ratio is 1:1.5 — as in, every 1 cup of uncooked rice will need 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat and cook for 15 minutes, then let stand off the heat for 10 minutes.

Now that you’ve made the rice, what should you do with it?

  • Stir-fry: Sounds like too much trouble for lunch, right? Not even close. Let’s say you fried an egg or made pancakes for breakfast. Don’t wash that skillet just yet. Mist it with a bit of cooking spray, then dump in whatever veggies you got. Anything. Leftover roasted veggies? That will work. Nothing but bagged shredded carrots or broccoli florets or even just an onion? Go with it. After a couple of minutes, dump in your rice. When the rice is hot, crack an egg into it and mix like crazy. Once the egg is cooked, add a splash of soy sauce. Done. It took less than 5 minutes and didn’t dirty any extra pans. Now just pop it piping hot into a thermos.
  • Rice and beans: There’s a good reason much of the world lives on this combination. It’s healthy and can be totally delicious (and easy). I like to do it barbecue-style. All I do is combine canned beans (navy or kidney are nice), leftover rice and some bottled barbecue sauce. Heat, pack and enjoy.
  • Rice and edamame: Or take the rice and beans thing in an Asian direction. Combine rice with shelled frozen edamame and a splash each of soy sauce and toasted sesame oil. Packed cold (the edamame will thaw by lunch) it’s a cool rice salad. Or heat it up for a delicious sesame rice and beans. Either version is good with a little chopped scallion, too.
  • Rice salad: Speaking of rice salad, try a fruity version, too. Combine cooked and cooled rice with diced mango, apricots, slice grapes, diced apples or pears, chopped pineapple, whatever. Add some chopped scallion, a little lemon juice and olive oil, then toss and season with salt and pepper. Some dried fruit sprinkled on top — like cranberries or cherries — is a nice contrast.
  • Peanut rice and chicken: Toss leftover rice with leftover cooked chicken (or meat from a rotisserie chicken). Toss with bottled (or homemade if you have time) peanut sauce, then pack hot or cold.
  • Pesto rice and chicken: Same as peanut rice and chicken, except you use — wait for it — pesto instead of the peanut sauce. This one also is good hot or cold.
  • Veggie rice cakes: In a bowl mix leftover rice, any finely chopped cooked veggies you have handy, any finely chopped cooked meats laying around, an egg or two, a bit of flour and some salt and pepper. Mix, form into patties, then fry in the same skillet you cooked your breakfast. Great as is or on a bun.
    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.

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