10 Tips for Stuffing Thanksgiving Leftovers into Lunch Boxes

It’s the nature of Thanksgiving. You’re hardly finished with your first plate and already fantasizing about the many things to be done with all those delicious leftovers.

It’s part of what sets Thanksgiving apart from other meals, even celebratory ones.

Sure, most of us try to be good about using up our day-to-day leftovers. But Thanksgiving is that rare meal when we actually plan and calculate to make certain we have leftovers not just of the main attraction, but of all the side dishes, too.

And once the kids head back to school after the long holiday weekend, packed lunches are a fine place to make use of those leftovers.

Of course, the general rule is that anything you can do with chicken you can do with turkey. But here are some specific — and simple — ideas to get your lunch packing creativity cranking.

1. Turkey Pasta Salad: Want to keep it simple? All you need are three ingredients — chopped leftover turkey, leftover cooked pasta, and some bottled vinaigrette. Toss and pack. But if you have extra time, it’s easy to build off that, too. Add frozen peas (they’ll thaw by lunch), chunks of avocado (the vinaigrette will prevent browning), cherry tomatoes, leftover roasted sweet potatoes (or any leftover roasted veggies), canned artichoke hearts, or olives from the relish dish. All good!

2. Turkey Quesadillas: Slap some shredded or chopped turkey and Jack cheese between whole-wheat tortillas, then pop the whole thing in a skillet for a few minutes. To keep it warm, cut  it into wedges, wrap them in foil and pack them in a wide-mouthed thermos. Don’t forget to add cups of guacamole and salsa for dunking.

3. Turkey Mac and Cheese: Got leftover pasta? Toss it, some chopped turkey, and a spoonful (or two or three) of low-fat sour cream or creme fraîche in a saucepan. When it’s nice and hot, add shredded cheddar. Season with salt, pepper, maybe some garlic powder, and a splash of hot sauce (a tiny bit heightens flavors, but doesn’t add heat). Pack in a toasty warm thermos.

4. Thanksgiving Sushi: Coat one side of a large whole-wheat tortilla with a thin layer of cream cheese. Now, pile all those delicious leftovers on top. And I mean all of them — stuffing, cranberry sauce, turkey, green beans… but maybe not the mashed potatoes. Roll it up into a tight log (use another dab of cream cheese if needed to hold it closed), then cut into rounds.

5. Thanksgiving Stir-fry: Toss chopped turkey and any lingering vegetables you’ve got in a skillet (use the same one you cooked your breakfast in, no need to clean it first) with a splash of oil. Once it’s hot, add a packet of heat-and-eat rice and a splash of soy sauce. You can pack it in a thermos just like that. Or to get fancy, crack an egg into the center of the skillet and stir like crazy until it’s cooked and delicious. Authentic stir-fry in less than five minutes.

6. BLT(and T): Under the adage that bacon makes everything better, cook up an extra couple slices at breakfast. Now assemble your basic BLT, but add a few slabs of leftover turkey to the fixings. That extra lean protein will help keep the kids full! And if sandwiches like this tend to get messy with little hands, build the whole thing in a whole-grain hot dog bun.

7. Thanksgiving Burgers: In a large bowl, combine chopped leftover turkey, stuffing, some grated Parmesan cheese and an egg. Mix well, then form into patties. Fry or bake the patties, and top with cheese right at the end. Can be packed cold (similar to a leftover meatloaf sandwich with ketchup) or warm in a thermos with ketchup or another sauce on the side for dipping.

8. Turkey Soup: Grab yourself a box of prepared creamy potato soup. Combine it, chopped turkey and leftover veggies (roasted sweet potatoes or corn would be good). Heat, then pack in a thermos. Pack hunks of stuffing on the side as “croutons” to plop onto the soup later. If you have extra time, you could also make your own potato soup base using leftover mashed potatoes and milk or chicken broth.

9. Turkey Fingers: This one is a dinner and a lunch. Cut strips of turkey meat (any length or thickness will work, but aim for a couple inches). Dunk them in whisked egg or egg whites, then in seasoned breadcrumbs (panko is particularly good). Arrange them on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray (and spritz the tops of the turkey fingers, too). Now bake at 400 F just until they’re heated through, about 10 minutes. Serve with a favorite dipping sauce for dinner. For lunch the next day, turn them into a sandwich wrap with greens and mayo on pita bread.

10. Sesame Noodle Turkey: Toss leftover pasta with chopped turkey and whatever cooked veggies you have (or open a can of roasted red peppers and cut them into strips). Toss together. For the dressing, whisk equal parts toasted sesame oil, rice or cider vinegar and soy sauce, then spike it with a a splash of hot sauce. Drizzle over the pasta and turkey, toss well, then sprinkle sesame seeds over everything.

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