School is back in session and it's time to learn a new trick to make packing your kids' lunches all that much easier—leftover lunches. Here's how it works: Instead of trying to keep up with meal creativity amid after-school activities and homework, take your school lunch ideas from last night's leftovers.

These five dinner recipes work great in lunch boxes the next day—and we've also included some tips and packing tricks to help you repurpose leftovers in a fresh and exciting way—without adding another hour to your evening routine. All it takes is a few simple steps to spin these recipes into tomorrow's lunchbox hit before your kids are even done doing the dishes (they are doing the dishes, right?).

Tips for Making School Lunches from Leftovers

Putting together school lunches that get eaten every time requires a balance of creativity and consistency—and a little ingenuity. Here are some basics to keep in mind.

  • Try to transform leftovers into finger foods. Your kid might love twirling spaghetti at dinnertime, but a handheld option is far easier to manage in the lunch room. (See Spaghetti and Meatballs Muffin Bites below.)
  • Look for recipes that will taste good at room temperature.
  • Be a savvy packer. Check your local dollar store for interesting packages and containers in bright colors and fun shapes for condiments and sides. (You can get ice packs there, too.)

Five Dinner Recipes That Are Twice as Nice for School Lunch

Everything tastes better wrapped up in a tortilla, and this simple pork recipe is a perfect example. After a speedy 15-minute prep (you just throw everything in your slow cooker and walk away), the pork cooks up into a fork-tender meat you can use for soft tacos, burritos, and Mexican-style salad bowls. For the simplest lunch presentation, just take a large flour tortilla and wrap up leftover pork for the next day. But if you're feeling inspired, this recipe has plenty of room for improvisation. If you have leftover rice or salad from dinner, you can tuck it inside the tortilla for an added flavor boost. Shredded cheese, sour cream, or guacamole will add a little creaminess. McCrearyacres says, "This made for a delicious Sunday dinner at my house! The only changes I made were to use canned beans and decrease the water because the beans weren't going to absorb as much. We all ate until we nearly had to roll ourselves away from the table. Glad there were leftovers for my lunch today!"

Packing tip: Make your burritos when the filling and the tortilla are at room temperature to keep the tortilla from melting or tearing. Not only will the whole thing stay together better, it's also good motivation to pack tomorrow's lunch right after dinner is finished so it's ready to go for the morning.

Pork Chalupas
Photo by CookinBug

2. Spaghetti and Meatballs Muffin Bites

It's easy to make spaghetti and tomato sauce in large quantities, but if you make a little too much, turning them into spaghetti muffins makes your leftovers into a portable snack. Chris Diaz says, "After reading Shirley's dilemma about getting the nests out of the cupcake pan in one piece, I added one slightly beaten egg to the spaghetti and instead of using non-stick spray, I opted to use coconut oil to grease the pan. No problem with the nests popping out of the pan." Of course, instead of coconut oil, you can spray or wipe any vegetable oil into your muffin tin and pack the pasta in, then bake for 6-8 minutes at 350˚F.

Packing tip: This recipe works for any kind of pasta or sauce, though you can use a little more pasta in the egg ratio for cheese-based sauces.

Let's say you made mashed potatoes one night (maybe to go with roast chicken?). You already know that leftover chicken can be used in endless lunch recipes, but here's an idea for your leftover mashed potatoes. Leftover mashed potatoes can get bland and gluey in the fridge, but giving them a quick fry-up turns them into crisp pancakes which pack well into lunches. This recipe calls for adding bacon, but you can omit that and just stir in a bit of egg, flour, and some grated cheese until the potatoes are thick enough to roll into balls. Then press the balls flat and fry in hot oil until crisp. missrochester says, "I had leftover mashed potatoes from last night and I'm so tired of wasting them and tossing them out because no one in my family will eat them so I thought this recipe would be great! They turned out wonderful! Way better then i expected! i never measured the bacon, onion or cheese just eye balled it to my taste and before frying I coated the patties in panko bread crumbs Soooooo delicious!!"

Packing tip: Sour cream is a traditional topper, but if you're looking for a room-temperature alternative, add an applesauce to the lunch, which makes an equally good potato pancake sauce.

Pop open a pre-made pie dough for this lunchbox favorite. After your finish your roast beef dinner, slice the leftovers thinly, then lay them out on top of the dough with kicked-up cream cheese, mustard, spinach, and Cheddar cheese, and roll it up. Slice the roll into one-inch pinwheels and bake per the dough instructions. (Or you can follow the recipe for Roast Beef Horseradish Roll-Ups and use tortillas.)

Flavor tip: Adjust the amount of horseradish to your kid's liking.

Roast Beef Horseradish Roll-Ups
Photo by Allrecipes Magazine

It's true: chicken nuggets make for easy, kid-pleasing dinners. So, make a few extra and turn them into a fun twist on chicken and waffles for school lunch. Char says, "I love the savory waffle recipe. It's very tasty. If you think covering a chicken nugget in it is too outrageous just eat it as a waffle! But pretty good with a chicken nugget inside too!"

Packing tip: Send along a little BBQ sauce or maple syrup as dipping sauces.

Watch: Chicken in a Waffle

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