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Mini Chicken Sliders
Cut leftover chicken or beef burgers into quarters and slide between whole wheat minibun halves. Send several with a side of lettuce and tomato, suggests mom and dietitian Jodi Greebel, president of Citrition, a nutrition counseling practice in New York City. Send along with leftover hummus and carrot sticks: No matter their age, most kids love hummus (and dipping).
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Make too many waffles or pancakes yesterday? Catherine McCord, mother of two in Los Feliz, California, and founder of Weelicious, a recipe website for families, suggests slapping those energy-packed carbs with cream cheese and strawberry preserves. They're big, they're sloppy, they're tasty, and even big kids still like the idea of breakfast for lunch.
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Antipasto to Go
Instead of tossing the leftover salad, top it with sliced chicken or beef and cheese, toss in pepperoni and olives, and you've got antipasto, says Julie Languille, mother of two and owner of Dinners in a Flash, an online meal service in Freeland, Washington.
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Fried Rice Salad
Toss leftover rice, a microwaved egg, and Asian-style frozen vegetables with low-sodium soy sauce, suggests Sarah Krieger, MPH, RD, LD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. The rice carbs fuel the brain and the protein quells afternoon stomach growls. The best dessert: Low-fat chocolate milk, says Krieger. Even older kids still like it: "They get nutrition for their bones and the sweet from the chocolate," Krieger says.
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Feta Cheese and Raisin Couscous
Even chefs have to fill their kids' lunchboxes. Chef Walter Pisano of Tulio Ristorante in Seattle has won over his two children with leftover couscous tossed with feta cheese, raisins or dried apricots (any kind of dried fruit works, he says). "Sometimes my daughter will eat it for several days in a row," Pisano says. Now, that's promising.
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Make extra meatballs on spaghetti nights, suggests Lori Lite, founder of Stress-Free Kids and mother of three in Marietta, Georgia: "Roll the leftover meatballs in a tortilla wrap in the morning, and away they go." For the munchies, tuck in a separate bag of carrots, peeled cucumbers, grape or cherry tomatoes, and a small container of tzatziki (a yogurt cucumber dip), suggests Chef Walter Pisano. Tzatziki is enough like ranch dressing that kids will try it—but it's healthier.
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Turn turkey and veggie leftovers into hand-held morsels by mixing them into a corn meal muffin batter: "That makes a great stuffed muffin," says Shannon Carino, 33, kids' lunch blogger (bentolunch.net) and mother of two in Frisco, Texas. "Leftover taco meat plus cheese or leftover sausages also make great muffins." Got big eaters? Mix leftover rice with a little milk, honey, and raisins for a healthy dessert, suggests mom/food blogger McCord.
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Children's fitness expert Len Saunders, MA, father of two, and author of Keeping Kids Fit blends leftover fruit salad with bananas, strawberries, kiwi, low-fat yogurt, and low-fat milk: "Presto, you have a healthy drink for school lunch. Put a thermos-full into the freezer for an hour or two before school so it stays cool until lunch."
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Even older kids may not be ready for squid, but mock sushi—yes. Put rice in a lettuce leaf, add cucumber slices, carrots, imitation crab and roll that up, Krieger says. Jennifer St. Marie, M.S. R.D. L.D., Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital pediatric dietician, suggests this variation: Spread hummus on a large tortilla. Sprinkle with bits of leftover turkey, avocado, and romaine lettuce. Roll up, slice into pieces.
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Denver resident Dawn Billesbach, founder and owner of Menu For the Week, an online budget meal planner, scoops leftover black beans into a warm whole grain tortilla and tosses in leftover taco meat for lunch for her two daughters: "Wrap it in tin foil and it stays warm until lunch." Beans load kids up with protein and filling fiber.
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Spread leftover pesto on whole wheat English muffins or toasted whole wheat tortillas, and top with tomato sauce and big curls of cheese for a mini pizza, suggests nutritionist Maria Romano, MS, RD, CDN, of Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. Toss in a banana on the side—and your work is done.