Updated on 11.25.14

12 Strategies for Holiday Leftovers

Trent Hamm

Thanksgiving (and Christmas, for that matter) are holidays where my family tends to gather with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews and share food, drink, and good cheer.

These gatherings often tend to be large ones and thus large meals are often prepared with lots of different side dishes. The end result? There are lots of leftovers.

Most of the time, families will simply eat the leftovers for a day or two and toss out what’s left. Guess what? That’s a pretty big waste of money and a waste of opportunity, too. If you’re smart about things, you can end up wasting virtually nothing from your big holiday meal and it will help you out throughout the winter.

Here are twelve strategies my family uses for handling the leftovers from a big holiday meal. Our goal is simple: minimize what we throw away without creating an endless run of boring “leftover” meals.

Strategy #1: Send People Home With Plenty of “Prepared” Leftovers

If someone comes over for a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, they will have an opportunity to take home at least a meal’s worth of leftovers. Usually, these are assembled in containers brought by the guest or else in three-compartment take out containers. The nice part with the take out containers is that they’re really cheap – they cost about nine cents each.

With these meals, we focus on sharing the dishes that are really hard to re-make into anything else – things like stuffing, dressing, casseroles, and so forth. We do share the other elements, but most of what is sent along are items that we simply can’t do anything else with and, honestly, if we kept them, some of it would just get tossed.

You Need: Three-compartment take out containers

Takes Care Of: Dressing, stuffing, casseroles, some turkey or ham (or other central protein), a bit of other side dishes

Strategy #2: Remix the Turkey Meat

Leftover turkey sandwiches are practically law in the Thanksgiving aftermath when my parents are around, but that’s not the only way to use leftover turkey. You can cube it up and use it in virtually any recipe as a substitute for chicken, which takes the turkey far away the realm of leftovers and makes it into something new and fresh.

Turkey pot pie. Turkey chili. Turkey cacciatore. Turkey vindaloo. Turkey noodle soup. All you have to do is find a recipe with chicken in it and substitute turkey for a delicious and slightly different experience.

My absolute hands-down favorite method for using leftover turkey is to make turkey tetrazzini. Just cook a box of spaghetti and drain it. In a sauce pan, add half of a diced bell pepper, a diced onion, and two tablespoons of butter and cook them together over medium-high heat until the onion is translucent, then drop the heat to medium-low and add two cups of milk and some fresh mushrooms. Cook this all together for three minutes, then add a cup of turkey broth and a teaspoon of corn starch and stir until it thickens a bit. Add this mix to the spaghetti, then add in four cups of cubed turkey and two cups of shredded cheese of your choice (I like to use a mozzarella-Parmesan mix, but anything works) and mix thoroughly. Spray down a 9″ by 13″ baking dish with nonstick spray, then add the mix to the pot. Cover with another cup of cheese, then bake at 350 F for 30 minutes. Delicious!

If you’re not up for using the turkey in this kind of way immediately, just cube it up and add it to a quart freezer bag. Put a pound in each freezer bag so that it’s easy to measure out and use, then remove as much air as possible and toss it in the freezer. The meat should last for three months or so.

You Need: A box of spaghetti, two tablespoons butter, three cups of shredded cheese, half of a diced bell pepper, a diced onion, a cup of turkey broth, two cups of milk, some fresh mushrooms, a teaspoon of corn starch, and a 9″ by 13″ baking dish (tetrazzini); quart sized freezer bags (freezing)

Takes Care Of: Turkey and turkey broth

Strategy #3: Turn Turkey Bones and Scraps and Vegetable Remnants Into Soup Stock

Those kinds of strategies take care of the meat, but what about the bones and the unwanted gristle that everyone avoided for days? Those pieces are perfect for making soup stock, which can be the backbone of soups and casseroles all winter long.

It’s really easy to make it, too. Get up early in the morning, add the bones and gristle to a large slow cooker, then add any and all leftover vegetables that you have that you won’t use elsewhere. Fill the slow cooker up to a level that’s about three inches higher than the level of the bones, then turn it on high. Leave it on all day long, then in the evening, you’re going to want to strain it, saving the liquid and discarding the softened bones and other material left behind.

That liquid is amazing stuff. It will be uniquely flavorful, as it varies based on the turkey and on the vegetables you added. It will work well for all kinds of soups throughout the winter – just add some of your favorite vegetables to a few cups of this broth and it’ll be delicious. You can easily freeze it, too – in fact, that’s the best way to store it.

You Need: A slow cooker, some clean water, and your preferred freezer containers (quart sized freezer bags work just fine)

Takes Care Of: Turkey bones and leftover mixed vegetables

Strategy #4: Make Cranberry Scones (or Other Baked Goods)

If you’ve got leftover cranberry sauce, just toss it into a blender, hit puree, and turn it into a thick liquid. At that point, it’s a perfect ingredient to use in many different things. (You can leave a bit of structure in it, too, by only pureeing for a few seconds until you have it just like you like it).

I am a big fan of Alton Brown’s scone recipe, so what I’ll do is make that recipe, but replace 1/8 cup of cream with 1/8 cup of cranberry sauce. I’ll throw in a few larger cranberry pieces in addition, too, and then follow his instructions.

You can do this with almost any kind of baked good, using your cranberry sauce puree as an ingredient. Suddenly, a normal muffin recipe becomes cranberry muffins. Not only that, you can actually use the puree as a nice spread on toast. The best part? It freezes really well.

You Need: 2 cups flour, 4 teaspoons baking powder, 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1/3 cup sugar, 4 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons shortening, 5/8 cup cream, and 1 egg (for scones)

Takes Care Of: Cranberry sauce

Strategy #5: Make Cranberry Barbecue Sauce, Too

Another great option for that cranberry puree is to use it as the basis for a sauce. This is a good idea if you’re celebrating a holiday season in a warmer climate where you might grill out a few days after Thanksgiving – of course, you can always just freeze the cranberry sauce puree, too.

It’s pretty typical – a bit of tomato sauce, a bit of vinegar, a bit of orange juice, some flavorings, and half a cup of that cranberry sauce and you’ll have yourself an amazing barbecue sauce that’s great for grilling.

(You can also turn the cranberry sauce into a salad dressing, but I’ve never quite liked that.)

You Need: 1/2 cup tomato sauce, 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup orange juice, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 cup lager beer, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce, 1 tablespoon mustard, and a dash of salt (for sauce)

Takes Care Of: Cranberry sauce

Strategy #6: Make Potato Pancakes

Leftover mashed potatoes make for a very good thickening agent in soups, so it’s never a bad idea to keep some around for that, but there’s a much more delicious option: potato pancakes.

Just take two cups of mashed potatoes, add a beaten egg and a pinch of salt and black pepper, and form them into a few discs. Put a bit of cooking oil into a skillet, turn the heat up to medium-high, and let the oil warm for a moment, then add the discs one at a time. Let them cook for a minute or two, then flip them over. Keep flipping until they’re golden brown and just a little crunchy on each side. Perfect!

Potato pancakes work well as a side for a lot of different meals and it’s a great way to turn mashed potatoes into something useful.

You Need: An egg, a dash of salt and black pepper, and some cooking oil

Takes Care Of: Mashed potatoes

Strategy #7: Make Potato-Cheddar Soup

Another way to use leftover mashed potatoes is to transform them into potato-cheddar soup, which is a very hearty and savory soup perfect for a cold January evening. Mashed potatoes freeze well, so you can take your late November excess mashed potatoes, store them in a freezer container, and pull them out at the peak of winter to make a great hearty soup for dinner.

Just finely dice two medium onions and two garlic cloves. Heat two tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium-high heat, then add the onions and garlic for a few minutes until the onions are translucent. Add a cup of flour to this and stir for another minute. Add this to your soup pot, then add a pound and a half of mashed potatoes, four cups of chicken broth, a quarter cup of heavy cream, and half a cup of grated cheese (Parmesan is a good choice). Stir until thick and consistent, then heat slowly until warm. Add some pepper and salt to taste and serve!

This is a great thick winter soup for a freezing winter evening, plus it uses up those leftover mashed potatoes in a hurry!

You Need: 2 medium onions, 2 garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons butter, 1/4 cup flour, 4 cups chicken (or vegetable) broth, 1/4 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup grated cheese, and salt and pepper to taste

Takes Care Of: Mashed potatoes

Strategy #8: Make Sweet Potato or Yam Cookies

The tricky part with sweet potatoes during the holiday season is that they tend to be prepared in a number of different ways. One gathering I go to might have them prepared in large pieces bathed in a sugary broth, while another one might have mashed sweet potatoes.

Making them into cookies is something that you can do regardless of the kind of leftover sweet potatoes you have. If you have sweet potatoes that are covered in marshmallow, baked with brown sugar, or just mashed with butter, you can turn any of them into very tasty cookies.

I like this recipe for coconut sweet potato cookies, but you can play with the basic idea a lot. In any case, the key is to simply mash whatever kind of sweet potatoes you have. If they’re already mashed, then it’s easy; if it’s not, just take them out and mash them. The recipe there is vegan, with a few vegan substitutes – you can use normal eggs instead of “flax eggs,” for example. Mostly, you just need mashed sweet potatoes, coconut, and some of the stuff you’ll typically find in the pantry of a baker – flour, baking soda, baking powder, sea salt, cinnamon, chocolate chips, peanut (or almond or hazelnut) butter, and so on.

I tried a version of these cookies a few years ago and they were amazing. Plus, they rely on mashed sweet potatoes as a core ingredient, and you can just mash those potatoes and freeze them, retrieving them when you’re ready to make cookies.

You Need: Basic baking supplies (see recipe)

Takes Care Of: Sweet potatoes and/or yams

Strategy #9: Make Pumpkin Pie Muffins

Much as with the cranberry sauce, you can puree the pumpkin filling of a pumpkin pie – along with a bit of milk to smooth it out – and use it as an ingredient in many other kinds of baked goods.

I particularly like this pumpkin pie muffin recipe. It’s pretty foolproof. Instead of using the can of filling, just remove the outer crust from a full pumpkin pie and blend it with a bit of milk to make it smooth and use that instead.

This way, the extra pumpkin pie doesn’t go to waste and becomes a delightful baked good to share with family and friends in the week or so after Thanksgiving or Christmas.

You Need: 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 5 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 3 cups white sugar, 1/2 cup vegetable oil, and 1/2 cup water, along with the baking utensils and muffin wrappers

Takes Care Of: Pumpkin pie

Strategy #10: Make Pumpkin Spice Lattes

On the other hand, maybe you want to make some delicious homemade sweet coffee-based treats. Your pumpkin pie filling actually does a really good job with that.

Just take two cups of strong black coffee and put it into a blender along with a cup of milk, 1/4 to 1/3 cup pumpkin pie filling (just scoop it out of the pumpkin pie and toss the crust… though I suppose you could blend a bit of crust, too), two teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice, and a teaspoon each vanilla extract, sugar, and cinnamon. Blend until smooth, then heat to your heart’s desire in the microwave or in a sauce pan on the stovetop. You can top it with a dollop of whipped cream if you so desire.

These are delicious. They’re how we use up any and all remaining pumpkin pies and pumpkin pie filling after the holidays.

You Need: 1 cup milk, 1/3 cup pumpkin pie filling, 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice, and a teaspoon each vanilla extract, sugar, and cinnamon (for latte)

Takes Care Of: Pumpkin pie

Strategy #11: Leftover Pie

Still got a bunch of leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner? How about an extra leftover pie crust? Your solution for all of it is right there.

Just combine all the remaining savory leftovers until they’re consistent (gravy makes a great savory binding), then fill up a pie crust with those materials. Cover the pie with the other piece of pie crust, then wrap the entire thing well and stick it in the freezer. It’ll make for a great hearty mid-December meal. All you’ll have to do is pull it out of the freezer the day before, unwrap it, and leave it in the fridge overnight and it’ll bake into a delicious pie in about 30 to 45 minutes at 350 F.

If you don’t have a top crust for your pumpkin pie but you do have leftover mashed potatoes, set aside those potatoes and let them form your top crust.

You Need: A greased pie-sized round baking dish

Takes Care Of: Almost everything that’s left

Strategy #12: The Shared Smörgåsbord

This is a great option for the Saturday or Sunday after Christmas, particularly if you have good friends who were busy hosting their own Thanksgiving dinner.

One of you plays the host. The other family just brings over all of their remaining Thanksgiving leftovers. Together, you warm everything up and serve them buffet-style on the counter, allowing everyone to make their own plate of a wide variety of options.

You’ll have turkey prepared multiple ways. You can try your neighbor’s wild rice dressing – and they can try your green bean casserole. They made a pecan pie! Maybe you had some killer mashed sweet potatoes… and they had ordinary mashed potatoes.

You can fill up your plate with Thanksgiving sides different than what you had before, plus add a final spoonful or two of the things you liked the best from your own meal. Even better, it’s very simple to prepare and provides a great social event to end a Thanksgiving weekend.

You can do this with more than just one other family – invite two or three and make it a post-Thanksgiving party.

You Need: Friends who are also burnt out on Thanksgiving or Christmas meals

Takes Care Of: Everything

Final Thoughts

The above options provide a dozen ideas for things to do with the leftovers from a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal, using everything from the cranberry sauce to the vegetable scraps and the leftover pumpkin pie to the turkey bones. You should be left scarcely throwing anything away – and not having to eat something unenjoyable, either.

More than that, these options are meant to inspire you to dig for possibilities for whatever leftovers the holiday season brings to your refrigerator. Your holiday leftovers don’t have to mean three days of drudgery of eating the same things over and over. It can mean a wide variety of meals, and then the remnants can easily be frozen to provide the core of interesting meals after that.

It’s all about your creativity and willingness to decide that you’re not going to throw away food this year. Instead, you’re going to use it in ways that aren’t wasteful but are very enjoyable.

It’s up to you.

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