Updated on 12.16.08

Nine Creative Ways to Utilize Leftovers from Common Meals

Trent Hamm

Pot Roast by mattebert on Flickr!One of the best ways to really extract the value from a meal is to utilize every bit of the leftover food instead of merely throwing it away. Not only does this reduce waste, it also drastically reduces the cost per meal in your household, and over the long term, that can add up to a lot of money.

The only problem with this philosophy is that leftovers are often not exactly the most tasty thing for the palate. Reheated plates of food? Maybe after Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s not so appealing after Wednesday night supper.

Because of this lack of culinary appeal, many people often toss their leftover food, or they put it in the refrigerator with the intent to use it but forget about it until it’s too late.

My approach is a little different. I try very hard to find ways to use leftover food in interesting and substantially different dishes a night or two later. This way, the new meal doesn’t seem like a stale re-hash of the first one.

Here are nine easy examples for doing just that.

Transform leftover pot roast Around here, there’s almost always an abundance of leftovers after cooking a pot roast with potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery. Instead of just reheating this food for future meals, I just toss it into the food processor with some of the broth, puree it, and then take the thick “soup” and add bread crumbs until I’m able to form patties with it. I then cook the patties over medium heat in a skillet with a bit of canola oil until they’re light brown on both sides. Optionally, I’ll add a bit of cheese to the mix.

Transform leftover chicken Cut the remaining chicken into long strips, then serve them with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, shredded cheese, salsa, and tortillas to make easy and tasty wraps.

Transform leftover mashed potatoes Freeze them in small amounts (a cup per bag), then use them in place of flour in recipes. You can usually use one part mashed potatoes to two parts flour in virtually any recipe, which means that you can easily use a cup of mashed potatoes in a loaf of homemade bread.

Transform leftover spaghetti Take the leftover pasta and sauce, chop the pasta into smaller pieces, then mix the sauce and pasta together. Pour this mixture into a loaf pan, then put a healthy layer of mozzarella cheese on top. Bake this in the oven at 350 until the cheese is just beginning to turn brown in spots – the time varies based on the amount of leftover pasta and cheese.

Transform leftover steak Cut the steak into small pieces, add a few cans of kidney beans, several big dashes of chili powder, a can of diced tomatoes, and a can of tomato juice. Simmer for an hour or two and you have an excellent hearty chili.

Transform leftover meatloaf or hamburgers Cube the meatloaf, then add a can of tomato sauce, some oregano and basil, and let it simmer. Boil some pasta and you have a very easy pasta meal. Of course, this only works for standard meatloaf – if you vary the meatloaf too much, this may make for a very odd dish.

Transform leftover beef stew Drain off most of the liquid, then grind the remaining meat and vegetables in a food processor. Then, scramble that leftover stew meat and vegetables with eggs to make a very tasty scrambled egg dish. This is also a very effective way to use leftover chili.

Transform leftover ham This can be invaluable at Christmas, when many families cook up a ham but don’t know what to do with the leftovers. Simply chop the ham into small bite-sized pieces and put them in a large pot. Add several chopped potatoes and several cups of green beans, several cups of water, and salt and pepper to taste, and let this mixture simmer for an hour or two. It’s a delicious and very simple soup.

Transform leftover rice Mix leftover rice with pancake batter. This not only will expand the volume of the pancake batter, but it’ll also create a distinctive flavor for the pancakes. With rice in the pancakes, I like to use jelly rather than syrup for flavoring.

What’s the key lesson here? Look at leftovers as merely an ingredient for a completely different meal. If you keep that in mind and utilize the internet’s food resources and your own creativity, you’ll be shocked at how many useful ways you can find to use your leftovers.

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  1. Kevin WIlson says:

    Wow. I’m a hardcore leftover user (we hardly throw away any food in this house) and there are some great ideas in this post. Printed out for use in the kitchen!

    I often make leftovers deliberately, so they can make future quick meals. Cooked pasta (pasta salad), cooked rice (fried rice, casseroles, pie crusts) and baked potatoes (hash browns, potato cakes) are all very useful things to have in the fridge.

    Leftover vegetables make great additions to a meatloaf or casserole. Leftover chickpeas make hummus.

    Sometimes the second go-round using up the leftovers is better than the original meal!

    Thanks for the tips!


  2. Jennifer says:

    Some of these sound good, but I guess I am the minority, I love leftovers and I cook specifically for leftovers. That’s how we manage to eat home-cooked meals every day. My husband and I have very different work schedules and there are several nights a week we are not able to eat together and we each take our lunches every day to work. On my day off I typically make 2 or 3 meals and portion out leftovers in individual containers and stick in the fridge. They’re ready to stick in a lunch bag or heat up for dinner. It is easier and healthier than stopping off for fast food. I guess I never really understood the aversion to leftovers, It’s practically all we eat. I get no complaints from my husband and my lunches are the envy of the office every day.

  3. Stacy says:

    “Transform leftover mashed potatoes”

    Trent! How could you…and so close to the holiday!?!

    You can *also* use those mashed potatoes for latkes! Which are delicious any day of the year, especially for breakfast. ;>

    I put a little minced onion/green onion in mine for extra flavor.

  4. Beth says:

    Although I am older than most here and have never been deeply in debt, I enjoy this blog and read it everyday. There are some good ideas here. I definitely agree with Jennifer. My Mom always called leftovers “planned overs” and the women in our family are known for being excellent cooks. Like Jennifer, my daily lunches are the envy of my office coworkers. When my shy kids were in elementary school, they were actually embarrassed because all the others at the table who had to eat the cafeteria food or those horrible processed lunchable things would wait to see what they had in their lunchboxes, and the teachers would even ask for recipes. Maybe an attitude of gratitude for homecooked dishes and our country’s abundance of food makes the difference. Throwing out good food that is merely leftover is a ridiculous waste of resources and money. If leftovers are a problem, you can always cook smaller amounts to begin with. Having parts of meals already cooked when I create the next meal is a big timesaver.

  5. finance girl says:

    Another way to maximize leftovers is to buy a vacuum sealer. Very very little food goes to waste in our house because we simply vacuum seal whatever we aren’t going to get around to eating in the near future.

    Plus, because the food is vacuum sealed, it takes up less volume in your freezer, thus optimizing freezer space and allowing for more frozen batches of food.

    Complementary to that is being able to have options in your freezer when you don’t have the time/inclination to cook something from scratch.

  6. joan says:

    Great ideas. I agree with finance girl – I love my vacuum sealer. I found Costco sells the buys and in many cases the bags can be re-used. I bring all this up b/c my family (despite my attempts) isn’t big on leftovers. Therefore I freeze leftovers and incorporate them in something else a week or two later.

  7. Robin Crickman says:

    I also like to make large batches just to have
    leftovers. I often use chicken, steak or ham
    in a chef’s salad for next day lunch.

    Extra mashed potatoes are great as potato soup.
    Just put the potatoes, some chicken broth and
    a bit of chopped onion in a pot and heat, Add
    as much water or milk as desired. I like to
    add a little bacon or bacon fat, but it isn’t
    really healthy.

    Extra steak (extra steak?) is very tasty when
    baked with a yorkshire pudding batter to become
    a version of toad in a hole.

  8. DebtKid says:

    mmmm…leftover potroast is one of my favorite things! Especially potroast sandwitches!

  9. liv says:

    Haha, I actually like leftovers, but the mashed potatoes one was insightful.

  10. anna says:

    Leftover rice means the next day’s fried rice! Make it with some of that leftover diced ham (diced and frozen).

    You don’t need to cut up the spaghetti smaller. Mix in cheddar cheese, a couple beaten eggs and condensed milk before baking. Then you can cut it up into squares.

    I really like your pot roast patties idea :)

  11. na0 says:

    these are all excellent ideas!
    this is gonna come in handy right now because i just looked at how much i have already spent on food this week, and it was a bit over budget and the month isn’t even over yet. :(

  12. I also love leftovers and some foods are tastier as leftovers IMHO.

    For leftover rice, I found this wonderful recipe for making rice pudding with leftover rice: http://www.slashfood.com/2006/09/10/rice-pudding-with-leftover-rice/. This pudding is delicious!

  13. Holly Hansen says:

    I’m with you Jennifer…I cook big batches and eat primarily leftovers and my lunches are the envy of my coworkers as well!

    My leftover pot roast becomes both a pot of soup and burritos! I take a good chunk of it and chop it into cubes, and it becomes beef and barley soup. The rest gets cut and shredded, then warmed up with a can of black bean and corn salsa (I use newman’s own, insert your favorite) and use this meat with some seasoned rice (or rice and beans) to make burritos. Yummy!

    Ham leftovers are also goes great in a casserole with cheese and potatoes and veggies. Or in a quiche. And don’t get me started with the myriad of ways you can use leftover chicken or turkey!

  14. D.B. says:

    I love your leftover ideas. Here are some from my family:

    1)Chicken soup – I use the leftover chicken or turkey carcass or bones to make homemade broth, which I freeze in batches. I combine broth with cut up veggies to cook, and then add leftover chicken. I throw in leftover rice or pasta if available.

    2)Meatloaf – I use cut-up leftover meatloaf on cold sandwiches. I like ketchup and mayo spread on the bread, or barbecue sauce for a different flavor.

    2)Leftover pasta – I use leftover pasta without sauce to mix with egg (or egg substitute) and make omelettes. I like to eat this as a one-dish frittata meal. I usually saute some onions, peppers, or other veggies first and then put in the egg and pasta mixture. I sprinkle parmesean cheese over it at the end, but you could use any cheese you like or omit the cheese.

    3)Leftover chicken or turkey: I make a sauce with sauteed onions and mushrooms in butter, white wine, water to thin, and one can of low-salt, low-fat condensed mushroom soup. I throw in the leftover chicken meat and about half-cup or 3/4 cup of frozen peas. This gets served over pasta or egg noodles. It could also fill a tortilla wrap as a hot sandwich.


  15. Leftover Chicken Carcass: boil in pot of water and make chicken soup. There’s really nothing left on the carcass after this.

  16. bay says:

    I’m horribly uncreative with leftovers. My husband normally eats them for lunches, but sometimes there are just too much and I never feel inspired to make another meal out of them. Good post :) The rice in pancakes is particularly interesting.

  17. Mrs. P says:

    I used leftover spaghetti sauce this week to make sloppy joes and my kids loved it! I browned ground beef and stirred it together with the sauce and spooned over hamburger buns. I did not have to dream up another pasta dish or freeze a small amount of sauce not really adequate to feed the family again.

  18. Anastasia says:

    I like to use my left over mashed potatoes to make potato soup. Chop up part of an onion and saute in butter or olive oil. Add a cup or so of mashed potatoes. Thin the potatoes to a soup-like consistency with milk or chicken broth (or a combination of both). Top with just about anything: cheese and bacon bits, left over chicken or ham, etc.

    Left over rice is the best kind of rice for fried rice. Stir fry whatever veggies and/or meat you have in the house. Add the rice. Season with salt, pepper, and soy sauce. Instant fried rice :) If you want to get fancy, scramble an egg and add that too.

  19. Amateur says:

    Cooking around tomorrow’s lunchbag makes the most sense, so it’s not like you’re bringing leftover slop to work and depriving yourself in order to save money. Those are nice ideas, Trent.

  20. Jillian says:

    I love leftovers too. There’s almost nothing that doesn’t taste better the next day reheated on toast with melted cheese. Sushi rolls are a great way to use up leftover cooked rice, meat and avocado halves too.

  21. Claire says:

    Yep, leftover foods sometimes produce the best dishes. For example, did you know that pizza was traditionally made from leftovers as is fried rice? And those are some of the more popular foods we eat in America today.

  22. steve says:

    You can also use cooked, pureed beans as a filler in all kinds of recipes.

    Last night I made soup from stock (itself made from a rotisserie chicken carcass), spices, leftover tomato sauce, mashed lima beans from earlier this week (they look like mashed potatoes!) , garlic, celery, onion, and carrots and spices. I blended it all up and simmered it for a while and it is enough soup to last 3 days with the last half loaf of bread in the house.

  23. Tom says:

    Basically, I used to turn anything leftover into a curry.
    The great thing is, you have another few days of meals.

  24. Joe G says:

    A Sicilian friend of mine whose father owned a restaurnat taught me this neat trick for left over pasta and sauce. I make meat sauce with penne or pesto with bowtie pasta and this idea works great for both: take a few tablespoons of olive oil and start to pan fry the pasta with sauce. After about 5 minutes, add a few tablespoons of breadcrumbs and equal parts shredded parmesan cheese. Mix it all together and add more olive oil to keep it from getting too dry as the breadcrumbs will soak up the original oil. When the mixture gets to be just past golden brown, you’re done!
    I make a lot of pasta just so I can do this to the leftovers. I think I like it better this way than when I first cook it.

  25. Brigitte says:

    I make Chili, and on a different day stuffed peppers (with ground beef, tomatoes, and cilantro) with a side of red beans and rice (or just RB&R one a different day). Then layer all three, rice on bottom and chili on top, put pepperjack and cheddar cheese between layers and on top, and bake until the cheese browns. Impossible to have leftovers after that, it’s just too darn good.

  26. SS says:

    Hi Trent,
    I am hungry now. I am going to cook. Well, lets
    see. I love meat loaf. Mine is very simple. This
    is my meatloaf recipe. I have a few that my mom
    handed down to me.
    1. meatloaf. Ground beef, 1 egg per meatloaf,
    bread crumbs, real or boxed, mixed vegetables,
    I use frozen. But I plan to make my own garden soon.
    Mix put in loaf pan 350. I put ketchup on top and it cooks and cooks. It is soo good!!! Sometimes
    I substitute the ketchup for gravy. Great leftovers… How about this one…. Everyone thinks this one is different thought. I like it.
    2. Tuna Enchiladas. Refreshing. Buy packet
    of Enchilada sauce like Lawrys, mix it in large
    pan with water follow directions. As it simmers
    put corn tortillas and baste and then put in pan
    and put tuna in them roll up and top with White
    cheese. When you are ready to serve put fresh lettuce on them. Just try it. Yummmm!!!!!! I have
    some others.Anyway, I get the just. I see what
    your saying. With these two I mentioned I could make meatloaf sandwich on hoggie bread with parmesan cheese . I can use the tuna for sandwiches and the torillas for anything like my own tortilla chips. Just bake them after you cut
    into triangles. I put a little salt. Good ideas.

  27. We love spaghetti soup. I use leftover pasta and sauce mixed with a can of tomatoes. It is delicious!
    I grew up in a home where it was positively sinful to waste food. It’s also good to remember if you don’t have enough leftovers to make a meal for the family, you at least have a meal for one! I also am very daring with the use of leftovers in salads. ANYTHING tastes good in a salad, including that little spoonful of leftover potatoe or green bean casserole.
    LOVE these ideas!

  28. I’ve been learning to transform my leftovers ever since I embarked on this reduce-my-food-waste journey.

    Tammy, I too use up a lot of stuff in salads. I know a number of people make leftover soup, but I make leftover salad! lol

  29. dougis says:

    I love the rice in the pancakes idea! I do have one question though, how exactly do I end up with leftover steak? (between my wife, the girls and I there never seems to be any left) :-)

  30. Momma says:

    We do a lot of bulk cooking, so I guess you could say we have a lot of leftovers on purpose! Everything from super spaghetti to burritos to our own snack mix… if you’re interested in the recipes, you can see them at http://www.engineeradebtfreelife.com/search/label/bulk%20cooking

    Feature blogger at Engineer a Debt Free Life

  31. Kevin says:

    I cooked a whole chicken in the crock pot last Sunday. Not only did we eat it for dinner that evening, I was also able to do the following with the leftovers:

    -2 days worth of chicken salad for lunch at work
    -1 wrap for lunch
    -BBQ chicken pizza (my favorite) on homemade crust with red onions, cheddar cheese & BBQ sauce
    -quesadillas for dinner another night

    Not bad for a $5 chicken!

  32. Naomi says:

    There’s a great book about this (order it from the library, obviously ;-)). A year’s worth of recipes with planned leftovers so that you use up every scrap: http://www.thekitchenrevolution.co.uk/

    I am in no way involved with writing or publishing this book, I’ve just really loved reading it and putting some of its ideas into practice.

  33. T. Kelley says:

    When I have leftover spaghetti noodles, I will heat about 1/4 inch oil in a frying pan and fry the noodles up for chow mein type noodles. You can’t put a lot in the pan at once or you end up with a gloppy mess – but cook them one layer at a time (it looks like messy string art!). When they are golden brown, remove them, let them cool and break them apart. My family likes them better than purchased chow mein noodles!

  34. BirdDog says:

    These are the posts that I love! Although the thought of the beef stew/scrambled egg dish makes me queasy. I have found that buying quart size freezer bags and freezing leftovers is the best thing for me to do. I hate to eat the same thing two days in a row but by freezing it helps to vary them up. Plus, it is so convenient when I have to work late.

  35. Kate says:

    Your transformation of beef stew made me think of my grandmother–she had an old fashioned food grinder that she would use to make “hash”. Yum!
    With leftover ham, I freeze small bags and add to dried beans, eggs, quiche, etc. all year long. It doesn’t take long to thaw them–with beans I just throw the ham into the crock pot frozen.
    If you have dogs–don’t forget them. I use leftover broth, grease, vegetable and meat scraps, etc. when I make rice for them–gives it flavor and stretches their dry dog food. Some people say not to feed dogs “table food” but mine seem to live healthily for a long time so it must not be hurting them.

  36. UrbanMom says:

    I love leftovers, eating them plain or making things with them. Unfortunately, with teenagers, there are seldom any leftover! :)

  37. Georgia says:

    I also love using mashed potatoes to just make potato pancakes as a side for our next meal. I conglomerate a lot. My favorite recipe for almost any leftover meat – 1 box stuffing mix, 1 finely chopped onion, 1 thinly sliced celery stalk, 1/2 cup sliced mushrooms, 1/2 cup sliced water chestnuts, 1 cup grated carrot, and 2 cups of whatever leftover meat we had. As you are sauteing the liquid for the stuffing, add everything in the recipe but the bread mix. May have to add a bit more liquid to fully fix the stuffing dinner. You could also add 1/2 cup of peas, or corn. Some or all of these could be from leftovers in your fridge. All I did was to add a dish of fruit and we had a full meal.

    I take leftover chicken (especially fried) & put it in the crock pot with a can of mushroom soup and 1/2 can or so of water. Let it simmer for hours and it becomes a different, tasty treat.

    Now that I am alone, I use my X101 a lot. It has wells just the size that I can eat in one sitting and it uses all kinds of leftovers if you are adventurous. I use eggs a lot with leftovers. I’d better close. It is lunchtime and I have about 5 different leftovers in the fridge-barbecues pork, BBQ beef, stir fried chicken, and ham & beans.

    Also, since I am alone, I will buy leftovers from the deli of our local grocer. They put out their leftovers in 20 oz cups for $1-1.98. They are often enough for 2 meals for me and they are new to me. See – you can eat well even when you are too lazy to cook.

  38. Saver Queen says:

    I couldn’t agree more, and right now I am challenging myself to eat up what is in our fridge, pantry and freezer before we move. I can’t believe what I’ve been able to make with so little!

  39. Sharon says:

    Don’t forget quiche for leftover ham!

  40. Battra92 says:

    I love rice. Seriously, give me a good Jasmine or Japanese rice and I am content. Even the next day it’s good.

  41. Carrie says:

    We make a pot pie with our leftovers from pot roast. Chop up the meat, carrots, celery, potatos, and onions and stir it up with the gravy. Pour that into a pie plate and top with a ready made pie crust and bake it until the crust is done.

  42. My Asian college roommate taught me that fried rice is the Asian leftover dish. You can put just about *any* combo of veggies, rice, and protein together to make a decent fried rice.

  43. Kathryn says:

    My husband and I both eat leftovers for lunch every day, but sometimes we wind up with small amounts of leftovers that aren’t enough for a full lunch (little containers of rice or vegetables, the last wing from a roast chicken, etc.) Or my 13-yo will pick out the meat from leftover stirfry or curry and leave all the veggies!

    Sometimes if there are enough of these things piling up I’ll make “garbage soup,” which is mixed vegetables, legumes, rice, bits of pasta, chopped up bits of meat, cubed baked potatoes–bound together and seasoned by a jar of spaghetti sauce (and a pound of browned ground turkey/beef if there’s few or no proteiny leftovers) and cooked for at least a couple of hours, or all day in the crockpot on low.

    Spaghetti sauce really does make a fantastic soup base that weds everything together.

  44. Laura says:

    Ugh…I hate leftovers!
    I do use leftover rice and veggies to make fried rice though. In my (asian) family, we also use leftover veggies and/or meat to add to ramen soups. Makes a delicious and easy lunch and you can practically add anything to it.

  45. spandox says:

    rice, sweet or plain bread, donuts leftovers…
    Baked Pudding: mix cream, eggs, sugar, and vanilla extract. Proportions vary to taste. Mix with bread or rice…bake in a shallow pan. I serve the bread pudding with a caramel or maple syrup sauce.

  46. ggarcia says:

    the best thing for left overs is a slow cooker… shove stuff in, and let the magic happen…. oh, and don’t forget the hot sauce

  47. Craig says:

    I have been utilizing leftovers more to save money on food shopping. One thing I do is cook up a lot of chicken one night. Have half of it for one meal and save the rest. Then the next day I cut the chicken breasts into strips and put them into a salad or pasta as a completely new meal.

  48. Sarah says:

    My dad believed anything could be added to scrambled eggs the next morning. A good friend of mine doubted this until he experienced the jambalaya omelet.

  49. john_anthony says:

    who doesn’t eat leftovers?…

  50. Jodi says:

    Wow, leftovers are a problem!? Who knew. I had always thought that they were an excellent way to avoid cooking three times a day. I have never thought that leftover spaghetti, ham, mashed potatoes, or anything else was an abomination to be blithely discarded, or that needed to be transformed into something else to be edible. Save time and money…just put the leftovers in something and heat them up for lunch the next day!

  51. I LOVE leftovers!!!! As others commented, leftovers can be served the next day,or so, in its original form, or transformed into a totally new dish. I make ghocchi from my leftover mashed potatoes, by adding some flour, egg, and cottage cheese. It is quick, and my family loves it.

  52. deRuiter says:

    Potato cakes: Mix leftover mashed potatoes, an egg, salt, pepper, some bread crumbs and form into small patties. Saute in butter or olive oil until brown and crunchy outside, delicious! Left over meatloaf sanwiches with lettuce and mayo or barbecue sauce. Turkey or chicken carcase soup, end of the roast soup from the bones and scraps. Chicken or beef pot pie. “Impossible Pies” made with Bisquick are a grand way to use up extra raw eggs, and odds and ends of meat and veggies, the liquids whirl in the blender, the pie makes its own crust, and it’s a nice fresh main meal. Omlets. Egg scrambles (omlets gone wild!) Ham salad made with grinder or food processor, add pickle relish, mayo, mustard, a small onion. French toast from stale bread. Bread pudding from stale bread or cake. Pumpkin pie, pumpkin soup or “Impossible Pumpkin Pie” from carving the Halloween Jack O’ Lantern. Home made applesauce from apples which have overstayed their welcome. Banana bread from over the hill bananas. The tiny bit of leftover jelly in the bottom of the jar has some milk poured in and the cap replaced, shake and serve as flavored milk to children. Milk gone sour? Use in pancakes or baking. Odd bits of hard, dried chees and ham scraps make an elegant quiche. Egg shells? Use them to clear your chicken broth, and then strain broth through fine seive. A rather wizzened orange is whirled in the blender, skin and all, with the liquids for pumpking bread and the bread is even tastier and more moist. Or grind the shriveled orange with a package of cranberries, add 1/2 to 3/4 C. sugar for fresh cran-orange relish. Soups and stews generally taste better after a day or two in the refrigerator. I LOVE LEFTOVERS. As a LAST, LAST resort, there’s the chickens or the compost heap. No food is ever thrown away here.

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