Eight Strategies We Use for Making Leftovers Great (and Saving Lots of Money in the Process)

Leftovers. You make a meal, your family eats it, and some of it is left behind. Quite often, it’s not nearly as good the second time around, but throwing it away seems wasteful as well. Maybe you just eat a substandard lunch the next day, or perhaps you stuff it in the fridge and forget about it until it’s scary and needs to be tossed.

None of those outcomes are really appealing, are they? Leftovers are kind of the poster child of “depressing frugality,” as it’s a way that people choose something inherently less appealing in order to save a few bucks.

My perspective is a little different. For me, leftovers are a way to save money, sure, but they don’t have to be less appealing or “depressing.” If you use just a bit of advance planning, leftovers turn out to be really good – often as good or better than the original meal.

Here are some of the strategies I use to get a ton of value out of leftovers.

We often intentionally choose meals that make good leftovers.

Chili. Lasagna. Homemade pizza. Shepherd’s pie. Baked mac and cheese. Skillet ragu. Vegetable (or beef) barley soup. All of those are dishes that I prefer when they’re reheated. I love cold pizza, for instance, and I can also reheat it in a skillet with a pinch of water to make the crust really crispy. Reheated chili is just amazing. A big slab of reheated lasagna features flavor melding in a way that just surpasses the original.

Writing that paragraph made me want to intentionally eat some leftovers.

So, during our meal planning, we make it a point to feature leftover-friendly meals. That way, we’re not disappointed to find some leftover baked mac and cheese in the fridge, for example.

We lightly season our side vegetables until they’re on our plate.

Most of the time, we simply steam vegetables to serve as a side dish. We serve them largely plain to our family, then personally season them on the table with additional salt and pepper or with a sauce of some kind.

That way, the leftover vegetables are completely unseasoned and are thus very flexible with whatever you might want to do. You can season them differently for future uses.

Trust me, this is important, and it’s heavily connected to another tip on this list.

We avoid using the microwave for leftovers.

I genuinely believe that the microwave oven is a big reason for the bad reputation for leftovers. Aside from soups, microwaves generally do a disastrous job on leftover foods, breaking down their texture and leaving them mushy.

That’s why I rarely use the microwave for leftovers.

If I have a leftover casserole, like a lasagna, I’ll reheat all of it in the oven. If I have leftover pizza that I want to heat, I’ll reheat it in a covered skillet with a few drops of water in it (this makes the crust wonderful). If I have a leftover skillet meal, I’ll heat it again in a skillet.

You’d be surprised how much better leftovers can be if you keep them out of the microwave oven.

cooking leftovers in skillet

Leftovers reheated on the stove or in the oven taste way better than microwaved mush.

We use lots of additional flavorings.

We regularly have a “leftover buffet” night where we simply take all of the leftovers out of the fridge, heat them up, and serve them as a buffet line for supper. I’ll be the first to admit that not everything on that “leftover buffet” is mouth watering, but what you’ll find on that buffet are some foods that are really good “leftover” foods and other foods that can be jazzed up with condiments and spices.

So, we make sure to put out plenty of condiments and seasonings on our family “leftover buffet.” We put a pepper grinder, a salt shaker, a bottle of ketchup, a bottle of mustard, and some sriracha sauce out for everyone to use.

Condiments and seasonings can really go a long way toward improving the flavor of leftovers, taking something fairly bland and making it quite delicious.

We add a little bit of water when reheating things.

No matter what method we use to reheat something, we add a little bit of water during the reheating process (unless it’s soup, of course).

If we reheat something in the microwave, we’ll put a damp paper towel in the microwave along with the food, which adds moisture to the environment and keeps the food from drying out. If we reheat something in a skillet, we’ll add a few drops of water to the skillet before we add the food. If we reheat something in the oven, we’ll put just a bit of water on the baking tray before we add the food.

This just strictly improves the texture of almost anything you might reheat. It makes the texture of the food much more palatable, without the weird overly dry parts.

We turn leftover pasta into a casserole.

Whenever we have leftover pasta, we avoid putting it in the microwave or even onto the stovetop. Instead, we find an appropriate baking pan – an 8″ by 8″ or a 9″ by 13″ depending on how much we have. We’ll put a bit of olive oil in it to avoid sticking, put the leftovers into the pan and spread them out, and then add just a little bit of water. We’ll also usually put a little bit of cheese on top and then put aluminum foil on top of the pan and bake it at 350 F for, say, 15 or 20 minutes until everything is warm.

Almost every pasta turns into a pretty solid casserole this way. In fact, because we know we’re making this “leftover pasta casserole,” we’ll often make a fairly large batch of pasta when we’re originally cooking the pasta.

We use leftover breads and tortillas in the skillet.

Whenever we have some extra bread or extra tortillas, we turn them into sandwiches or quesadillas. However, the bread/tortillas are often dry and a bit old, so we get around that by putting a bit of olive oil or butter on the outside of them, putting some fillings inside of them – cheese, leftover sauteed onions, tomatoes, whatever – and then cooking them in a skillet with a nice pinch of water until each side is gently browned.

This can easily transform bread that’s getting close to being tossed into a pretty tasty lunch. The olive oil or butter plus the water turns the overly hard bread into something that’s nicely crispy and the fillings make the whole thing delicious.

We use leftovers to make stock.

Whenever we have unseasoned vegetables or meat scraps (such as beef bones or chicken bones), we save them in a gallon bag in the freezer. When that bag fills up, we’ll dump the bag’s contents into our slow cooker, fill it most of the way with water, and add some appropriate seasonings – usually a handful of peppercorns, some salt, and a few other odds and ends.

Then, we just let it cook all day on low. In the evening, we strain the contents of the slow cooker, saving the liquid, and we put that liquid in the freezer in quart-sized containers.

That liquid is wonderfully useful as the basis for future soups and casseroles. Whenever we make a soup and we have stock in the freezer, we use that stock as part of – or all of – the liquid for the soup. It adds an incredible amount of flavor and character to the soup.

To me, you’re hitting a frugal home run when you use stock made from leftover vegetables to make, say, a vegetable barley soup, which itself makes for tremendous leftovers. You’re getting so much value and use out of the food and all of it is delicious!

Final Thoughts

Leftovers might seem like an unappealing option at times, but the truth is that if you make some smart choices and put a little bit of care into your leftovers, they can be as good as or even better than “first run” food.

Considering that leftovers would otherwise be tossed, using leftovers to make a great meal is a great way to trim your food budget.

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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