Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Making the most of leftovers

6/18/2020 by Jessica Lundberg


Growing up I was not a stranger to "Leftover Night", but when I started cooking for myself I began to appreciate the value of leftovers. In fact, I have been known to make myself a roast so I can make hash the next night. Do you need suggestions to mix up your leftover night? Here are some tips and ideas to help you make the most of your leftovers. 

Benefits of repurposing leftovers

  • Food waste: Did you know that according to the Food and Drug Administration 30-40% of food in America is wasted? In fact, ReFED, a non-profit dedicated to preventing food waste, estimates that 40% of that waste occurs in individual households. Learning to utilize the food already in the fridge can prevent wholesome, nutritious food from ending up in the landfill. 
  • Money: How much of your monthly grocery bill goes in the trash or down the garbage disposal? Finding ways to incorporate leftover meats and vegetables into meals can help cut down on food costs. 
  • Time: Many of the suggestions below reuse foods you have already cooked and are quick and simple recipes. Use them to provide a good meal for your family on busy nights, or to limit extra trips to the grocery store. 

Plan ahead to use the leftovers

Using leftovers wisely begins before you even start your weekly meal plan. Set aside one night each week as a "Smorgasbord Night" where you plan to use up what you find in the fridge. If you don't have anything else planned that night, you won't overbuy at the grocery store and you will be motivated to actually use the items in your fridge. If you want to bring leftovers for lunch, keep portion-sized containers that you can fill after dinner for easy grabbing throughout the week. 

Think outside of the recipe box

Oftentimes leftovers are hard to use because there is not enough of anything to follow a recipe. Take a step back and reframe your problem. Rather than trying to follow an exact recipe or pressuring yourself to have a picture perfect dinner, start with the basics. Break your leftovers down into their food groups. What proteins need to be used and will they combine well? Do you have any grains or vegetables that would complement the protein? Once you have these foundations of the meal, you can add in the extras to bring everything together. Look below for some suggestions of easy ways to reimagine proteins, vegetables, and grains. 

Easy meals for leftovers

  • Tortilla pizzas: Use leftover meats, vegetables, and tomato sauce as toppings. 
  • Hash: Sauté leftover potatoes, meat (roast, sausage, steak), and vegetables together in oil. Consider adding ingredients for flavor like garlic or onions. 
  • Omelets: Turn extra pork and vegetables into a delicious meal by adding eggs and cheese.
  • Salad: Do you have fresh produce nearing the end of its shelf life? Throw together a Chef salad. Include hard-boiled eggs, beans, nuts, or chopped meat for protein. 
  • Sandwich: Grilled or cold, sandwiches are a great option for cleaning out the fridge. Consider quesadillas or wraps as another twist on this idea. 
  • Stir-Fry: Combine leftover meat (beef, pork, chicken, shrimp) and vegetables into a quick sauce. See a sample recipe here. Serve over brown rice or noodles. 
  • Baked potato bar: Leftover chili, broccoli, and beans can be used to form a baked potato bar. Think outside the box; try mushrooms, onions, taco meat, chopped ham, and different cheeses. 
  • Soup: The original design to remove the extras from the fridge. Your options are endless. Some suggestions include revamping a casserole into chicken and rice soup, vegetables and hamburger into taco soup, or roast chicken into the classic chicken noodle soup. You can even save scraps from cutting vegetables to make soup base

Know your dates

Keep yourself safe while eating leftovers. Beef and pork stays fresh for 3-4 days in the fridge, while chicken and turkey only lasts 1-2 days. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a chart here for more information. Make sure to heat all food to 165° before serving. 

Jessica Lundberg is a dietetic intern at Mayo Clinic. She graduated from Iowa State with a Bachelor's of Science in Dietetics.