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Maximizing Leftovers: How to Make the Most of Your Meals

There are two kinds of people in the world, you either love leftovers or you hate eating the same thing twice. At my house, we’re in the first camp. We plan for leftovers so my husband can take them for lunch the next day, but we also prepare extra dinner staples like rice, beans, and meat. Making extra means we can make new dishes later in the week without much prep.
However you feel about leftovers, the worst thing that can happen is they get pushed to the back of the fridge to rot and then get thrown out. You already purchased and prepared these foods, so don’t let that money and effort go to waste!

I have three strategies that will help you manage leftovers for both your day-to-day cooking and during the upcoming holiday season.

Two people smile at one another while cooking and chopping tomatoes in a kitchen

1) Transform last night’s leftovers into a new meal.

This is similar to the “Cook Once, Eat All Week” idea, where you prepare different main recipe options and create a new meal each night. Or you may not be planning for leftovers and still end up with too much food. This situation calls for ingenuity to transform last night’s meal into something new tonight. Here are some ideas to help with that:

  • Rice + veggies + eggs = fried rice
  • Roast chicken leftovers = chicken salad
  • Turn soup into a casserole
  • Turn leftovers into tacos or burritos
  • Make a pizza
  • Whip up a frittata or quiche
  • Combine veggies, starch, and protein for a hash

2) Once a week, clear the fridge of leftovers and have a buffet-style meal.

Create a smorgasbord of leftovers for everyone to pick and choose from! You could combine some items to create a main dish and have everything else be small sides, or it can just be a free-for-all buffet. You can also accommodate different combinations by having tortillas or salad greens available. One person can turn their leftovers into a burrito and another can have a salad. This is a great way to use up leftovers and also have a home cooked meal without cooking!

3) Freeze leftovers.

Rather than let leftovers sit in the fridge all week, transfer them into airtight containers and pop them in the freezer the night you make the meal. I like to freeze leftovers in smaller containers, so I’m not thawing a huge batch of soup or curry for only two people. I use a dry-erase marker to label what’s in the container and the day I made the recipe, so I can use a first in, first out principle.

You can also keep track of your frozen leftovers in Plan to Eat! Simply add a recipe to the freezer retroactively and input the number of meals and servings you’re freezing. Plan to Eat will keep track of the date you froze that recipe and how much you have left.

If I’ve had a week that was unintentionally heavy on leftovers, I challenge myself to use up as much of what we have as possible before heading to the grocery store again. Sometimes our meals are funky and non-traditional, but often we end up with combinations that are surprising and delightful.

I’d like to challenge you to do the same! The average American household throws away $1,600 worth of produce each year, so there’s a gap between what we’re buying and how much we’re eating. Of course, creating a meal plan can help with that, but effectively managing leftovers will spread your dollars even further. Whether you love leftovers or despise the idea of eating the same meal twice, I hope these strategies help you get the most out of your home-cooked meals!

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