Leftovers often are boring and they sometimes go to waste. With a little creativity, however, you might be able to turn food destined for a long stay in the refrigerator followed by a journey to the garbage can into a positively memorable meal. Imaginative use of leftovers saves money, enables you to spend less time in the kitchen and can give you and your family something to eagerly anticipate rather than dread.
The need for such a transformation is widely shared.
"Almost every night is hectic here," said stay-at-home mom Kay Holder of Mableton, Georgia. "Between school, appointments, errands and a 7 p.m. bedtime for my kindergartner, dinner is always rushed."
For Erin Briggs, a homemaker in Seattle, Washington, mealtime is something like continuous. "There is always at least some crunch time where I am dishing up food or juggling hot dishes," she said.
LeAnne Ruzzamenti, director of marketing communications for the Dairy Council of California, has double the challenge.
"I often have twin toddlers clinging to my ankles and wanting my attention when I first come home from work," Ruzzamenti said. "Trying to cook a full meal at that time would be impossible."
For people like Holder, Briggs and Ruzzamenti, leftovers represent more than an afterthought. Stretching one meal into at least two is necessary if they want to preserve their sanity and ensure dinner reaches the table.
"If you are not eating your leftovers, you are wasting money," said Lindsay Siebert, creator of My Family Meal Planners. "Leftovers are great. You can either turn them into another meal or take them as lunch the next day."
If you are not eating your leftovers, you are wasting money.
Lindsay Siebert, creator of My Family Meal Planners
Instead of making just enough meat for one meal, cook more of it, knowing you'll use it later.
Siebert says throwing old steak cuts into a pot filled with 2 quarts of water and 2 cups of any vegetables you have on hand makes a perfect vegetable beef soup. Thicken it with a can of cream of mushroom soup and some gravy mix and you've got a stew.
Middletown, Ohio, daycare worker and mother Jamie Schmidt recommends using the spices you have in the kitchen to your advantage. Salt and pepper start off a well-seasoned meal and — depending on your tastes — you may add garlic, onion powder, thyme or sage, rosemary, oregano — the choices and tastes are endless.
"I can make a soup out of anything," Holder said. "Leftover meatballs make Italian wedding soup; chicken makes chicken-and-rice soup or chicken dumpling soup."
You don't need to shy away from the crock pot just because your meat is pre-cooked. Any of these soup ingredients can be put in the pot in the morning and allowed to cook while you're away for the day.
For quick and easy casseroles, you need only four ingredients: leftover meat, a starch (potatoes, rice or noodles), vegetables (any will work) and spices.
"Cumin is great with pork, oregano is great with chicken, rosemary with lamb," said Alison Mouser, founder of easymealplanner.co.uk. "When I go to a deli, I always buy a tin of Old Bay seasoning. It makes everything it’s added to taste better."
Place 2 parts vegetables with 1 part meat in a casserole dish with enough of a starchy ingredient to cover the bottom of the pan by an inch and cook for a half hour.
For beef and chicken, broth works best as a base liquid. Pork does well in wine or soda. Fish works best in a wine or lemon water mixture.
Grab a grocery dough to make a killer leftover pizza of any kind. Fried chicken can be combined with feta cheese, peppers and olives for a Greek pizza. Schmidt uses leftover pot roast mixed with barbecue sauce for a barbecue ranch pizza. Anything can go on a pizza. Holder even makes a breakfast pizza, using leftover sausage and scrambled eggs.
Once you've stretched the dough and placed your toppings, just slide it into the oven — heated to 375 degrees — and leave it for 20 minutes.
"I once used leftover burritos for pizza," Schmidt said. "I used the meat with cheddar and mozzarella cheese, the sauce was a mix of soft cream cheese and salsa."
And if you don't have dough readily available, that's no obstacle, according to Holder.
"A little chicken and a few fresh veggies thrown on a flour tortilla makes an awesome, quick, thin-crust pizza," Holder said. These take much less time to cook, too. Leave them in the over for five to eight minutes.
Sandwiches are the tried-and-true leftover savior. From Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches to French dips made from pot roasts, almost any meal can be condensed and placed between slices of bread for a sandwich. But even in tradition there is variation. Try an open-faced, hot sandwich for a more satisfying meal, Ruzzamenti advises.
Mouser recommends make-your-own wraps.
"Wraps are great for children and teenagers," she said. "Who doesn’t like an excuse to eat with your fingers, whatever your age? Just reheat the meat, add a sachet of ready-made seasoning, and then put dishes on the table with the meat, chopped salad, vegetables, grated cheese, a pot of sour cream, a jar of salsa and a pile of tortillas and let everyone make their own wrap, just how they like it."
When to Toss It
It's easy to forget about the remains of last night's dinner when it is placed at the back of the refrigerator. Any meat or vegetable can go bad, even cooked and stored in cool temperatures, so if the days number too many since that first meal, it's time to throw them out.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture makes the following recommendations concerning the disposal or retention of prepared foods:
Discard any food left out at room temperature for more than two hours. Throw out food exposed to an air temperature exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit after one hour.
Store cooked foods in shallow containers and refrigerate or freeze them immediately.
Use cooked leftovers within four days. Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
"Cook or freeze fresh poultry, fish, ground meats, and variety meats within 2 days," the Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends on its website. It advises cooking other beef, veal, lamb or pork products within three to five days.
- Michael Powell/Photolibrary/Getty Images