What to Do with Leftovers? Tips for Budget Living

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We can save much money if we don’t let food go to waste. But what to do with leftovers? Check out these guidelines for what to do with last night’s dinner.

What to Do with Leftovers? Tips for Budget Living | Life as Mom

Thursday Night Soup

“Waste not, want not.” That’s what our grandmothers used to say. It’s the basic premise that if you use up what you have, you won’t find yourself in need.

While I am not sure that one exactly follows the other, it is true that avoiding waste is good stewardship and will save you money, both of which help you stay out of debt and build wealth.

There are lots of ways to avoid waste, particularly if you’re practiced at recycling and repurposing items that might otherwise hit the dumpster. Avoiding food waste is a huge opportunity to save money and exercise good stewardship.

They say that Americans throw away between 25 and 40 percent of the food they buy. I’m not sure how accurate those statistics are or what parameters they considered in their studies, but I do know that using up leftovers is a great way to conserve money as well as natural resources.

If your family can consume extra meal items before they go bad, you will avoid throwing money away. It’s that simple.

But, what to do with leftovers especially if your family doesn’t like the sound of leftovers?

What to Do with Leftovers?

Here are some guidelines for what to do with leftovers from last night’s dinner:

The food must be fresh.

Back in my food service/catering/restaurant days, the rule of thumb was three days.  The USDA has stated that leftovers properly stored are good up to 4 days. What to do with leftovers after that point? Chuck it.

Using up leftovers that are too far gone is not worth food poisoning, so be sure not to push your luck too far. If you don’t remember how old it is, then chuck it. As they say, when in doubt, throw it out.

Having a meal plan on your frig will help you remember. A quick glance at the calendar will remind you when you prepared a certain item.

If you don’t have such a record, keep a sharpie pen in your kitchen and mark the date when you wrap up leftovers. Clean your fridge out every four days and you’ll be in good shape.

Serve it again within 4 days.

The most obvious thing to do with leftovers is simply to serve it again later in the week. You’ve got a four day window to use it up. What you lack in variety, you’ll make up for in money saved.

I love these glass dishes with plastic lids for packaging leftovers.

What to Do with Leftovers? Tips for Budget Living | Life as Mom

Pack lunches with leftovers.

Packing lunches is a quick and easy way to use up leftovers. I often do this “on purpose” making extra dinner so that I know we’ll have extra for lunches.

Take your lunch-packing skills up a notch by packaging up the leftovers at the same time as serving dinner. Your lunches can cool while you eat and then you can load everything in the fridge at clean up time.

Here are my favorite containers for packing lunches:

Make some freezer meals.

The easiest way to get into freezer cooking is to double dinner. Leftovers are basically that, a second batch. There’s no reason you need to eat the same thing twice this week. Freeze it!

Package up meal-size portions, wrap well for freezing, chill completely and pop them into cold storage. Some night next month, your future self will thank you.

Make something new with what’s left.

If eating the same thing twice in a week isn’t in the card, then transform your leftovers into something new. I’m not talking about Mystery Meat or Hamburger Surprise. Lots of delicious meals can be made from a previous meal.

  • Leftover veggies and meats can be incorporated into casseroles, quiches, soups, and stews.
  • Leftover roast chicken or beef make a fantastic fillings for tacos, burritos, or quesadillas.
  • Leftover rice and chicken or pork go great in fried rice.
  • Grilled chicken and roasted veggies will top a pizza or fill a sandwich beautifully.
  • Blend fruit salad into a smoothie, leftover veggies into a pasta sauce.
  • Tonight’s taco meat can go into tomorrow’s chili or spaghetti sauce.

The options are virtually endless! Think through what your family likes to eat and chances are you can find a way to make last night’s dinner new again.

For more inspiration, check out:

Don’t wrinkle your nose at extra food! We live in an amazing time when we have refrigeration and extra. It’s really such a blessing. The trick is simply in knowing what to do with leftovers.

Using up leftover cooked food (instead of throwing it out) is a great way to save money and exercise good stewardship.

What do YOU do with leftovers?

This post was originally published on January 16, 2009. Updated February 12, 2018.

What to Do with Leftovers? Tips for Budget Living | Life as Mom

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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  1. Shari says

    Great ideas–thanks!

  2. JessieLeigh says

    I almost always plan my meals based on what I know will be leftover, reusing the foods in new ways. I do occasionally hit a speed-bump when my family eats more than I expected though!

  3. Erin says

    These are some great ideas for leftovers! I like the Grilled chicken and roasted veggies for pizza. One thing that me and my husband do alot is we always make single size portions of the leftovers and freeze them in small containers. My husband can then just pop one in his backpack (he’s still in school) and by the time it has thawed out it is lunch time and he can just pop it in a microwave at school for a minute or two and he has a cheap, healthy, fast lunch.

    Another thing we do alot is with leftover white rice we turn it into sweet rice in the morning. We just put cold rice in a bowl and pour a little milk over the top and then add some sugar or I really like it with cinnamon and sugar. Its a great way to get rid of your rice, my kids LOVE it!


  4. Mrs. Pear says

    Okay, this is too funny, I just blogged about wanting to do a better job using up leftovers and generally cutting back on waste in the kitchen!

    THanks for the refresher of ideas and thoughts!

  5. keeperofthehome says

    Oh gosh, that picture is just too funny! I love that big hunk of meat just staring at me through the question mark, LOL!

  6. Whitney says

    Could you share a link to your glass containers? I need to buy some for more food prep and yours look like the perfect size. Thanks!

  7. Alice E says

    We usually just eat them the next day, thankfully my husband doesn’t object to leftovers. (grin) But I do remember a suggestion from a book/cookbook on eating cheap that said to always add something new the second time around. Some things it works better with than others, but it does help.

    My favorite trick is one I learned from my mother. She would heat some milk in a small saucepan and then add a leftover baked potato to the milk cut into chunks or slices. Then she would take the potato masher and squash it up, add a pat of butter and eat her ‘soup’. It is quite tasty, although I usually also add some onion powder. It made a simple one serving soup when she needed something to eat when taking her medicine.

    I sometimes freeze single servings for quick meals when I’m home alone. And sometimes I keep leftover veg and meat in a separate larger freezer container and add as time goes by until I have enough for ‘Heloise’ soup. I just heat some broth and add the contents and season to taste. It is never the same but always good.

  8. Belinda says

    I’ll either freeze leftovers, if it’s something freezable, or we have one night a week where it’s “eat whatever’s in the fridge night”. We can usually feed four of us with bits and bobs of leftovers, with some cheese and salad or a boiled egg added to fill plates if necessary. It can be quite fun, because no two plates are ever exactly the same, based on the quantities of each leftover item 😉

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