Delicious Ways to Repurpose 12 Types of Leftovers
Written by Sarah Garone on June 30, 2022 — Medically reviewed by Amy Richter, RD, Nutrition
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While clipping coupons and cutting back on high-dollar items are always smart choices for saving green at the supermarket, there’s another way to stretch your grocery dollars: loving on your leftovers.
Though leftovers may not be the most glamorous of foods, using them up can make a significant dent in your weekly food bill.
Believe it or not, repurposing them into new, exciting meals can create surprisingly delicious (not to mention time-saving) finished products.
With food costs on the rise, you’re not alone if you’re focusing on getting the most out of your grocery budget.
Here’s your guide to putting twelve common leftover foods on double-duty for tasty, budget-friendly results.
If you’re looking for more help creating delicious, healthy recipes and meal plans, consider signing up for a meal-planning service like PlateJoy.
Whether white, brown, or wild, rice is one of the most popular grains on the planet. When you find yourself with an extra cup or two, there’s a whole world of options for using it up.
Some ideas are:
arancini (fried rice balls)
If extra white or brown rice is taking up space in your fridge, consider tossing together a vegetable fried rice. It’s an excellent way to pack in colorful veggies in a quick and easy plant-based meal.
This savory edamame fried rice, for example, goes from stovetop to table in just 30 minutes.
Got some extra arborio rice from a risotto? Give it new life as arancini, aka Italian fried rice balls. Check out this tomato-basil version.
If you want to go the sweet route, finish off a meal with a sweet rice pudding, like this four-ingredient recipe featuring coconut milk and agave syrup.
Ground beef, pork, or turkey
Ground meat is a mainstay of mixed dishes like tacos, casseroles, and pastas.
Since they’re often seasoned in an original dish, you may face some unique challenges when attempting to repurpose these meats as leftovers.
Still, all is not lost! Try one of the swaps below.
There’s nothing like a simple hash for a no-brainer breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Toss seasoned, cooked ground meat in a skillet with veggies and beans. You can’t go wrong with sweet potato chunks, black beans, or bell peppers.
Or make it Mediterranean with a hash of ground meat, sun-dried tomatoes, kale, and cannellini beans.
Meanwhile, if you’ve used ground meat in tacos one night, try a different spin on Mexican cuisine later in the week. Spicy ground turkey or beef makes a welcome addition to chilaquiles, flautas, or tostadas.
We’re not done yet!
Curry—or sloppy joes
You can also repurpose ground meats in curry, where spices like cumin, curry powder, and garlic cover—or complement—other seasonings.
Check out these red curry sloppy banh mi sandwiches. They’re a cross between sloppy joes and the classic Vietnamese sammie.
Chicken has dethroned beef as the most-cooked meat in American households.
Since it’s the protein base of so many meals, you may find yourself looking for chicken leftover inspiration more than other ingredients.
Barbecue chicken is an especially versatile contender for top-notch leftovers.
Pizza, wraps, and potato skins
Extras of this type of chicken can top a pizza, fill wraps, or amp up a one-dish meal like chicken and coleslaw potato skins.
Pasta, quesadillas, and sammies
Got chicken of another flavor persuasion? Pop it into a creamy pasta, place it in a quesadilla with melted cheese, or build a gourmet sandwich around it.
Because of its short shelf life, leftover fish is notoriously tough to repurpose.
In the famous words of Benjamin Franklin, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”
Still, if you can reuse cooked fish in a short timeframe, you’ll be well on your way to a second meal rich in vitamin D and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
For starters, just about any fish can serve as the filling of a wrap.
For a quick, high-fiber lunch packed with antioxidants, roll up leftover fish in a whole wheat tortilla with fresh spinach or kale, sliced veggies like bell peppers and cucumbers, and a light dressing of your choice.
Or, if you’ve got a sturdy fish like salmon hanging around, make it a kabob night.
Thread cooked salmon chunks onto skewers along with sauteed slices of asparagus, zucchini, and/or squash, brushed with olive oil. Instant dinner!
Get the full recipe for salmon and asparagus kabobs here.
Hmm…what to do with that little bit of extra veggies? You may wonder if they were even worth saving in the first place.
Fortunately, vegetables are among the most versatile of leftover foods.
Pre-cooked veggies make the perfect filling for an easy quiche. Here’s how:
store-bought pie crust
leftover cooked veggies
2 tbsp milk
First, line a pie plate with your crust.
Layer on cooked veggies, and top with a sprinkle of cheese.
Beat eggs with milk and pour it over your crust.
Bake at 400°F for 20-25 minutes or until eggs are set.
Stew or chili
Then, of course, there’s a panoply of soups and stews that welcome leftover veggies with open arms. Reap the health benefits of adding extra vegetables to robust soups like chili or this tasty southwestern veggie noodle soup.
Even vegetable scraps can stretch their usefulness in a DIY vegetable broth. Try this one as a starter — but feel free to add or subtract any veggies you like.
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What do Buddha bowls and casseroles have in common—besides rhyming? They’re both ideal second homes for nutrient-dense grains like quinoa.
Casseroles and grain bowls
Check out this cheesy chicken, broccoli, and quinoa casserole or these eight healthy grain bowl ideas.
Fluffy, cooked quinoa can also shape-shift its way into tasty patties. Try this:
1 cup cooked quinoa
½ cup shredded cheese
½ cup bread crumbs
pinch of garlic powder
2 tsp olive oil
Mix all ingredients in a bowl.
Form into patties.
Pan-fry on medium-high heat until brown and crispy.
Serve with ketchup, tzatziki, or your favorite dipping sauce.
It seems like those last couple of slices of bread always linger forlornly on the counter.
When you don’t have quite enough bread to whip up french toast, consider another, more nutritious breakfast option.
We’re not talking avocado toast—though, with its wealth of healthy fats and fiber, it’s certainly not a bad option.
Sweet and savory Mediterranean toast
Instead, try spreading a schmear of hummus on toasted bread, then topping it with chopped Medjool dates. You’ll get a high-fiber, slightly sweet breakfast rich in vitamin B6 and polyphenols.
Bread crumb garnish
Or, simply toast extra bread and grind it in the food processor for bread crumbs to sprinkle on a spinach salad or mac and cheese.
You can transform bread that’s gone a bit dry into a delicious, cheesy culinary experience with this mushroom and gruyere bread pudding recipe. No gruyere on hand? Try this savory breakfast bread and sausage pudding.
If you’re in the mood for a sweet treat, break out the nutella for this tasty bread pudding crowd-pleaser that even kids will like.
For those times when you actually have leftover mashed potatoes (because how often does this creamy wonder go uneaten?), remember: They can be far more than a side dish for ham or chicken.
Mashed potatoes make a lovely filling for samosas.
4 or more cups of leftover mashed potatoes
one Tbsp. olive oil
one c. diced onion
one c. fresh, canned, or frozen peas
½ Tbsp. curry powder
⅛ tsp. salt
⅛ tsp. pepper
one 9-inch store-bought pie crust
Sauté peas and onions in olive oil with curry powder, salt, and pepper until tender.
In a large bowl, mix with leftover mashed potatoes.
Roll out store-bought pie crust and cut into triangles.
Fill each triangle with a portion of the mashed potato mixture, seal the edges, and bake at 375°F 20-25 minutes.
Pre-made mashed taters are also an ideal shortcut for shepherd’s pie. Try this veggie-loaded version.
Sauces and condiments
A lonely quarter-jar of marinara might not seem like a recipe for dinnertime inspiration, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its uses.
When you’ve only got a little bit of a sauce left, think of it as a condiment rather than a coating for an entire recipe. Most sauces can easily accompany fritters, gyoza, and other bite-sized foods as dip, including:
For an elegant (but oh-so-simple) way to use up extra sauces and condiments, serve as part of a charcuterie board.
A small bowl of jam, a dollop of honey mustard, or a couple of spoonfuls of pesto add pizzazz to the meats, cheeses, and crackers in this easy dinner.
You used up half a bunch of cilantro for guacamole one night… now what?
Freeze for later
Luckily, you can freeze many types of herbs, especially sturdier ones like rosemary, sage, and thyme. Preserved in your freezer, they’ll serve you well when it’s time to make stews, braised meats, or pastas.
Still, there’s a more unexpected (and immediately useful) destination for herbs: your water bottle!
Simply place fresh herbs in a glass or bottle along with any other flavor enhancers like sliced citrus fruits or berries for refreshing all-day sipping.
There are even infuser bottles especially for this purpose!
If you’ve got a larger amount of fresh herbs leftover, homemade pesto is always an option, too. This basil-parsley pesto knocks out two different herbs at once.
Leftover salad probably isn’t anyone’s favorite food. Especially when dressed, greens tend to turn to mush in the fridge after just a few hours. To save salad leftovers from a certain fate in the garbage bin, be sure to use them within 24 hours.
To repurpose last night’s salad (including its toppings), bundle the whole thing into a wrap, adding extra protein or a few fresh leaves to spruce things up, if possible.
Meatloaf, veg loaf, or falafel
Or, if you’re able to salvage leafy greens like spinach or kale from leftover salad, try tossing them in the mix as you put together meatloaf or falafel.
Even if they’re a bit wilted, no one will be the wiser.
Pasta dishes are another vehicle where slightly faded greens can add their abundant nutrients (without having to look crisp and perky).
This baked penne pasta with spinach and feta easily adopts leftover spinach.
Making a big pot of beans is a classic meal prep strategy — and reusing leftover beans can similarly stretch one meal into two (or more).
Tamales or tostada cups
When refried beans remain after taco Tuesday, stuff them into tamales, like this simple bean and cheese variety.
You can also use them as a nacho topping or layer them into mini tostada cups with melted cheese for a simple appetizer.
Soup or chili
Got half a can of beans waiting for a dinner assignment?
Consider tossing drained, rinsed beans like great Northerns, cannellinis, or black beans onto a green salad or pasta salad, or pop them into a soup or chili.
Crunchy chickpeas or sammy spread
Even a handful of leftover legumes like chickpeas can be fried with herbs for a crunchy snack or mashed into a high-fiber filling for sandwiches or wraps.
Despite their somewhat lackluster reputation, leftovers are a secret weapon for extending your grocery budget and cutting down on meal prep time.
Repurposing the 12 common foods above provides a jumping-off point for countless breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
So shake off the typecasting of leftovers as boring — and before you toss them in the trash, give some thought to how you might toss them into an additional, satisfying meal.
Sarah Garone is a nutritionist, freelance writer, and food blogger. Find her sharing down-to-earth nutrition info at A Love Letter to Food or follow her on Twitter.
Last medically reviewed on June 30, 2022
How Long Do Leftovers Keep?
Written by Lisa Wartenberg, MFA, RD, LD on July 7, 2020 — Medically reviewed by Kathy W. Warwick, R.D., CDE, Nutrition
Signs of spoilage
Leftover foods can be a boon to both your budget and your time. They’re also a great way to diminish food waste.
While it’s smart to be thrifty, eating leftover food that has sat too long in or out of the refrigerator could pose a hazard to your health.
You may wonder just how long these foods may safely keep.
This article examines how long it’s safe to eat leftovers, including how to tell whether a food has spoiled.
Types of leftover foods
How long foods stay safe depends on a few factors, including safe preparation, proper storage, and the type of food (1).
Whether your leftovers are sautéed vegetables or fish cakes affects how long they can safely keep in your refrigerator.
This is because some foods are more prone to harboring pathogens like bacteria or toxins that could make you sick.
However, leftovers often mix food groups. In these instances, a good rule of thumb is to go off what ingredient in the dish spoils first. For instance, a seafood rice would last only as long as its seafood — which is a higher risk item than rice, as described below.
If you’re ever unsure, it’s safest to toss leftovers within 3 days.
Lower risk foods
Fruits and vegetables
All raw fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed in clean water before consumption — and the sooner you can eat these, the better.
Thoroughly washed and cut fresh fruit will generally keep for about 3–5 days before it starts to lose its freshness.
When cooked, leftover vegetables stored in an airtight container will usually keep up to 3–7 days in the refrigerator. Cooked canned vegetables like beans or other legumes generally last 7–10 days with proper storage (2).
Fruits and vegetables with higher water contents, such as tomatoes, cucumber, and strawberries, lose their freshness quicker than those with a lower water content like kale, potatoes, and bananas.
This may speed or slow the clock regarding how long you may want to store the food before eating it.
Another lower risk item is bread.
Homemade bread can last about 3 days at room temperature, while store-bought bread will be safe to eat for about 5–7 days — unless you see mold. Moldy bread should never be eaten.
Storing breads in the fridge will help extend their shelf life by about 3–5 days, though they lose quality the longer they sit there.
Medium risk foods
Cooked pasta and grains like barley and quinoa will keep for up to 3 days when properly stored.
If you freeze these after cooking them, they’ll generally last 3 months before they start to lose their freshness.
Desserts and sweets usually last about 3–4 days in the refrigerator (3).
Higher risk foods
Foods that carry a higher risk of food poisoning are those that are higher in protein and moisture content, two characteristics that allow certain microbes to grow.
One exception to this rule described above is rice, which can carry spores of Bacillus cereus. This bacterium produces toxins that can cause foodborne illness (4).
Store and cool rice within 1 hour of cooking it, and consume it within 3 days.
Meat and poultry
Ground meat and poultry that has been cooked to a safe temperature can last in the fridge about 1–2 days as long as they’re stored at or below 41°F (5°C) (1).
Other meat and poultry, such as steaks, fillets, chops, and roasts, last 3–4 days in the refrigerator. If you thaw these before cooking them, be sure to do so in the refrigerator — never on the counter. After thawing, cook within 2 days (3).
You may also thaw using the microwave, but be sure to use the food right away.
Opened deli meat should be consumed within 3–5 days of opening. Likewise, cold deli salads, such as egg, tuna, or chicken salad, should be consumed within 3–5 days (3).
Shellfish, eggs, soups, and stews
Eggs are another higher risk food, as they could transmit the bacterium Salmonella. Shelled hard-boiled eggs should be consumed within 7 days of being cooked and refrigerated (5Trusted Source).
Shellfish and fish are delicate, as these can harbor many pathogens or toxins like histamine that could make you sick. Consume leftovers that include seafood within 3 days (6Trusted Source).
Soups and stews, with or without meats or fish, will generally last 3–4 days in the refrigerator.
Restaurant vs. home-cooked meals
You should consider that when dealing with leftovers from restaurants, you won’t know how fresh the ingredients were before their use.
You should eat these leftovers sooner than you might consume their homemade equivalents — within 3–4 days.
However, if the leftover meal contains raw ingredients like raw fish or vegetables consume it within 24 hours.
Some leftovers are riskier to store than others and won’t keep as long in the fridge. When in doubt, toss leftovers within 3 days. Restaurant leftovers with raw fish or veggies should be consumed within 24 hours.
How to tell whether food has gone bad
You should inspect your food by observing it for signs of spoilage and smelling it.
First, look for changes in texture or the appearance of mold, which can come in a variety of colors, including white, green, orange-red, pink, or black fuzz. This indicates that food has gone bad and should be discarded.
If you see mold, don’t smell it, as doing so could cause respiratory issues.
Foods like deli meats that develop a slimy film should also be thrown out.
If your leftovers smell rancid, they’re no longer good to eat. Likewise, if food is discolored, it may no longer be safe or enjoyable to eat.
However, if you take a bite of your leftovers and realize the flavor is off somehow — toss them immediately and, if possible, spit out whatever you haven’t swallowed.
Be mindful that food can spoil even before you can tell by looking at it or smelling it — so follow the guidelines above.
First, look at your leftovers and note any changes in texture or appearance. If you see mold, don’t smell the food — toss it. Food that smells rancid or tastes strange should be trashed.
Tips for proper storage
Bacteria thrive between 40°F (4°C) and 140°F (60°C). This temperature range is known as the “danger zone” (1).
To keep foods out of the danger zone, refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours. If you’re outdoors and temperatures are above 90°F (32°C), you should refrigerate or freeze within 1 hour (7).
It’s better to store hot foods in smaller, shallower containers that are airtight. This will allow foods to cool quicker and more evenly.
While refrigeration slows the growth of most bacteria, it’s important to keep in mind that certain microbes like Listeria monocytogenes can still grow in refrigerated temperatures.
For this reason, it’s important to keep in mind how long you have stored a certain item in your refrigerator. It could be helpful to label your food with the date and time you first prepared the dish when you store it, along with the date it should be tossed by.
Another useful tip is to consider the order in which you’re storing items in your refrigerator.
Store ready-to-eat foods on the top shelf, as well as raw foods. Meanwhile, store uncooked meats toward the bottom of the refrigerator. This will prevent uncooked meat or poultry from dripping juices that could cross-contaminate your leftovers.
Reheat foods to at least 165°F (74°C) to take them out of the danger zone. Gravies and sauces should be reheated until they reach a rolling boil.
Storing leftovers properly can extend their shelf life and prevent you from getting sick. Good practices include prompt refrigeration, labeling, and reheating foods to at least 165°F (74°C) when you’re ready to eat them.
Risks of eating spoiled food
The two main causes of foodborne illnesses are improperly cooking food to a safe internal temperature and leaving food out at unsafe temperatures (1).
Many types of pathogens can be found in common foods and cause food poisoning, including:
Listeria monocytogenes: deli meats, undercooked eggs, poorly washed fruits and vegetables, smoked seafood (8Trusted Source)
Ciguatoxin: tropical and subtropical fish, like grouper and red snapper (6Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source)
Bacillus cereus: rice, beans, potatoes, pastas, meats, vegetables, and fish (10Trusted Source)
Staphylococcus aureus: deli meats, cold salads, pastry filling, puddings, sandwiches (11Trusted Source)
Salmonella: eggs, fruits, vegetables, nut butters, meats and poultry (5Trusted Source)
Escherichia coli: undercooked meats, poorly washed fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens), unpasteurized dairy (12Trusted Source)
However, leftovers are especially at risk of these pathogens, as their spores float freely in the air and land on food. This allows for the development of mold, which can produce mycotoxins that may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or a combination of these symptoms (13, 14Trusted Source).
Those at higher risk
People who are pregnant should be especially vigilant about properly cooking, storing, and reheating foods. They’re especially vulnerable to food poisoning, particularly from Listeria. Listeria can cross the placenta and harm a developing baby (8Trusted Source).
People over the age of 65 or those who are immunocompromised should also be very careful about preparing and storing food safely. This includes those living with the following conditions:
Pathogens can grow in all kinds of foods and put you at risk of food poisoning. Those who are pregnant or have weakened immune systems should be especially careful.
The bottom line
How long a food can keep depends on a few factors, including its preparation, storage, and how easily it spoils.
Aim to store your leftover food within 1–2 hours of its preparation. Reheat it until steaming hot, or over 165°F (74°C).
Those who are pregnant, over the age of 65, or with compromised — or even sooner, if they look or smell off.