8 Fancy Ways to Use Leftover Food


When it comes to wasting food, a little goes a long way. Throw out a few slices of bread here, some uneaten leftovers there, and before you know it, we’ve collectively thrown away millions of tons of food. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste accounted for 14% of all municipal waste in 2010. But in earlier points in history, food waste was a lot less common. In the Great Depression, for example, recipes got creative because food was just too scarce — and too expensive — to throw anything edible away. (See also: Waste Not, Want Not: Stop Throwing Away Your Food!)

These days, food is relatively cheap, at least historically speaking. Thanks to better agricultural, storage, and transport techniques, many Americans have access to all kinds of food at all times of the year at a price that costs them, on average, about 6% of their income. That’s a lower percentage than any other country in the world. Even so, wasting food is a bad habit, and not just because it’s bad karma when so many other people in the world are going without (although that’s worth thinking about). Think about it this way — every time you throw away food, you’re effectively tossing a few dollars in the trash. Fortunately, cooks around the world have created a number of great recipes to transform those lowly leftovers into something with culinary cachet. Here are some of the best examples.

1. Bread Pudding

You can find bread pudding of all configurations in even the fanciest restaurants these days. But this satisfying dessert has a little secret — it was designed to use up stale bread. OK, so maybe if you douse it in bourbon whiskey, butter, and eggs like this New Orleans bread pudding recipe does, you’re really throwing good after bad by piling a bunch of pricier ingredients into an old loaf of bread. But the results speak for themselves; you can serve this at any dinner party and gobble up the rest for breakfast the next day. Oh, and if you’re not a fan of desserts, bread pudding can be savory too, like this recipe for leek bread pudding.

2. Rice Pudding

Leftover rice often gets thrown away because rice tastes so much better fresh. Unless, of course, you turn it into something else. Rice pudding is often my go-to in this case, because it’s quick, easy, delicious, and very forgiving. This recipe for pumpkin rice pudding is a great variation that can make use of a little extra pumpkin. You can also make plain vanilla rice pudding, spice it up Indian-style, or even make rice pudding popsicles. And of course, if you’re up for dinner rather than dessert, there’s always risotto or fried rice.

3. Chicken (or Turkey, or Ham, or Beef) Pot Pie

A meat-filled pie always makes great comfort food. It’s also a perfect way to clean out the fridge. If you create a flavorful sauce and top it off with a rich, buttery crust, no one will ever know the key ingredients are last night’s meat, potatoes, and vegetables. Try this recipe for a classic chicken pot pie. If you’re not a meat eater, improvise with a veggie or tofu pot pie.

4. Banana (or Apple, or Sweet Potato, or Pumpkin) Bread

It’s hard to believe that a couple of near-rotten (the closer the better) bananas can make something so good, but few people will turn down a slice of fresh banana bread. There are many ways to make this recipe. My all-time favorite banana bread recipe is a classic, but you can also add chocolate chips or spices, or replace some of the banana with other fruit purees. Quick-bread recipes are also great for cleaning up other leftover bits of fruits and vegetables like apples, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, zucchini, and rhubarb.

5. Fish Cakes

Leftover mashed potatoes are not all that appealing, especially when the gravy’s run out! Fish cakes, shrimp cakes, and crab cakes are all a great way to turn this ingredient into something brand new and delicious. These cod cakes recommend using leftover fish as well as potatoes.

6. French Toast

French toast is a weekend breakfast staple, and one that’s a lot quicker and easier to make than pancakes or waffles. Slice up slightly stale bread, dip it into an egg and milk mixture, fry it up, and serve with your favorite toppings. Try this creme brulee French toast recipe and accompany it with stewed fruit. You can even make French toast with a croissant (how very French, right?)

7. Casseroles

If you have plain, leftover pasta on hand, you can cobble together some other ingredients from the fridge and make a great casserole. After all, the pasta in these recipes has to be cooked before the whole thing’s thrown in the oven. For a classic dinner, try this macaroni and cheese. For something a little different, try this chicken and spaghetti casserole. You can even turn leftover pasta into a dessert as in this vanilla noodle kugel (try saying that five times fast).

8. Soups

If there’s a recipe you can throw anything into, it’s soup. Whether it’s turkey soup after Thanksgiving dinner or ham and split pea soup after Christmas, there’s almost no ingredients a soup won’t wear well. Next time you’re stuck with only a few things in the fridge, start searching recipe sites for the ingredients you have. Chances are, you’ll find a soup to match.

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Meg Favreau's picture

Oooh! I've never made fish cakes with potato before. I'll have to try that.

Guest's picture

One of the best things you can do with left overs is just reheat (microwave) and then grill them really quick again.....I love doing this with left over chicken or any type of meat. Just have to make sure you don't keep it around for more than 1/2 days at max. Pasta is the ultimate for reheating....tastes great later in the week.

You can use left over fruits or fruit that is going old - make a smoothie!

Tara Struyk's picture

Thanks, Kyle. You reminded me of something I forgot: Fried macaroni and cheese. It's amazing!

Meg Favreau's picture

OMG, fried macaroni and cheese. That sounds so decadently amazing.

Guest's picture

Using leftovers can be so hard! Especially if you have a bunch of ingredients that don't go well together (like chicken and bananas). But these are all great tips. I love making breads with leftover zuchini, banana, etc.

Guest's picture

Many leftover foods can be frozen from long periods of time. That's something a lot of people don't think of.

If you have leftover Mexican food, like fajitas, beans, and Spanish rice, these leftovers are perfect for making burritos. I'm reluctant to order them from Mexican restaurants for that exact same reason. I'm always suspicious that they're scraping food off of people's plates that doesn't get eaten to get most of the ingredients.

If you bake a big ham, you can make lots of sandwiches and omelets out of that.

You can make good stir fry out of leftover steak.

You can make shepherd's pie, out of leftover ground beef.

Any leftover vegetable is great for preparing quiche. I love quiche and prepare many different quiche recipes on a regular basis.

Tara Struyk's picture

Thanks for the suggestions! Stir fry and quiche are go-to recipes in my house, too!

Guest's picture

I make omelettes out of leftover food, like corned beef and canned tuna/sardines.

Guest's picture

Love this! My mom put brown bananas into the freezer to save to make banana bread, and it was always amazing! Using already cooked meats in soups and stews is a great way to make another meal out of an already pre made meal. Loving these articles that can help so many not waste money in creative ways.

Guest's picture

These are all great ideas!

Shoot, we often plan the menu with leftovers in mind. Like fresh grilled salmon for dinner provides the fish tacos for lunch. Soups and casseroles made out of leftovers that freeze well take care of the days nobody feels like cooking. I once made a five layer cake using up leftover fruit as additional filling that was so surprisingly good we've duplicated the happy accident.

Guest's picture

I've never made apple or sweet potato bread, I'll have to try those out! Apple cake is another good one to get rid of some extra apples.

Tara Struyk's picture

You can put just about any fruit or vegetable into a bread. It's a great way to use things that are getting a little old or dented in the fridge. Try putting the ingredient you want into the search engine at http://punchfork.com/ - you will be inspired by what pops up!

Guest's picture

Banana bread is a definite yes! Make it healthier by using white whole wheat flour (Trader Joe's carries their own, or King Arthur is good if a bit pricey). This gives a slight nutty flavor without nuts for people who are allergic. The texture will be a bit grainier, but with banana bread you don't really notice.

"Risotto" out of leftover rice? Goodness, no! To make good risotto, you need arborio rice, nothing else works.

Leftover Calrose rice makes wonderful rice porridge - also known as congee or jook - but use any other rice and the consistency suffers. The broth needed to make rice porridge is also a great way to use the leftover ham bone or chicken bones/skins/giblets. Save long grain rice for something else.

As an alternative to pot pie, dice your leftover meat and veggies, make a package of Knorr gravy of the appropriate flavor, mix in the meat and veggies, heat to a simmer and serve over cooked egg noodles, rice or polenta. Faster than baking a pot pie, lower fat than making a cream-based sauce, but with the same comfort food feeling.

Tara Struyk's picture

Great suggestions. I make "good" risotto too, but the stuff made out of leftover rice is pretty tasty. Cheese fixes everything.