The Art of Leftovers Wizardry

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I don’t claim to be an expert in anything, but there is one thing I’m not too shabby at and that is effectively concocting meals using leftovers. My mama taught me well; she is the queen of making leftovers into casseroles that taste gourmet. Using up leftover food helps to squeeze more meals out of the food in your home, helping to make the most of your grocery bill. It also puts a smaller dent in your environmental footprint, I would argue, because heating up leftovers often takes less cooking time (and therefore less electricity or gas is used). The self-proclaimed “Frugal Zealot” Amy Dacyczyn (also mentioned here and here) wrote a great article called “The Art of Leftover Wizardry,” which outlines very basic tips on how to use up that tower of Tupperware guarding your fridge’s shelves. I don’t have the space to share the article in its entirety, so here are her main points…

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All tightwads have their preferred methods for dealing with leftovers, most of which fall into one of seven basic categories: (Evelyn’s comments are in parentheses.)

1) The Menu Management Method. There are no leftovers. (Weird. That happens?!?)

2) The Leftover Lunch. Always eat dinner leftovers for lunch. (I often package up a Tupperware or two of leftover dinner for Caveman to take for lunch. Of course, if you work where there isn’t a microwave, you’re best sticking with a cold sandwich.)

3) The Perpetual Soup Container. Leftover remnants like sauces, bits of meat and vegetables, soups, etc., go into a large container or pot, which occupies a permanent spot in the freezer. When the bucket is full, cross your fingers and thaw. The result can be surprisingly good, especially if you avoid combining conflicting spices.

4) Smorgasbord Night. Thaw a variety of leftovers, line up the family and let them choose what they want on their plate. Then warm in the microwave. A single woman told me she regularly holds get-togethers with others for a meal of exchanged leftovers. To her way of thinking, someone else’s leftovers are new to her. (My mom often used this method for the after-church food rush. I recall more than one elbow fight over the outstanding best option. It gets kind of fun.)

5) The TV Dinner Method. Obtain TV dinner trays or microwavable dinner trays. Fill these with leftovers and freeze. Use when the family cook has a night out and the other adult in the household persists in a claim of kitchen incompetence. (Hah!)

6) Serial Leftovers. You deliberately make too much of something because you have a repertoire of recipes that use this item as an ingredient. For example, leftover ham gets packaged into portions specifically for future meals. Ham slices go into one package for sandwiches, smaller pieces are saved for casserole, and the bone is saved for soup. (I do this with mashed potatoes, which I use in these amazing make-ahead potato rolls!)

7) Leftover Wizardry. You perform a feat of magic, transforming leftovers into a completely new dish. The more skilled you become at this craft, the more types of leftovers you combine to make a single culinary sensation. If you have working knowledge of cooking you know there are few hard-and-fast rules. Look up any one recipe in as many cookbooks as you can lay your hands onโ€”muffins, for example. You’ll see that each recipe is different. Many ingredients are interchangeable. Leftover hot cereals and fruits, as well as some vegetables, can be used in making muffins, waffles, pancakes, and cakes. Quiche makes a great leftover disguise, especially for mushy vegetables. To create casseroles you need only to combine meat and/or vegetables, a binder such as a white sauce, and a topping like bread crumbs or cheese. Any basic cookbook tells you how make a white sauce (or bรฉchamel) and other variations. I save all bread crusts in the freezer to make crumbs for toppings.

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Great tips, huh? I usually just wing it with leftovers, but if you’re an I-need-a-recipe kind of person, never fear. I hear good things about this Use-It-Up cookbook, which contains creative recipes for the frugal cook.

What are YOUR favorite ways to use up leftovers? Tell us below and/or share recipes with us. ๐Ÿ™‚

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14 Comments
  • Jillian
    April 26, 2013

    We definitely tend to be lunch-leftover people, but I also try to plan meals that I can use “deliberate leftovers” for.
    I also have to tell you that The Tightwad Gazette was something I read as a child (seriously, like at the age of 9 I think) when I was out of books to read and I found it on the bookshelf. I should find a copy now that I’m old enough to actually put the information into practice!

    • Evelyn
      April 26, 2013

      Jill, I can’t express how much that you read the Tightwad Gazette when you were 9. That. Is. Just. Plain. Awesome. So is the book, too, I think you’ll now agree. ๐Ÿ™‚ Definitely dig up a copy! I love it…hence my continually posting her articles… ๐Ÿ˜‰ Miss you guys!

  • Kim
    April 26, 2013

    I try to prepare the right amount of food for the meal and the lunches. That way, little food goes to waste. One problem that I had was with leftover tuna/mayo after making sandwiches. No one here wanted leftover tuna. Then we tried making a combination of grilled cheddar cheese and tuna sandwiches. It was a hit!

    • Evelyn
      April 27, 2013

      Hi Kim, I looove a nice grilled hot tuna melt. Sounds delish!

  • Jane Sasser
    April 26, 2013

    I make big batches of soups and casseroles, then freeze individual serving portions. We eat them for lunches and on weekends. I just cook Sunday through Thursday nights.

    • Evelyn
      April 27, 2013

      Come to think of it, I have actually enjoyed the fruits of your pre-cooked and pre-packaged labor. I pulled a tupperware of soup out once the last time we were there and it was amazing! I love the idea of just cooking through certain nights. Built-in rest days sound lovely. Caveman would totally be up for that, but I’m too sporadic with what we want to eat when. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks!

  • Maureen
    April 29, 2013

    Hi Evelyn,
    Great fun to meet and talk on Saturday – enjoyed getting to know you a little bit. We are smorgasbord leftover-ers. Put all the containers out on the island, let the guys pick and choose. Most of our leftovers go toward lunches, but once in awhile we end up with an abundance – saves on the food budget and my cooking time. Love those days when dinner is already made and in the frig (homestyle fast food).

    • Evelyn
      April 29, 2013

      Hi Maureen, wonderful to meet you as well. We are definite smorgasboarders too. The variety is fun! Blessings to you…

  • Stephanie Weeks
    June 2, 2013

    Is It weird that i hate eating the same thing for dinner and then the next for lunch? Call me spoiled but I am all about variety. I think it’d be cool to bring in your leftovers to work while a coworker did the same & you swapped though!

    • Evelyn
      June 3, 2013

      Stephanie, I don’t think that’s weird at all! I’m all about variety as well, which is why I like to try to create something NEW with leftovers. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Kristin
    June 3, 2013

    The perpetual soup container idea kind of scares me… mostly because I’m a novice soup maker. ๐Ÿ™‚ But I’m huge proponent of #6 and #7! My meal plans often result in a week of similarly-flavored meals (tacos, tortilla soup, southwestern chicken), but I’ve found it’s the best way to max out our grocery dollars. I mean, how often do you use an entire bunch of fresh cilantro in one meal? I can’t stand to see produce go to waste! Great tips here. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Evelyn
      June 3, 2013

      I’m so with you on all those points. I make soup once a week and I still can’t handle the freezer-dump idea. But hey, it’s an idea. My weeks also often have one common ingredient–and it is frequently a fresh herb, since few recipes use the full bunch. Of course, I wouldn’t be opposed to eating cilantro for EVERY meal, EVERY day. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • JMK
    September 1, 2014

    Old post but I’ll throw in my 2 cents anyway.
    Leftovers from dinner are generally packed up for lunches. The exception is that we almost always cook extra of some component of the dinner with the intention of using it in a completely different meal another night. Make double the rice or pasta one night and you’re halfway to a casserole or fried rice the next. It’s no more work to roast two chickens than one, and now you have precooked chicken ready for the next recipe (tetrazzini, enchiladas, pot pies etc), and the bones make great broth. Why cook only enough ham for dinner when a slightly larger one makes leftovers that become sandwiches, omelets and a quiche? We usually buy a ham with a bone which then becomes the base of pea soup along with all the little scraps of ham. On the soup idea, our meals usually include at least one plain steamed veggie. Any leftovers that are suitable for minestrone go into a large yoghurt container in the freezer. When it’s full I have a great recipe for minestrone that calls for 3c of veggies. Because all the veggies are precooked it takes less than 30mins to make.
    The idea of having to start every meal from scratch seems kind of bizarre to me at this point!

    • Evelyn
      September 1, 2014

      Hey JMK, you’re right–starting meals totally from scratch DOES sound bizarre. And so much work! We also do a lot of the same prep-steps that you describe here. It definitely makes life in the kitchen easier! Thanks for commenting, even if it’s an older post. ๐Ÿ™‚

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