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Easy Strategies for How to Reuse Leftover Food (Save Up to $1,000/year)

Get inspired to use up your leftovers and save up to $1,000 per year with easy strategies for how to reuse leftover food.

Learning how to reuse leftover food is one of the sharpest tools you’ve got in your saving-money-toolbelt.

woman in peach-colored shirt reaching into fridge, text overlay "how to reuse leftover food consistently"

That’s because not only does wasting food waste precious resources, but it also costs families an average $1,300

Every. Single. Year.

Forget that.

I’m going to give you the strategies, and then show you how to put them into practice with plenty of examples to get you reusing leftovers on a daily basis.

Psst: pair these strategies with my article on cheap pantry meals and frugal cooking tips to turbo-boost your savings!

How to Reuse Leftover Food – 9 Strategies

I’m about to share some strategies and examples for how to reuse leftover food while still keeping meals exciting.

But first up?

Remember that when it comes leftovers, storage is key.

This means:

  • Storing sauces away from the main dish, so there’s no sogginess
  • Storing in both the freezer and fridge, depending on when you’ll be able to use them
  • Storing them in containers that make reuse as easy as possible (individual portion, microwavable, etc.)

Now, let’s get to those reuse strategies (if nothing else, this will help you with how to stop eating out so much)!

1. Keep them on a Dedicated, “Eat-This” Shelf

You can dedicate one area of your refrigerator just for leftovers, and instruct everyone to start their hangry search there (of course, not the ones you want to use for future meals – loads of ideas how to do this, below!).

Pro tip: Keep a magnetic whiteboard on the outside of your fridge and write down each leftover you put in. Make sure everyone crosses off what they’ve eaten, as they eat it.

2. Turn a Meat-Heavy Meal into a Meat-Rationed Second Meal

The first meal will be heavy on the meat, and then the second meal will have other “players” as the star.

For example:  

  • Meat-Heavy Meal = Chili: This can then be stuffed into baked potatoes, used for a fun Frito chili pie on a Friday night, chili mac’n’cheese, a side chili cheese dip, etc.  
  • Meat-Heavy Meal = Roast Chicken: The leftover roast chicken can then be used in another meal of chicken nachos, chicken alfredo, chicken quesadillas, stir-fry with lots of veggies/rice, chicken green chile taquitos, etc.
  • Meat-Heavy Meal = Beef Stew: The leftover beef stew can be used as a base for Shepard’s pie, beef can be chopped up and used in tacos, or it can be eaten over a bed of yummy, mashed sweet potatoes.

Stretch, stretch, stretch that meat, girl!

3. Use the Main Dish Leftover as a Side Dish

Maybe you don’t have enough of the main dish leftover to use for another main dish. In these cases, I like to use the main dish as a side dish to a new meal.

Examples of turning a main dish into a side dish:

  • Turn Main-Dish Salads into Side Dishes: An awesome BBQ Chicken Salad we make always has enough left over to become the side dish for several more meals.
  • Main Dish Pasta: You could make a big thing of pasta carbonara, then have leftovers as a side to chicken parmesan, lasagna, or some other Italian-inspired main dish.
  • Main Dish Soup: Use a pot of soup as your main dish one night, then serve a cup of soup as your side dishes for several more nights.

4. Use a Side Dish Leftover in a Main Dish

Yes…you can switch this around, too!

Did you make a side of mashed potatoes? You can use those for the topping on a Shepard’s pie, or for this ham and mashed potato casserole.

Did you make a ton of corn? Go ahead and use them with chicken to make this avocado corn salad into a main meal.

For lots of extra diced potatoes, make a sausage hash for dinner. Slice them up, and make hash browns in the morning.

Leftover tater tots (hmm…are there ever any leftover tater tots?) can be used to make a Mexican tater tot casserole.

So many ideas!

Psst: here's 17 ideas for easy side dishes for family reunions

5. Make a Food Bowl

I cannot overstate my new love of food bowls. I’m the biggest fan of poke bowls, but I also indulge in chicken BBQ/sweet potato/coleslaw bowls, Buddha bowls, and really, anything that goes together inside of a bowl.

They’re so versatile, that with a new sauce and perhaps some chopping, you could make a food bowl out of most leftovers.

For example, you can use beef out of leftover beef stew as the main meat in this beef and broccoli buddha bowl.

There’s taco bowls, sushi bowls, burrito bowls…heck, even KFC came out with a fried-chicken-mashed-potatoes-cheese bowl.

6. Separate Out Individual Ingredients

One of my favorite ways to reuse leftover food is to actually separate out individual ingredients from it that I can then use as an ingredient in a future meal.

For example:

  • Sauces: We did the Blue Apron meal plan for several months several years ago. One of my favorite things about it was that they always had wayyyy too much sauce for us to eat. I’d bag that sauce up, and freeze it for a future meal in the same wheelhouse (such as save a Mexican sauce to go with future enchiladas), or to use the next night for a dinner I make.
  • Side Dishes: Whenever I make my homemade cranberry sauce for Christmas, I freeze about 4 portions of it to use for future baked turkey sandwiches. You can turn a corn side dish into Mexican street corn to complement grilled salmon. Take roasted veggies, add a fried egg on top, and you’ve got a yummy breakfast or lunch!
  • Main Dishes: Cut up beef from beef stew leftovers and use it for hot, cheesy-beefy sliders or for beef enchiladas. I’ll pick apart the last of a roast chicken, rotisserie chicken, or chicken breast and add the shredded meat to a freezer quart bag. That’s cooked meat that is good in only about 1,000 different recipes. Take roasted veggies leftover from a sausage and veggie sheet pan bake, and use them as your side dish for the next night.

7. Freeze Individual Portions

Yesterday’s lunch: homemade French onion soup, with a crusty bread bubbling with melted mozzarella cheese.

But I didn’t make any of it – it all came from my freezer. I cooked the soup three months ago, then froze two individual portions of soup plus bread to reheat/toast one day for lunch.

I’ve also heard of families who freeze single serve portions of leftover food so that on “every-man-for-themselves-night” (that’s what my stepmother always called it), each person gets their pick of what they want to reheat and eat.

Hint: this one works really well for meals you made that maybe not everyone liked.

8. Take Leftovers for Lunch

Instead of purchasing lunch meat, cheese slices, bread, etc., commit to using leftovers for you and your husband’s lunches this week.

Psst: you might want to check out my cold lunch ideas for husbands.

To make it a full meal, pair a leftover dish with things like:

  • Fruit
  • Yogurt
  • Granola bar
  • Chips
  • Cheese
  • Etc.

9. Turn the Main Dish into Something Completely Different

Ready to do some magic?

Your goal is to take your main dish, and turn the whole thing into something completely different. So that it’s barely recognizable from last night’s meal.

This works best for BIG meals, by the way – like big pots or big casseroles of something.

Here are some ideas and examples:

  • Turn grilled chicken/green-pepper/onion kebabs into quesadillas
  • Turn BBQ chicken into BBQ chicken pizza
  • Turn chili into Tamale pie
  • Turn spaghetti and meatballs or meatloaf into spaghetti pie
  • Turn a chicken sheet pan dinner into chicken alfredo and a side of roasted veggies

So. many. possibilities.

Which leads me to my bonus tip.

Bonus: Chain Link Your Meal Planning with Leftover Planning

I discussed this before, but wanted to share the secret to really reusing your leftovers effortlessly: you want to chain-link your meals.

Choose your meals based on what leftovers you’ll have, and how you can use them. In fact, you’ll naturally start doing this anyway as you get better and better at reducing food waste and using up your leftover food!

Did I get you excited for the possibilities of not only eradicating leftover food waste from your life, but saving on your grocery/take-out bill in the meantime? Awesome. Please come back and comment below with your own ideas and experiments with how to reuse leftover food.

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 10 years, her money work helping people with how to save money and how to manage money has been featured in Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here.