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The Power of Leftovers: Working Smarter, Not Harder

Leftovers are one of the simplest ways to save time and money in the kitchen. As an experienced cook, I know that leftovers are opportunities and an important part of meal planning.

Even if you have less experience in the kitchen, you can learn to expertly use leftovers and create weeknight dinners that come together quickly.

Perfect Baked Chicken Breasts on a white plate with kale and cherry tomatoes.  Great batch cooking recipe for creating intentional leftovers.
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Perfect Baked Chicken Breasts are a quick and easy favorite leftover to use in other delicious recipes. I regularly prepare this recipe in bulk and keep leftovers on hand in the fridge and freezer. They take about 25 minutes and come out juicy and tender in the oven.

Preparing our meals with leftovers reduces food waste and creates scrumptious dishes that no one would know began with leftovers. Here are a few ideas to make it easy for you to invent exciting new meals with last night’s leftovers.

Creating Leftovers on Purpose

Planning ahead to be sure you have leftovers is a great way to begin saving time and money.

Great cooks prepare proteins in bulk to be used in future dishes. This allows the time-consuming part of meal preparation to be already finished when you begin.

Using a slow cooker is a favored way to batch-cook these leftovers for future meals. Meat that is tender, juicy and delicious can also be prepared and batch-cooked in the oven, just as easily. 

Root vegetables, like potatoes and carrots that take longer to cook through, are good options for batch-cooking intentional leftovers too.

Whether you cook them on the stovetop or roast them in the oven, pre-cooked vegetables will be welcome additions to recipes for casseroles, soups, quiches, frittatas, wraps, tacos, burritos and more.

Use batch-cooked foods in a meal on the day of your cooking. Then store all the leftovers to use in mouthwatering meals throughout the week or in future dishes.

Two of our most popular prep-ahead proteins are Southwest Chicken and Pineapple Chicken. Both are simple to prepare in the slow cooker.

You can add Southwest Chicken to Chicken Street Tacos, chicken tacos, burritos, quesadillas, chimichangas, vegetable salads, casseroles, pasta salads, chicken salad sandwiches and pizza.

Pineapple Chicken Rice Bowl with Pineapple Salsa in a white ceramic bowl.  Pineapple Chicken is a great intentional leftover.
Slow Cooker Pineapple Chicken served in a rice bowl with Pineapple Salsa.

Slow Cooker Pineapple Chicken is delicious in rice bowls but also spectacular on pizza, in salads, for making wraps, in Tropical Chicken Salad, and so much more.

Having deliciously seasoned and flavored proteins like these, already done and waiting in the fridge or freezer, puts a long list of meals in minutes at your fingertips.

More Prep-Ahead Recipes for Quick and Easy Dinner Prep

Yes, even meatloaf can be made ahead and frozen! Mix up a double or triple batch. Bake one and freeze the others for future meals. You can freeze them as loaves, flat in a zip-top bag or even in muffin cups for individual meatloaf servings.

And if you’ve never had a meatloaf melt grilled sandwich, you’re missing out. It’s just one more scrumptious way to use leftovers.

Sweet and Sour Meatballs in a Cast Iron skillet with a wooden spoon
Sweet and Sour Meatballs is just one of several quick and easy recipes that can be made with my make-ahead freezer meatballs recipe. With meatballs in the freezer, dinner is a quick and easy fix, even on hectic weeknights.

How to Store Leftovers

The USDA says leftovers that are properly stored in air-tight containers will last in the fridge for up to four days. The same leftovers, properly sealed, can be kept in the freezer for up to four to six months. 

Reusable silicone freezer bags or zip-top bags intended for freezer use are available in many sizes, too. They are another good storage option. Bags can be stored flat, requiring much less space in the freezer if your storage space is limited.

Southwest Chicken leftovers being prepped to store for the week.
Southwest Chicken prepped to store for delicious meals all week long.

If space is at a premium, I definitely recommend zip-top freezer bags to store your leftovers.

The bags can be loaded as soon as your food is fully cool. Then remove as much air as possible as you seal them to avoid a build-up of condensation and frost in the bag.

Press the bags out flat and store them stacked in the freezer. Once they are frozen, they can stand on end and be stored like file folders in a drawer to help conserve space.

You can flash-freeze foods before filling the bags or containers when your plan is to remove just one (or a few) items at a time from the bag and then reseal it. Flash freezing before loading bags prevents the food from sticking together after it’s frozen.

Baked chicken breasts stored for the freezer.
Perfect Baked Chicken Breasts ready to store in the freezer.

How to Flash Freeze Food for Freezer Storage

cookie dough balls ready for freezer
Ranger Cookies dough balls on a sheet ready to flash-freeze.

To flash freeze leftovers or prepped foods for freezer storage, lay the items on a cookie sheet or tray lined with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

Your meatballs or cookie dough (or whatever you are flash freezing) can be close together on the tray but not touching.

Set the entire sheet into the freezer for one to two hours until the food is frozen solid.

Store in freezer containers or zip-top freezer bags. Now, you’ll be able to remove whatever amount you need and reseal the container. Since it went into the bag already frozen, your food won’t stick together.

A platter filled with House Salad Ingredients next to a bowl of Romaine and Iceburg lettuce. The platter contains sliced radishes, cucumbers, celery grape tomatoes and red onion slivers.
Prepping the ingredients for a simple House Salad.

Salads Become Hearty Meals with Leftovers

Leftovers add wonderful texture and flavor to salad recipes. Leftover meat, grains, vegetables or pasta can bulk up side salads and make them into hearty, delicious meals. They’re a nutritious way to enjoy a new meal using pre-cooked food.

Adding leftover chicken, beef, pork or fish to salads changes a simple dish into a full meal. Salads like Broccoli Cauliflower Salad are already hearty dishes. The addition of leftover proteins can make them a well-balanced and delicious meal.

Leftover taco meat or Mexican Shredded Beef instantly changes a simple salad into a Taco Salad and opens the door to adding cheese and other favorite toppings to round out the dish.

Salads are a natural place to makeover your leftovers.

Chicken pot pie soup (made with leftovers) in a blue bowl.
Chicken Pot Pie Soup made with leftover chicken.

Bring Leftovers Back to Life in Soups and Stews

Instead of spending hours to develop flavor, you can prepare mouthwatering soups, stew and chili with leftover meat and vegetables.

Add your leftovers to rich, well-seasoned vegetable broth or chicken broth. Toss in more of your favorite herbs and seasonings (like my All Purpose Seasoning [vegan], Homemade Beef Bouillon [vegan] or Homemade Chicken Bouillon [vegan] ), and you can create a quick, easy and richly flavorful soup or stew without having to spend all day developing those flavors.

More Soups and Stews that Use Leftovers or Pre-cooked Food


A bubbly, delicious and comforting casserole is a natural way to makeover leftovers from last night’s dinner.

Casserole recipes can utilize all kinds of leftovers and be made into a dish your family will probably request to have again.

Casseroles are quick and easy to throw together, and they usually cook quickly.

One of our family’s favorite casseroles is Thanksgiving Casserole. And I don’t wait until the holidays to make it. It works just as well with chicken. It’s easy, savory, flavorful and absolutely delectable.

Thanksgiving Casserole on a white plate with House Salad.
Thanksgiving Casserole made with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy and served with House Salad.

Casseroles are all about leftover possibilities. Simply combine leftover meat with roasted vegetables, rice or pasta.

Add a canned or homemade sauce and some cheese.

Then, bake until your newly created casserole is heated all the way through. It’s also possible to heat casseroles in a stew pot or Dutch oven on the stovetop for quick and easy one-pot meals.

Leftovers for Breakfast

Breakfast isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think about making over leftovers. But, think about it.

Tossing leftovers into omelets and breakfast casseroles is definitely a pro move.

You can definitely mix leftover meat and/or roasted vegetables into either of them.  Even cheese leftover from taco night will work perfectly.

Breakfast taco with bites out on a concrete counter.
Breakfast Tacos can use up leftover protein, veggies and cheese.

Want another mouthwatering idea that probably hadn’t occurred to you? Leftovers that are cut up finely can also be tossed into muffin batter, biscuits, pancakes and waffles. Ham and cheese biscuits are delicious!


Mix and match roasted veggies, grains and beans to create scrumptious veggie burgers. 

Leftover turkey or roast beef with potatoes and gravy makes outrageously good open-face sandwiches.

There is always chicken salad, but give some thought to dinner roll sliders, melt sandwiches, wraps and pitas, too. Love gyros? Create one with leftover protein from last night’s dinner.

Turkey Avocado Sandwiches cut in half and stacked.
Turkey Avocado Sandwich with Cilantro Lime Aioli made from leftover turkey. Photo credit: Glenda Embree.

An Opportunity You Shouldn’t Pass Up

Leftovers don’t have to be repetitive and boring.  You can create appealing meals that no one would ever know started with leftovers. And if they do know, they won’t care, because dinner will be delicious!

meals made from leftovers save you time.  There is no need to spend all day or night making weeknight dinners when you use leftovers that already have flavor cooked in. Combine them with flavorful sauces, broth or stock and seasonings.  Add in veggies and rice or pasta. Dinner becomes quick and easy.

Leftovers save you money.  Your grocery budget will thank you for using what you already have in the fridge.  Because leftovers make quick and easy meals, you can skip the drive-thru and forget about takeout.  Your scrumptious meals made from leftovers will become family favorite dishess with savings that you’ll want to repeat.

Hot beef sandwich made with leftovers from roast beef dinner, on a white plate with asparagus.
Open-faced Hot Beef Sandwich made from leftovers. Photo credit: Glenda Embree Blog.

Leftovers cut back on food waste. In a country where this is an issue on a national level, making the most of what we already have is a skill everyone should cultivate.

Savvy cooks can even plan their leftovers as they create weekly and monthly meal plans. 

Doubling or tripling the amount of a protein or vegetable that you’re cooking anyway and then properly storing the leftovers for future meals is definitely a pro move.

Got leftovers?  Celebrate!  Now, you have all the resources you need to make them into exciting and flavorful meals. Quick, easy and creative dinners are deliciously simple when you have leftovers in the fridge or freezer.

glenda embree

About Glenda

I believe cooking from scratch doesn’t have to be complicated and that YOU can do it. My simple recipes, tutorials, and cooking tips will help you get weeknight dinners on the table with less stress. Forget takeout or the drive-thru. Let me show you how to make homemade easy. Read more...

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