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3 Tips for Breathing New Life into Your Leftovers

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If there were a universal frugal cook’s handbook, I think the first chapter would be all about how to use leftovers. Novices often make the mistake of cooking a huge batch of one thing, thinking that they can eat it all week. Unfortunately that can get pretty boring which can tempt you to order in food for variety. Instead, I like to start the week by making a few things that I can serve in multiple combinations.

Since this is partially a food blog I usually post single recipes with thoughtful photographs of the process and the final product. But since I’m a real live person and not a page from a magazine, many nights in my house are actually filled with leftovers. Glorious, glorious, leftovers.

Leftovers don’t have to be boring and tired tasting, here are my three tips for using leftovers in an appealing way.

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Tip #1

Figure Out What Your Meal Is Missing. 

Sometimes reinventing your leftovers requires a new guest star. The meal pictured above was one of those “clean out the fridge” scenarios. I looked in the fridge and saw spicy sauteed peppers and cashews, coriander baked tofu, and plain pasta. I also had a head of lettuce that was about to go limp. So I thought, what could round out these ingredients? When in doubt, add a salad and a baked potato. I went to the store, bought some potatoes, and a tomato, and bam! I baked the potato, drenched it in butter, added some oregano and basil to the pasta, and plated a quick two ingredient salad. Without adding a salad and a potato there wouldn’t have been quite enough food for an entire meal, but by adding two cheap things I was able to stretch this meal another day. Other good additions to round out meals without breaking the bank are: sweet potatoes, frozen broccoli, pasta, rice, green beans, or sausage!

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Tip #2

Use leftovers in new ways. 

So if you look closely, you’ll realize that the salad pictured above, is made from many of the same ingredients as the previous picture. I took the same baked tofu, spicy peppers, tomato, and lettuce, and instead of combining it with a potato and pasta- I made a nice big salad. I added some cheese and salad dressing, and it was like a whole new meal!

One super easy way to start getting creative is to make a whole roasted chicken (or two depending on your family size) and use it in different ways throughout the week. Night one can be drumsticks, wings, and chicken breasts with mashed potatoes. Night two you can strip the rest of the meat (separate it) boil the bones into a stock and add in carrots, celery, zucchini, and rice for a soup. Night three you can take the remaining chicken and cook it stir fry style with some garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. Three totally different meals with one base ingredient.

I still have some baked potatoes left over from tonight, so to reinvent them again tomorrow I’ll be covering them in baked beans, melted cheese, and jalapenos, and sour cream, and serving them with (you guessed it) a side salad (since I already have lettuce and tomatoes). Delicious!

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Tip #3

Take the time to plate, it’s always worth it. 

I will never understand why some cooks take painstaking care to flavor and season and render their dishes, only to slop them on a plate without a fragment of care. I don’t take shortcuts in cooking, and I don’t take shortcuts in plating. Above you can see another leftover meal we ate recently. Those are the asian meatballs from last week, served with some simple oven roasted carrots, and a tangy asian dipping sauce. They only look fancy because I arranged them in an orderly way, without a ton of clutter on the plate. I could have drenched them in sauce, but instead I put the sauce in a small side bowl. I could have mixed in the chili sauce, but instead I drizzled it into the dark soy mix to make a design.

I can’t stand overly fussy food with its nonsensical garnishes or overly abstract themes, but taking a little time can go a long way. Look back up at my first photo in this post. The biggest reason that plate looks appealing is because I paid attention to color. Potatoes, tofu, and pasta are mostly white. So serving them on a white plate completely washes them out. If I had put the potatoes, tofu, and pasta all next to each other, the plate would have looked less varied. Instead, i purposely put the multicolored salad next to the white potato, and the multicolored peppers next to the white pasta.

By using foods of different colors, careful plating (i.e. don’t make a mess) and reasonable portions (heaps and heaps of food rarely looks appealing, you can always plate seconds), you can make your leftovers look restaurant worthy.

5 thoughts on “3 Tips for Breathing New Life into Your Leftovers

  1. I’m definitely one of those people who gets bored with the same meal every night at dinner. Thanks for ideas to mix things up.

  2. Fantastic post! I especially liked the comments on plating…they’re so apt, and although I hate this expression, there’s a lot of truth in “you eat with your eyes first!”

    I also find that if something looks a little special, people seem to respect it a bit more, savor it more, and eat a little more slowly…which causes most people to eat less. Throw out a mess of anything at my house and it is sucked down mindlessly in minutes. Put a few items for each person thoughtfully on a plate like yours above, and my family will eat just those. And appreciate them more.

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