Leftovers have a somewhat bad reputation, but with a little creativity, you can transform most of your old leftovers into new, flavorful dishes that anyone would be happy to eat. Effectively using your leftovers can also save money on your grocery bill. Make sure that any leftovers you choose to consume are handled safely to prevent possible food poisoning, though.

Part 1
Part 1 of 5:

Part One: Handle Leftovers Safely

  1. The sooner you refrigerate or freeze your leftovers, the long they'll last and the safer they'll be.
    • As a general rule, you should plan on refrigerating your leftovers within two hours after they finish cooking. In particularly hot weather, shorten this amount of time to one hour.[1]
    • If you plan on refrigerating your leftovers, you should allow them to cool down in the refrigerator rather than cooling them at room temperature. On the other hand, if you plan to freeze your leftovers, give them time to cool at room temperature before transferring them to the freezer.[2]
  2. Ideally, the food should be stored in shallow plastic containers or freezer-safe plastic bags. Any container you use should also have an airtight lid.
    • Food cools more rapidly in shallow containers than it can in deep containers, making it safer to consume later.
    • Air can cause leftovers to spoil more quickly, but the use of an airtight lid or seal will keep food fresher for longer.
    • Separating the food into smaller containers will also make it safer to reheat since most food should only be reheated once.
  3. Packing too many containers of food into a small space can prevent cool air from circulating properly and cause the food to spoil faster.[3]
    • Your leftovers should remain at a temperature between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit (1.7 to 4.4 degrees Celsius). It's a good idea to periodically check the inside temperature of your refrigerator to make sure that it runs within this range.
  4. Most properly refrigerated leftovers will remain safe for two to five days, but any leftover you're suspicious about should be thrown out instead of reused.
    • Do a "sniff test" on all leftover food you plan to use. Open the container and smell the food inside. If the odor is unusual, throw it away.
    • You should also inspect the food for mold or other visible signs of decay.
Part 2
Part 2 of 5:

Part Two: Leftover Meat, Poultry, and Seafood

  1. Most meats can be stored in the refrigerator for two to three days.[4]
    • Place the meat in an airtight, food-safe container or bag before refrigerating it. Whole cooked poultry, pork, and beef can be stored for two days, but ground meats usually last for three days.
    • Most cooked meat can also be frozen. Place the meat in freezer-safe plastic bags, label the bag with the current date, and freeze until ready to use. Poultry and ground meats usually stay safe for three months, but red meat should be used within one month. Cooked fish should not be refrozen.
  2. Meat can usually be reheated in the microwave, in the oven, or on the stove. You should only reheat meat once, however, and it must be reheated to in internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius).
    • Red meat, poultry, pork, and ground meats usually reheat without a problem no matter which method you use.
    • Seafood has a tendency to dry out when reheated at high temperatures, however, so it's best to avoid the microwave and use the oven. Use a low temperature and reheat the fish for 15 minutes or so.
  3. Cooked meat, poultry, and fish can usually be cut into bite-sized pieces and added to stir-fries, casseroles, and similar one-dish meals. These dishes are also a good way to use leftover grains and vegetables.
    • Hot one-dish meals worth considering include stir-fries, risottos, curries, casseroles, pot pies, and soups.
    • Alternatively, you can cut up cold meat and toss it into a salad.
  4. Large portions of leftover meat can be cut into slices or shredded. You can then pile it between two pieces of bread and enjoy it as a sandwich.
    • This works especially well with leftover roasts, whole turkeys, whole chickens, and meatloaf, but it may also work with smaller portions of meat and poultry.
    • If standard sandwich bread isn't sturdy enough, you may need to use buns or toasted bread.
  5. Ground meats and flaked fish can be added to sauces used for pasta and other meals.
    • Mix the meat into any standard pasta sauce to make it heartier.
    • Another creative option would be to mix the meat into other gravies and sauces used for vegetables, chili bases, and soup bases.
Part 3
Part 3 of 5:

Part Three: Leftover Grains, Starches, and Baked Goods

  1. Cooked grains, starches, and baked goods should usually be placed in airtight containers and stored in the refrigerator for up to five days.
    • Even though all leftovers should be kept in airtight containers, it is especially important to keep leftover cake, bread, and other baked goods well-sealed. Consider wrapping bakery in cling wrap before placing it into an airtight bag or container.
    • Bakery can also be frozen for up to three months.
  2. Many leftover grains and starches have a tendency to dry out when reheated, especially when done at a high heat.
    • If you plan on microwaving rice, quinoa, or other grains, sprinkle the grains with water before doing so. The microwave will dry out the extra water you just added before going after the moisture contained in the grains.
    • When using leftover grains, pasta, and potatoes with a sauce or other liquid, consider mixing the sauce and grain first before reheating it. In most instances, it should be safe to reheat the saucy grain/starch on the stove or in the microwave.
  3. Cooked cereals can enhance bread doughs and muffin doughs.[5]
    • You can make multigrain breads by grinding down the grains and kneading them evenly into the dough.
    • Alternatively, you can sprinkle the grains over the bread dough immediately before baking it to create a healthy and crunchy topping.
  4. Cooked grains, pastas, and potatoes can easily be combined with meats and vegetables to create "one pot" or "one dish" meals.
    • Nearly any leftover starch or grain can be mixed into casseroles and soups.
    • Leftover rice and quinoa can be used as filling for tortillas. Rice can also be fried with various vegetables and enjoyed as "fried rice," and both rice and pasta can be used in stir-fries.
  5. Leftover bread that's starting to go stale can be toasted and used dry. Just make sure that no mold has started to develop before using it.
    • Bake leftover bread in the oven at a low temperature, keeping it there just long enough for the bread to become crispy but not burnt.
    • You can sprinkle the bread with butter and garlic to create makeshift garlic bread, or butter and cinnamon-sugar for a simple snack.
    • Plain toasted bread can be cut into cubes and used as croutons.
  6. Baked goods that are dry and beyond saving can be crushed into crumbs or crumbled and reassembled accordingly.
    • Dry bread can be turned into breadcrumbs, and these crumbs can be used as breading or filler for fresh meat dishes.
    • Crumbled cake can be mixed with buttercream to create cake pops. Similarly, crumbled bread can be used for bread pudding or French toast casseroles.
    • Cake crumbs can be sprinkled on top of an ice cream sundae for a sweet treat.
Part 4
Part 4 of 5:

Part Four: Leftover Produce

  1. Most cooked vegetables and fruits can be stored in the refrigerator for four to five days.
    • Even if a particular vegetable or fruit was stored at room temperature before you cooked it, you should store leftovers in the refrigerator after they've been cooked.
    • Most cooked produce tends to get soggy when frozen and thawed, so refrigerator your produce leftovers will be a better option.
  2. Most leftover produce can be reused either chilled or warmed. The best option will depend upon the specific way you reuse it.
    • Fruit tends to be delicate, so most fruits will fall apart once they're reheated.
    • Vegetables are much easier to reheat. The microwave is the easiest option, but you can also reheat them in the oven or on the stove.
  3. Use a vegetable masher or blender to liquify your leftover vegetables, then use the end product to enhance other liquid-based dishes.
    • Blended vegetables can be added to soup stock, chip dip, hummus, or chili.
    • Blended fruits can be added to fruit-based sauces and smoothies.
  4. Consider adding your leftover vegetables to warm and cold one-dish meals.
    • Warm dishes include casseroles, stir-fries, soups, pizza, and omelets. Since the vegetables have already been cooked, add them to the dish during the last few minutes of cooking so that they can be reheated without becoming soggy.
    • You can also add many cold vegetables to salads.
  5. Fruit-based leftovers can be used to enhance otherwise simple desserts.
    • For instance, you can gently reheat the fruit and spread it over pound cake or ice cream.
    • Some fruits can also be added directly to the batter of cakes, muffins, cookies, breads, or other baked goods prior to baking.
Part 5
Part 5 of 5:

Part Five: Leftover Sauces

  1. All leftover sauces should be stored in shallow, airtight containers and kept in the refrigerator. Homemade sauces should usually be used within two or three days.
    • If the sauce contains meat or came into contact with meat, it is especially important to use it within the two to three day time limit.
    • Commercially prepared sauces should be kept according to label instructions. In most cases, you'll need to use the sauce within one to two weeks after opening the container. Any commercial sauce actually used as part of another dish should be treated as a homemade sauce and used within three to four days.
  2. Most sauces can be reheated on the stove or in your microwave. Make sure that the sauce is reheated thoroughly either way.
    • Stir the sauce to distribute the heat evenly. If you don't do this, some parts may remain cold while others could become too hot.
    • Also note that some sauces are easier to reheat than others. Sauces and gravies thickened with cornstarch or flour may become lumpy when reheated in the microwave, so when possible, consider reheating these sauces on the stove.
  3. Sauces and gravies contain a range of ingredients, so mixing them into another dish can add a lot of flavor.
    • Consider mixing the sauce into other liquid-based dishes, like soups and chilies.
    • You can also add the sauce to otherwise dry ingredients. For instance, leftover gravy can be treated as a condiment for sandwiches. Leftover sauces can be tossed with plain rice or pasta for a simple side dish.
  4. If you're feeling bold, mix together two separate sauces to create something entirely new. You can then add this new sauce to foods in the same way you'd use the old sauces.
    • Experiment with different combinations that seem appealing to you. You might blend together a cheese-based sauce with a tomato-based sauce, or try blending together a cream sauce with a hot sauce.
    • When you do experiment, you may want to taste-test the newly created sauce before adding it to other food, just in case you're not satisfied with the results.
  5. Another way to transform an old sauce into something new would be to enhance it with new seasonings or ingredients.
    • Stick with ingredients that coordinate well with the flavor profile as the original sauce. You could try adding red pepper or chopped chili peppers to a bland meat sauce, for instance, but you may not want to add a poultry seasoning blend to a sauce containing ground beef or chili powder.

About this article

Maria Short
Co-authored by:
This article was co-authored by Maria Short. Maria Short is a Baker and the Owner of Short N Sweet Bakery & Cafe in Hilo, Hawaii. With over 24 years of experience, she specializes in specialty desserts and wedding cakes. She graduated from L’Academie de Cuisine’s Pastry Arts Program with honors and studied at Baltimore International Culinary College. In 2019, Maria competed in the 6th season of the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship. In 2010, she had a cake named one of “America’s Most Beautiful Cakes” by Brides magazine. This article has been viewed 58,625 times.
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Co-authors: 10
Updated: February 7, 2023
Views: 58,625