Leftovers are amazing. Truly. Maybe you have a blah history with them after being forced to eat dried-out chicken breast and shriveled, mushy twice-cooked veggies. But with a few tips and tricks, you can make leftovers feel fresh again — and amp up their deliciousness.
There’s nothing better than knowing you don’t have to cook tonight, or you can half-cook, and still have a healthy meal ready to go at the end of a busy day, saving yourself from an unhealthy takeout choice.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a “leftovers person,” here’s how to make yesterday’s eats exciting again. Yes, you can take some of these ideas and apply them to those Thanksgiving leftovers, too.
It’s impossible to know how much rice you’re actually going to need, so if you have a heaping pile leftover after dinner, embrace it. “I purposely always cook extra rice,” says Julie Harrington, registered dietitian and chef, and author of “The Healing Soup Cookbook.” Day-old rice is better for making dishes like fried rice, she says. What’s more, certain carbohydrates that have been cooked and then cooled (such as rice or pasta) contain higher levels of resistant starch, a type of carb that leads to a lower blood sugar response, research shows. One idea, suggests Harrington: Sauté the fresh veggies in your fridge that are dying to be used up, throw in leftover rice, crack an egg in the middle and cook until heated through. Toss with a stir-fry sauce of your choice or generously drizzle with sriracha.
“I’m all about stuffing things in wraps and sandwiches,” says Harrington. “Anytime I have leftover protein, I’ll add that into a sandwich, along with whatever else I have in my fridge,” she says. So go wild with stuffing leftover chicken and roasted peppers into a pita, and then adding cheese and zingy condiments like mustard.
The microwave may be a leftover’s BFF, but it’s not the greatest when it comes to preserving texture in food — especially roasted vegetables. And when it comes to veggies, if you’re the type of person who likes to batch cook or meal prep, you’re probably roasting these by the trayful, anyway. Harrington recommends popping veggies into an air fryer to crisp up. (If you don’t have one, then throw them into an oven at a lower temp.) If you’re reheating that whole-grain pizza you made on Friday, she advises putting it into a frying pan with the lid on and cooking on low until the cheese melts. “You won’t have that soggy crust,” Harrington says.
You made a lasagna — and, oh boy, it made a lot. “With combination dishes, like lasagna, you want to find new ways to serve it,” Harrington says. Try sauteing some greens (e.g. kale or spinach) and then adding a slice of reheated lasagna on top. If you made a big batch of enchiladas, your new element might be something as simple as a side salad. Or maybe you bake salmon to serve atop a leftover warm farro salad. One fresh thing can make the whole dish feel new again.
You’ve got leftover roasted chicken and a few wayward pieces of broccoli. “Turn it into a power bowl and add different layers, textures, and food groups,” says Harrington. “You can use the same foods but re-create a meal that isn’t the same one over and over again.” Reheat some quinoa you have stashed in the freezer and layer it with your protein, vegetables, and top with a really great sauce.
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Speaking of sauce, toppings can instantly transform ho-hum leftovers into something fun again. “Sauces change the whole palate of the dish. You can travel the world with different sauces and condiments,” says Harrington. There’s no shame in buying these premade, but some — hummus, green goddess, tzatziki and tahini — are easy to whip up in a bowl or with a food processor at home.
You know those times when there’s just a tiny bit of something leftover on your plate? It’s just a couple of bites and clearly not enough for a full meal. Don’t let it go to waste; definitely still save it. “I call them snack plates. It’s a little bit of everything on a plate,” says Harrington. This might be tuna salad with a couple crackers, a few stalks of broccoli, a half-serving of soup. The benefit of these snack plates? “It winds up being a balanced meal, even though it’s not a put together meal,” she says.
Canned beans and canned fish (e.g. salmon, sardines) are pantry superstars that can go a long way toward adding protein to a leftover meal when there is no protein leftover. Think tossing canned chickpeas with leftover broccolini and whole-grain pasta for a vegetarian-friendly dish.
Those healthy leftovers can feel fresh again — it just takes a bit of creativity and maybe one or two extra steps to make it happen.
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