There are times when you're left with uneaten food from a particularly bountiful dinner, holiday get-together or doggy-bagged restaurant meal. The simplest solution is to just throw the leftovers out, and unfortunately that seems to be what more and more people are doing these days. Up to 40 percent of the food produced in the United States gets chucked into the trash can, costing the average family up to an estimated $2,000 a year.
But for thousands of years, thrifty cooks all over the world came up with ingenious ways to stretch out and use up every little bit of food, sometimes spreading a single meal's ingredients over several days. Even just a generation or two ago, leftovers were a staple of working class lunchboxes around the world. Back then, it was a matter of survival and necessity. These days, using up leftovers can be a delicious exercise in thrift, social awareness, waste reduction and overall environmental stewardship.
Each culture around the world has devised clever culinary ways to repurpose yesterday's repast. In Europe, Monday is traditionally a day to use up leftover roast meats from the Sunday meal. Think England's bubble and squeak or Sweden's pytt i panna. The Chinese perfected fried rice. Mexicans have their chilaquiles. And Americans deal with the annual dilemma of what to do with all that leftover Thanksgiving turkey. (That means turkey tetrazzini for many an unfortunate family.)
So take tips from economical cooks the world over, save a few bucks and ease up on the local landfill with these international ways to use up leftover ingredients.
Meats and poultry
Proteins give you the biggest bang for your leftover buck. Remants of roast turkey, beef, ham, pork and chicken can be diced or shredded and served in breakfast omelets, hash or frittatas. Lunch comes together quickly when you use leftover meat or chicken in sandwiches, burritos, quesadillas and wraps. For dinner, try using the meat in soups, casseroles, Asian noodle dishes, enchiladas, pot pies or a rich tikka masala.
Pasta, rice and other grains
Leftover pasta and rice can be tossed with a simple vinaigrette and some chopped veggies for a light and refreshing pasta or rice salad. Stir pasta with beaten eggs and bake it up in a hearty Italian frittata di pasta. Chinese fried rice, or chao fan, is an old standby for good reason; it's fantastic and fantastically easy. Or stir some egg and grated cheese into cold rice and fry portions up as patties. Indonesian stir-fried noodles are a great introduction to the flavors of that diverse archipelago nation.
Breads, buns and rolls
There are countless ways to use up leftover and stale bread. Breadcrumbs and croutons are two longstanding solutions. In Central Europe, bread dumplings often accompany roast pork. Spaniards and the Portuguese fry leftover bread up with other tasty tidbits to make migas. In Italy, a simple tomato-bread soup might be followed up with an apple dessert using leftover bread as a base. Middle Eastern fattoush salad calls for stale pita. Leftover cornbread is essential for Southern cornbread dressing.
Give cooked vegetables a second act in soups, pasta sauces, casseroles, paella, pizza, shepherd's pie, hash, frittatas and omelets. Leftover mashed potatoes are perfect for fried potato patties and compose the classic topping for shepherd's pie.
Bones and vegetable trimmings
You got roast chicken bones? Then you got the fixings for homemade chicken stock. You'll never go back to bouillon cubes. And don't throw away those onion skins and carrot peels. Those are great for stock too.
Compost the rest
Sometimes you simply can't salvage everything. But instead of sending that food off to the landfill, try keeping it close to home by composting it. Veggie remains break down over time into a nutrient-rich, soil-like additive to go in your garden or to gift to friends. Even meat, bones, fats and dairy — not considered suitable for most home composting — can be safely composted using a Japanese-style bokashi composter.
International Recipes for Leftovers
Try recipes from around the world for using up leftovers.
(German bread dumplings)
(How to make chicken stock, with variations)
(American cornmeal bread dressing)
(English fried potatoes and cabbage)
(Irish potato pancakes)
(Mexican chicken and cheese stuffed tortillas)
(Mexican fried tortillas with chicken)
(English-Irish meat pie with mashed potato topping)
(Mexican fried tortillas in sauce)
(Italian apple torte)
(American savory chicken stew in pastry)
(Italian open-faced omelet)
(Taiwanese egg fried rice)
(Italian bread and tomato salad)
(Italian tomato-bread soup)
(Portuguese, Spanish leftover bread dish)
(Swedish potato and meat breakfast hash)