Quick, thrifty, and retro: food remnant and leftover tips

Amazon: Use It Up Cookbook: Creative Recipes for the Frugal CookWith all of the dire economic news swirling around us, it's worth taking a closer look at the grocery budget. I do pretty well at the grocery store — I buy in season and on sale, and I am working on home-cooking the most expensive regular items — but my stumbling block is the fridge. Every week something lingers in there a little longer than it should, and I find myself throwing away perfectly good food. Vegies shrivel in the bid, or half-cans of tomatoes go unused, or leftover dinners go uneaten.

I HATE throwing away food that has gone bad simply due to my lack of forethought.

I'm concentrating on finding creative ways to either reuse or use up those refrigerator odds and ends. My current favorite harkens back to the 70s, when cream soups were a basic ingredient in a variety of casseroles and baked dishes. The thing is, I'm a bit of a food snob, so I never gave those recipes a second glance. But even food snobs run low on time and money, so I've decided to take the plunge, and the results in this case are delicious.

(Inspired by a similar recipe in one of my favorite weeknight cookbooks, The Six O'Clock Scramble)

1 refrigerated pie crust (I use the Pillsbury brand you unroll, my own crust always disappoints)
1 onion, finely chopped and sauteed
4-6 cups chopped mixed vegetables
1-2 cups chopped cooked chicken or meat (optional)
1 T. oil
salt, pepper, and thyme to taste
1 can cream soup (cream of mushroom or chicken)

Mix the onion, vegies, meat, and cream soup together, and season with salt, pepper and thyme. (Depending on the soup, you may not need salt.) Dump the mixture into the crust, and top with a second crust. Cut slits to vent. Bake at 375 till nice and brown and bubbly.

Obviously, the vegie-and-meat part of the recipe is where you get creative. You can chop up the bottom-of-the-bin vegies and lightly saute them with the onion, or you can use already-cooked vegies (a proportion of frozen mixed vegies will add to the thriftiness and retro appeal). As for the meat, chopped chicken, steak, or even mild seafood would work. We're mostly vegetarian, and I've used fake "chicken" with great success. The total amount you use depends on the size of your pie plate. You could even make little turnovers or mini-pies if you've got the time.

Delicious comfort food, says hot for a long time (so good to share), and freezes beautifully. You can even freeze it unbaked and save it for a future dinner.

Other ideas:

  • Turn leftover rice into rice pudding or fried rice (another great end-of-the-week meal)
  • Turn leftover bread into bread pudding, french toast, croutons, or crumbs (store in the freezer)
  • Twitter friend Kreatrix says any leftover can go into a quiche: Pie crust + 2 eggs + 1 c. milk + leftovers = quiche! (I'm so going to do this.)
  • Yomama_van says any leftover can stuff a quesadilla: place between tortillas, add a little cheese, heat till toasty, dip in guacamole or hummus.
  • Leftover egg whites can go into meatloaf (another retro hit!) or my new fave low-fat granola recipe.
  • SOUP! There's always soup. If you've got an onion and a carrot you've got the basis of a delicious soup that can incorporate vegies, greens, pasta, meat, canned tomatoes, grains… Keep some stock concentrate or broth powder on hand to simplify this idea even further.

So many more ideas, of course! I've you've got favorite links or short recipes (like Kreatrix's quiche), add them in the comments. Otherwise, email me your thrifty, quick recipes with the subject line LEFTOVERS and I'll post them in a series!

Related: Meal planning hack: Cook from a single cookbook all week (or all month)

AndGrocery coupons: balancing time spent with money saved


  1. says

    One thing that REALLY helps us use what we’ve got is to have a leftover meal once or twice a week. You pull all the leftovers out, then everyone picks what they want and zaps it in the microwave. Super easy, and the kids love being able to choose what they’re going to eat, especially since in general I am the type of mom who says, ‘you get what you get.’ If there aren’t quite enough leftovers to make a whole meal, I’ll set out peanut butter and bread to supplement. Works great.

    Mary, mom to 10

  2. Sarah says

    I made a pot pie after Thanksgiving but only had a bottom crust… so I topped it with leftover mashed potatoes. It worked out really well!

  3. Serena says

    Our current favorite is to cook a whole chicken (I use my crockpot to do this – SOOOO easy, just rub with lots of salt and pepper, cook on low for 7-10 hours – add a sliced lemon and/or fresh herbs if you like).
    1st night: “roast” chicken with sides like rice/veggies

    Later in the week, use leftover chicken to turn into an assortment of potential meals: chicken pot pie, quesadillas, toss with pasta and sauce (pesto, tomato, peanut – variations can really change this one), sandwiches (we like to top with cheese and make pressed sandwiches for a “fancier” dinner)

  4. marci says

    we have rubberm@id divided plates, and keep them going in the fridge – as meals end, we place portions of leftovers in the plates for lunches later in the week. the plates may end up being identical or very different, depending on how much of a food is left over.

    we also have freezer bags marked ‘soup’ for teeny bits of veggies that aren’t enough for a serving. then once a month or so they are used for – guess what? – soup!

  5. says

    This is going to seem like the ultimate cop-out, but whenever I hit Costco (usually 2x/month) I pick up one of their rotisserie chickens (the biggest one I can find–there’s usually one about to pop out of the container). That night we have something like chicken-pesto panini, or a slice of chicken on a big salad, chicken with black beans and rice, etc and put ALL the leftovers (skin, bones, juice from the bottom of the container, remaining carcass) into a pot, cover it with water and simmer on LOW (NOT high!!) for a couple of hours. It makes amazing chicken broth, then I throw in a can of cannelini or great northern beans, some italian seasoning, whatever veggies I have, and a can of drained diced tomatoes, or just make some nice chicken noodle soup. Both are super-simple and take full advantage of chicken bits that would otherwise be thrown away!

  6. says

    I have yet to find a good balance between thrifty, healthy, and quick. My thriftiest meals (soup, soup, soup) aren’t really quick. But I do have leftover advice: freezer, not fridge. I find it’s very hard for us to reliably eat leftovers within 3 to 4 days as is usually recommended. So, instead of taking a chance by storing the food in the fridge, I immediately store the food in single-sized portions in the freezer. Pre-portioning is key, makes it super easy to pull out for lunch and prevents creating more waste by reheating more than we can/will eat.

  7. Amy says

    We use the Six o’Clock Scramble – a 6-month subscription. It is awesome. Every night, we cook dinner (well, four nights a week, anyway, and then Friday is pizza, Saturday something like nachos, and Sunday is hamburgers on the grill). There are always leftovers, so we take those to work for lunch. My husband packages up the leftovers into lunch-sized portions when he is cleaning up the dishes and we grab that in the morning. On the weekends, we eat any other leftovers for lunch. If there is anything enormous (like lasagna) that we can’t eat in a week, we freeze it, but I do often forget what is in the freezer. Often The Scramble provides recipes that are conducive to throwing in whatever vegetables I have in my produce drawer, so I am able to use up most of my spinach, bell peppers, scallions … I highly recommend The Scramble!

  8. says

    Ok, my favorite site for this kind of thing is $5 Dinners – ABSOLUTELY! She’s been working on a special diet for her kids but still includes ‘regular’ recipes too. Shopping advice, coupons, leftovers, menu planning – it’s all here! :) Oh, and try her turkey pot pie (thanksgivig leftovers) – super easy and very tasty!

  9. Ed says

    I love the soup and freezer options.

    Soup is very flexible and allows for all sorts of herb and spice combinations to add flavor to (or cover up) the leftovers.

    Portion- or meal-size freezer storage allows for a quick meal at a later date.

  10. Janice says

    I had a brainstorm this week for some party leftovers – I made way too much chili con queso. So yeseterday, I warmed it up and threw in some elbow macaroni. Chili mac and cheese! It was delicious and only took 10 minutes (to cook the mac).

  11. says

    Since we moved and lost our composter, I’ve been saving fresh veggie scraps (peels, tops, teeny bits) in a gallon freezer bag. Every other week, I make about two pints of veggie stock in the slow cooker. I guess it’s only thrifty if you tend to buy the veggie stock in a box/can. It’s good as a soup base, to thin out baby purees, and for sauteeing other veggies.

  12. Kim N. says

    Have leftover meatloaf? Chop it up and use it in your Hamburger Helper. Have little bits of everything in your freezer? One of the tastiest casseroles I ever made was half a bag of shoestring french fries, half a bag of frozen broccoli florets, a can of cheddar cheese soup, a cup of milk, a quarter bag of green peas, and a top layer of the dozen or so chicken nuggets in the bottom of a bag. Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of wraps, but since I had a lot of carrots/zucchini/onions getting a little old, I shredded them, sauteed them until a little carmelized, and I just spoon it unto my wraps. Rotisserie chickens? We eat the legs when we bring them home, and the wings, and then we pull the rest of the meat off. The breasts get sliced and put in Tupperware in the fridge to top salads, use in sandwiches, shred and add a little barcecue sauce to, etc. Little bits of cereal and crackers left in the containers? Toss it all in tupperware for a kid’s snack mix. Little bits of berries going bad? Mix them with a tbsp or 2 og sugar and cook them down in the microwave to make a sort of preserves that are great for topping English muffins. With a little creativity, you can do just about anything *with* anything.