It’s Wednesday night—mid week; zero hour: five PM. Dinner is at six, and you know you’ve got nothing but the last weeks remnants of meals-past waiting in the fridge. Fact: leftovers are all you have, but you also know there is a reason they are still waiting in your fridge a full week after inception. Across the room, the take-out menu for Yen Lu’s Chinese restaurant looks tempting, but beside it rests the empty wallet. A meal is a terrible thing to waste, but if only there were some way to make the leftovers more appealing.
We’ve all been here before; whether you are in college, have a family, or are the young urban professional—leftovers are a fact of life. The deed would seem much more doable if the monotony of leftovers was not so disheartening. The palette craves new flavors, and Sunday’s dried-out meat loaf can’t seem to cut it. If you find yourself with kids, you have their dissatisfaction to look forward too as well. There is an answer, however, to the midweek meal fiasco, and it all depends on your creativity and willingness to try something new. Here are some tips to get those leftovers out of the fridge, onto the table, and into your happy tummy in a way you can—and should—get excited about.
Tacos: Believe it or not—but believe it—tacos are one of the most versatile foods out there. Beyond the required hard or soft shell base, the taco itself is free to take on any ingredients it can hold. This is by no means limited ground beef, cheese, and lettuce; included rather, can be any bit of food you feel the shell can hold. Leftover Hamburger Helper?—shred some cheese, slap down some hot sauce and sour cream, maybe pinch little lettuce; you’ve got some tacos everyone can enjoy. The same tactic can go with your meatloaf, or even that chicken Rice-a-Roni in the back of your refrigerator. Before you turn your nose, give it a try. Consider what traditional tacos are to begin with, and know your additions are really just a much improved variation of the now-familiar theme. Your best bet?—keep a few packets of taco seasoning on hand to add that little extra spice.
Shake-n-Bake: Not just for chicken, and certainly not just a fun catch phrase. Shake-n-Bake—or the store brand of your choosing—will give tons of life to anything you can fit into the shake sack—and I mean anything. Mac and cheese is a favorite of mine. Simply put your leftys into the bag, shake, bake, and consider adding little extra cheese sauce if you can find some. The noodles will become crunchy and seasoned, and adding leftover cooked veggies will be a perfect addition to this casserole—and feel free to shake the veggies, too, if you like them crunchy. Cook some minute rice—a valuable component to any pantry whenever leftovers are concerned—and spread the baked mac and cheese with veggies on top of the rice. Drizzle your extra cheese sauce over everything and enjoy. This is just one option for using Shake-n-Bake to enhance your leftovers; but really, the options are endless, so just get creative!
Pizza: Say what? No, really: pizza. The only trick to this one to be sure you keep plenty of pre-made crust—available at any local grocery store—on hand should the occasion arise. This is a great idea for the kiddos in the house, since all kids love pizza. If you let the kids get involved in making the dish, this will also allow for some great family interaction; and I guarantee, the kids will clean their plates once the pizza comes out of the oven. This is an all-around crowd pleaser. Apart from the cheese, pizza is primarily an assortment of toppings, meaning if you only have small portions left over, this is a great way to help clear out the refrigerator and cut back on waste. Potatoes are a very unique and delicious item to top a pizza with; as are any sort of meat: from meatloaf to salmon to turkey. Cooked veggies will help bring the health factor to your pizza; and, in the end, you are bound to find an astoundingly gourmet creation making its way from the oven to your table.
Stir-fry: This one will take you back to your college days, when you used to live off the diet of Ramen noodles just to make rent. Fortunately, the more sophisticated you now knows how to make Ramen into something more than soup-for-the-go. Sauté your leftover veggies and meats with a little vegetable oil and soy sauce, and cook your Ramen separately for now; but be sure to NOT add the flavor packet—save those for a later date, they may come in handy on your next leftover night. Keep an eye on the veggies, and add extra soy sauce when needed. When the noodles are soft, drain the water and mix in your sautéed meat and veggies. Add more soy sauce if needed. Chop sticks optional.
Salads: It’s amazing how easily folks sometimes forget the power of salad. Often, our minds stay focused on the traditionals: Caesar and Garden. In reality, the options for salad are as vast as your imagination. The best part about the salad option is they require no need to waste energy firing up the stove or microwave; the ingredients are perfectly temperate straight out of the fridge. Cut up those leftover veggies, meats, and the fruits you are looking to get out of your way. Add some green, and get creative with the dressing; or, try adding some of that leftover chilled pasta to the mix for a delicious pasta salad. There are no limits—and no wrong moves—with salads. They make great summer dishes, and can host a wide variety of food options.
The next time your pantry runs low, but the fridge is still packed with Tupperware and plastic-wrapped plates, don’t be hesitant to try something new. Cooking is an art form, but you do not need to be an artist to create a unique and delicious meal. Lose the boundaries and love the limitations; this is where creativity thrives. Get involved and challenge yourself, soon you’ll find leftover night is the best night of the week, because it is different every time. The more you can do with the food you already have, the less you’ll have to drop unnecessarily restocking the pantry. You’ll find yourself feeling happier in the kitchen, and excited to take on any culinary challenge that comes your way.
Author Bio: Bryan Furgison is food enthusiast with several years experience in the food industry via culinary art and restaurant management. He is an online publisher for the commercial refrigeration retailer Coldtech Commercial, which specializes in prep tables, restaurant supply, commercial appliances.