Leftovers are a concept that people seem to either love or hate. Whether your fridge is overstocked from a holiday meal or you just cooked a bit too much dinner, your family's taste buds might not appreciate the same meal twice. Get creative to find nutritious ways to make leftovers work and have fun re-inventing your meals.


Storing cooked foods correctly is the first step to being a master leftover preparer. Cooked food must always be stored and re-heated properly to avoid the risk of foodborne illness. Make sure you:


Always store leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of serving to prevent the growth of dangerous bacteria, explains Rutgers Cooperative Extension.


Cover dishes or wrap foods in aluminum foil or plastic wrap to keep items from drying out and dripping into the refrigerator.


If the leftovers are still warm, avoid stacking them tightly on the shelves of the fridge. Instead, give each dish enough room for air to circulate through the food and to promote even cooling.


Marking the storage container with the date can remind you when each dish was placed in the refrigerator or freezer to ensure your safety, according to the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).


Leftovers should be consumed within three to four days. After this brief time period, bacteria and mold may begin to grow--sometimes unnoticeably, other times causing your food to look rotten and smell foul. When in doubt, toss it!


Leftovers must be reheated to an internal temperature of 165?F, or you run the risk of getting sick from bacteria. Achieve safe temperatures by using a food thermometer in the thickest part of the meat or the densest area of other foods. When reheating food on the stovetop, in the oven, or in the microwave, make sure to take the dish out and turn or mix partway through heating to ensure an even distribution of temperature.

Take Stock

Assembling a tasty and healthy leftover meal is easy when you group and assess what you have in the fridge and the pantry. Check for a combination of the following:

  • Proteins: lean chicken, turkey, pork, fish, beef, beans, or eggs
  • Produce: any fruit or vegetables
  • Grains: whole grain breads, rice, pasta, or crackers
  • Fats: olive oil and fish contain healthy, heart-healthy fats
  • Sauces: salsa, Asian sauces, marinara, pesto, or flavored vinegars

Get Creative

Use an easy-to-follow recipe--or make up your own--for a nutritious second-time meal. Pick a combination of one or more items from each food group and choose the flavor you want to impart. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • So-good sandwich wrap: fold leftover chicken or turkey, tomatoes, lettuce, and peppers (or whatever veggies you have on hand) into a whole-wheat tortilla with a handful of low-fat shredded cheddar cheese and low-fat ranch dressing.
  • Done in a jiff dinner: take the same ingredients and toss with brown rice or whole grain pasta for a hot meal.
  • Culture hop: switch out the cheddar for Parmesan or mozzarella and the ranch dressing for pesto sauce for an Italian dish, or opt for a low-sodium soy-based sauce and go cheese-free to create an Asian-inspired meal.
  • Not sure what you're in the mood for in terms of flavor? Put together a platter of cold meats, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables and serve for dinner. A nutritious meal doesn't need to be hot as long as the main food groups are present.

Tip: Think outside the box when working with leftovers. Instead of serving basic meatloaf for a second time, wrap the meat, tomato sauce, and low-fat Italian cheese in homemade or store-bought pizza dough to create a calzone. Just because the food is leftover doesn't mean the taste has to be!