Frugal Cooking Ideas for Leftover Dinner Meat

by Julie on October 3, 2011 · 9 comments

The following is a guest post from Shaun at Smart Family Finance. Shaun is a former short order cook with 10 years experience. Every Friday, he features a weekly frugal recipe for a dinner that costs less than $1 a serving. He also uses his career experience to share family finance information.

My family takes our “frugal omnivore” status very seriously. We enjoy vegan, vegetarian, and occasionally gluten-free; but it’s the nights we have meat that are becoming special events. Not because meat is somehow superior to carrot-and-squash stew over quinoa (delicious!), but because the constantly rising cost of meat makes it harder for frugal omnivores to be both frugal and omnivores.

The USDA has estimated that the cost of consuming our favorite herbivorous animals will increase by 7 to 8 percent this year alone. Beef has inflated by double-digits already. Holding fast to our frugality means we can do one of three things:

  • Take advantage of the falling cookie prices by increasing cookie consumption, while simultaneously increasing our chances of a “Honey We’re Killing the Kids” appearance
  • Renounce omnivore living and miss out on some of our favorite meals
  • Find a way to prove that frugalness and an omnivore diet can coexist.

For my family, option three was the way to go. We did it by taking advantage of our leftover dinner meat and stretching one meal into two.

Meat rarely comes packaged in the portions that fit with a young family’s stomach capacity. There are always odd portions of leftovers like the last third of roast chicken, one or two fish filets or a half a pound of beef roast. These awkward portions prevent us from leftover dinner night. Although they are great for one lucky member’s brown-bag lunch the next day, my family is accustomed to finding cooking ideas to stretch the leftovers so that the whole family can enjoy the meaty goodness a second night.

Put it on Two Slices of Bread

There’s a well-known miracle in the Bible about how a multitude was fed with five loaves of bread and two fish. With a little leftover meat and a few slices of bread, you can feed your own little multitude.

  • Leftover steak – Only have about a half a pound of steak left? Normally it would be a meal for one or two, but it can easily be made into four Philly cheese steak sandwiches. Cut the steak into thin slices, sauté with peppers, onion, mushrooms and cheese, then place between two slices of bread.
  • Left over fish filets – Two fish filets easily divide into four servings, but it’s far less satisfying than fish salad sandwiches. Simply shred the filets, add a little mayo, some celery and onion and then surround it with bread. Fry up the fish mixture with some cheese before placing on bread to make it a melt.

Drown it in a Soup or Stew

Try watering your leftovers instead of your vegetable garden for one night. Many bone-in meats are cheaper than boneless and more useful too. Bones can be boiled into stock which is the most important ingredient to any good soup or stew (it’s also cheaper to make your own stock instead of buying premade). If your family has left a little meat on the bones, you have a good start to a potentially great soup or stew.

  • Leftover roast chicken – My family only eats about two-thirds of a whole roasted chicken. It leaves us about a half a pound of chicken, which perfect amount for some homemade chicken soup. Just pick the bones clean, use the carcass to make stock and return the chicken meat to the stock with noodles and veggies. It’s not a time-saver, but it is a money-saver.
  • Leftover bone-in lamb roast – Left over lamb tastes best in a slow-cooked stew. A pound of left-over lamb is best, but you can just substitute more vegetables if you are under weight. Again, making the stock from scratch is time consuming, but the rewards are worth the effort.

Take it Across the Border

I’ve found few meat leftovers that cannot be wrapped up in a tortilla and converted into a tasty dish. Steak, chicken and pork are easily converted into fajitas, quesadillas and burritos. They are almost too easy to mention, so here are two tips that might not have crossed your mind.

  • Cold cut turkey for one – Have you found yourself in the precarious situation of having two children ask for a turkey sandwich, but only have enough slices for one? No problem! Cut what you have up into cubes, then sauté with peppers and onions (provided your children find peppers and onions edible), grill up of few tortillas with cheese and add salsa for some turkey quesadillas.
  • Stretch your chili – want to make your giant vat of homemade chili go further without boring? Try chili burritos. Simply substitute the meat of the burrito with chili. My family also likes to add rice to burritos, which makes the chili last even longer.

Rice or Noodles

It would seem that rice and noodles were made to go with small portions of meat, which explains why there are endless recipes for casserole (Hot Dish to you Minnesotans).

  • Left over hamburgers – I know the men in your life would never let a hamburger escape uneaten. But what if they did? What would you do with two quarter pounders? Personally, I’d freeze them until the next time I was making spaghetti with meat sauce. Simply thaw, grind up and add to your sauce.
  • The uneaten chicken breast – This one is more likely, especially if the package of chicken you purchased had an odd number of breasts. My wife and I like to mix a half pound of chicken with a can of cream of chicken soup, a can of cream of celery soup, broccoli and a half cup of rice to make an easy-to-assemble casserole that serves six.

Lay it Down on a Bed of Vegetables

What better way to celebrate being an omnivore than to combine last night’s carnivore dinner with tonight’s herbivore entrée? There are at least three good reasons to skip all of the ideas above and go the salad route. First of all, you can go really skinny on the meat leftovers. People expect more veggies than meat to be on a salad, so you have no fear in skimping on meat portions: just put more veggies in. Second, with the meat already cooked, it is extremely fast and easy. Finally, vegetables are very good for you and adding a little meat might entice the vegetable-resistant population residing in your household to eat a little of it.

  • Leftover Meatloaf – Since the whole “leftover hamburgers” thing was crazy to begin with, I thought I’d venture a more plausible cause of leftover ground meat. Grind up your meatloaf and briefly sauté with a little taco seasoning. Pour over lettuce and tomatoes; add a little cheese and a few tortilla chips. Add salsa and voila! Taco salad.
  • Leftover roast beef – Perfect for lettuce wraps. Shred and sauté with some choice vegetables and a tangy sauce and you can’t go wrong. Wrap the results in a nice big romaine leaf or a crunchy Bibb leaf (or iceberg if that’s your thing). If you don’t have a large portion of meat leftovers, cook in a little bit of rice to stretch it further.

Meat prices will go up, but the amount you budget for food doesn’t have to.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Sakura October 3, 2011 at 10:29 pm

One way we’ve found to incorporate meat into our meals is to cook it and chop it up. I can’t think of the last time we sat down for a big fat steak and potato. My family loves beef, but they always like it better made into or with something. I also use my meatloaf recipe to make our meatballs. For some reason my family can consume a lot more meat in meatball form than in meatloaf form, odd. Another thing I’m trying on my family is to incorporate some TVP into our meals. So far so good, they haven’t complained but that could be because they haven’t noticed.


Julie October 4, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Better not to tell them, Sakura.


Christa October 4, 2011 at 3:09 pm

I like the cookie idea. Do you think my family and I could live entirely on cookies? ;-)

Seriously, I love these ideas! I like to purposefully save enough chicken to make chicken salad. My recipe is 1/3 grapes, 1/3 celery and 1/3 chicken, so a little chix stretches a long way!


Julie October 4, 2011 at 10:27 pm



Kris @ Everyday Tips October 5, 2011 at 8:06 am

I love the south of the border idea. I use a lot of leftover chicken/beef for nachos, quesadillas, you name it. I also like to buy one of those rotisserie chickens (I know, not leftover) and make a quick batch of chicken noodle soup.


Julie October 5, 2011 at 1:16 pm

We do a lot of quesadillas too, Kris. And rotisserie chickens can be a big timesaver.


First Gen American October 5, 2011 at 3:54 pm

I have an issue with leftover taco meat. It never seems to get eaten. I did have a revelation that making nachos is never an option because we’re not usually in the mood for mexican back to back but a taco salad is actually palatable.


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