Meal Planning Around Leftovers to Stretch the Food Budget

by​ Marianne Guillian
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Meal planning and using up leftovers are two great ways to reduce grocery expenses. Why not combine the two? Think of all the money you can save by meal planning around leftovers!

One thing you can do to save money is use up the food in your fridge and not let it go to waste.

People waste a lot of food, especially in the United States. It’s estimated that up to 25% of the food produced is not eaten. Wasting food also wastes money. By cleaning out your fridge each week before you go shopping and planning your meals around what needs to be used, you can eliminate food waste as well as not waste the money you have already spent on the food.

To understand what I am talking about, I will share an example of the process I go through each week.

Start your weekly shopping in the fridge and pantry

I clean my fridge before I go shopping. There are usually several things I find that need to be used.

This week I found ricotta cheese, leftover chicken and rice casserole, cabbage, two granny smith apples, one lemon, sour cream, a little bit of whipping cream, a piece of cooked chicken, a few yams, some collard greens, sliced cheddar cheese, and a pound of grass fed beef. 

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Plan your meals around what you have on hand

Here’s how I plan to use up everything I found in my fridge this week:

Ricotta cheese: I plan to buy manicotti or lasagna noodles and make one of the two. When money is tight, I’ll choose to make a lasagna casserole with pasta I already have in the house.

Sour cream and whipping cream: I have a white chicken chili recipe that uses both sour cream and some whipping cream, so I will put that on our menu for the week. My family loves this chili, and it is very easy to make. I can also use part of the cooked chicken in the fridge for the chili.

The leftover chicken and rice casserole will be used for dinner one night or for lunch one day.

Cooked chicken, cheese and sour cream: I will use the rest of the cooked chicken to make chicken enchiladas or chicken quesadillas. I can use some of the sliced cheese I need to use up in either of these recipes, too. I can also finish off the rest of the sour cream that I don’t use in the chicken chili.

 Yams: The yams will be eaten with dinner for the next two days or sent with my husband in his lunch.

Collard greens: To use the collard greens, I will make a recipe that calls for spinach and just substitute the collard greens instead of the spinach. Spinach pies sound like a good idea, so I will buy feta cheese and use the collard greens and onions I already have and put them in a homemade dough. I will also make some Arabic meat pies with the grass fed beef in the fridge and use the same dough I use for the spinach pies.

Apples: The granny smith apples could be used in an apple crisp, but I am going to use the apples to make a homemade apple oatmeal coffee cake that we really like.

Lemon: The lemon will be used to make some hummus, and I can make some homemade pita bread to go with it for lunch one day.

Cheese: The sliced cheese will be used for grilled cheese sandwiches as well as the enchiladas or quesadillas mentioned above.

Cabbage: The cabbage defintely needs to be used, so I will make a stir fry this week.

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Freeze what you can’t use

This is the process I go through in planning my menus around the leftover food in the fridge. This way, I don’t waste the food I already bought. This is financially wise as well as eco-friendly.

I also look in our freezer and see if there are things that need to be used or things I want to rotate or use up. We are going to get two bountiful baskets this Saturday, so I will have lots of produce. I will use the extra frozen veggies and fruits that I have in the freezer until Saturday when we get the baskets, so I don’t have to buy any fresh produce until then.

If I see that I can’t use up something before it will spoil, I will freeze it and use it later.

How much could meal planning around leftovers save you?

If Americans really waste 20-25 percent of the food they buy, imagine how much money you could save by not wasting the food you have. By following this process of cleaning out your fridge each week, figuring out what food needs to be used up and planning menus around those foods, you can feel the satisfaction of using what you have wisely.

Reviewed February 2022

About the Author

Marianne Giullian is a stay-at-home mom who enjoys finding ways to save money so they can live on one income. She likes to cook, read, and write. For more ideas, visit her website at

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