Holidays · Slow Cooker · Tips and Tricks

Waste Not: tips for using up BBQ leftovers

I hate food waste. Mark (half-jokingly) says I’d eat around mold on leftovers rather than throw something out. He’s almost right! So parties can be my worst nightmare. I always buy enough food that there’s plenty of extra — I am part Italian, after all — but the next day that stresses me out, big-time. So what’s a hostess to do? Well, here are a few of my go-to recipes and alternate uses for the kind of leftovers you might have from a cookout or house party.

If you were grilling up burgers (veggie or otherwise), hot dogs, steak tips and chicken, then you probably have a hodge-podge of leftover meats, toppings and condiments, and possibly snacky things like chips, salsa, dip and crudites lying around, too. There are lots of ways to get rid of them.

Leftover chicken, and/or tortilla chips + salsa: Grilled poultry can get dry quickly, and leftovers are even worse. A great way to give these leftovers another life is to use them in soup, and what better way than a tasty tortilla soup that will also knock out the remainder of your almost-stale chips? I like this one from, since it has so few ingredients and comes together easily. Another great one: crockpot salsa chicken by Jo Cooks. This can use up any chicken you bought but never grilled, or you can buy new chicken and use this recipe to get rid of your leftover salsa and cheese (either slices from your burgers, or shredded cheese from your tossed salad).


Leftover fruit salad: I had a TON of fruit salad left over from Georgia’s first birthday party because my aunt went to Costco and bought the place out. So, in that case, I always grab my pint-sized ziploc bags and make ready-to-go smoothie pouches. If you keep either coconut water/milk or juice around for your liquid, you can blend up a healthy and tasty breakfast or a snack in a jiff. As soon as Georgia could drink from a straw, I had her sucking down smoothies, too ~ they are a great way to sneak in some greens, from celery to kale or spinach! I did this a couple week’s ago after Mark’s 30th birthday party when I’d cut up 80% of some chard, kale and romaine stalks for a chopped salad and then had these little stumps left over. Also fun: smoothie bowls, which use a higher ratio of fruit-to-liquid than a drinkable smoothie, and feature fresh topped fruit, nuts, pomegranate seeds, you name it. Just blend frozen fruit to a thicker consistency with yogurt, or ice, or the liquid of your choice, and spoon it up. It’s like a cross between a smoothie and frozen yogurt.

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Leftover baked beans: Ladle into storage-safe plastic baggies and lay flat in your freezer. I use sandwich size bags because they stack neatly and hold just the right amount to thaw out later for dinner. A go-to weeknight meal for us is baked beans, butterflied kielbasa roasted on a baking sheet in the oven, and a salad or vegetable with hot buttered noodles. 


Leftover hamburger rolls and hot dog buns: These will only stay fresh for about a week or so, so I try to prioritize using these for lunches before turning them over to stale-bread uses. I like to pick up some white fish salad at Costco, or make a tuna salad with mayo, dijon mustard and any leftover pickles or relish from the party, then serve them in extra hot dog rolls for lunch; failing that, you can always save old (non-moldy) bread in the fridge for use in soups or bread pudding later on, and as a last resort we keep a bag of old bread to bring to the pond to feed the ducks. (Although it’s actually better to toss them oats, corn, or peas, according to wildlife experts and conservationists). 

Leftover condiments: Use them for macaroni salad! With leftover condiments like pickles, sliced tomatoes and onions, just add mayonnaise and pasta and follow an easy recipe like The Pioneer Woman’s Best Macaroni Salad Ever. In my family, my mom always made macaroni salad with hard boiled eggs, finely chopped bell peppers, onions and Hellman’s mayonnaise, but I’ve had great versions that included pickles or relish or olives, and really you can customize this however you want for a nice picnic-ready dish. All you need to have on hand is a box of elbow pasta.

Leftover sliced or chopped onions that you used as burger and hot dog toppings: Already-diced onions can be the basis for a simple risotto, or to brine chicken or pork for dinner that week. I’ll be posting a how-to on brining very soon, but the basic idea is that you put your meat in the fridge in a bag or other container with water and salt in a ratio of 4:1 (4 cups of water per 1 tablespoon of salt) along with onions and any other seasonings you’d like to add (carrots, celery, garlic, nutmeg, the list is endless) for at least the entire work day or overnight, then rinse well before cooking. You can pan sauté the onions etc. right in with the meat after brining. Additionally, you can make a nice side dish by sauteeing up sliced onions with other items of your choosing (beans? garlic? Shallots? Zucchini? Fennel? Peppers?) until caramelized. Serve as a side, or use to top a pizza or pressed sandwich along with cheese and tomatoes, eggplant, even crumbled extra hamburger from your cookout.


With leftover alcohol — which does happen, although not often — we use any opened bottles of wine in risotto and often make beer bread with any random bottles of beer we have left over that aren’t appealing for us to drink. I’ll be posting a simple beer bread recipe very soon, and a good staple to keep around is the boxed mix by Pampered Chef, if you know someone who sells their products. Using different kinds of beer really changes the flavor of this quick-to-make bread, so it’s fun to get creative with flavors the more you make it.

Got leftover Chex Mix, pretzels or mixed nuts? I like to grind these up very fine and use them to coat baked chicken or pork chops. (Nuts can also be used to make pesto). A new trick I just picked up from Blue Apron is to bread your cutlets in flour (I’ve been using Tiger Nut and loving it) then dip in a wash of mustard and water instead of egg, and finish with panko bread crumbs. As long as you let the excess drip off after each step, you’ll prevent gloppiness from resulting. I like to pan saute chicken or pork if I’ve breaded it this way, and the trick to making sure they are cooked through without getting soggy is to heat your oil or butter until you’re certain it’s very hot (test by tossing in a few panko pieces; if they sizzle, it’s hot enough) before adding the meat. Then, cook for about 3 minutes on each side, and let it get nice and brown before turning over. The result, as Georgia says: “yay!!”

Got any other good tips for using up leftover cookout food? Let me know, I’d love to hear about it! Funny, there never seems to be a problem getting rid of dessert, does there? 🙂

4 thoughts on “Waste Not: tips for using up BBQ leftovers

  1. I find that most of my friends and relatives have refrigerators and kitchen cabinets way over filled with food that never gets eaten. I’m always encouraging people to “eat down” the food they already have in the house without going out to buy more food. I challenge folks to go for one solid week without going to a grocery store and eat only the food they’ve got now. At the end of the week, they’re able to clean the fridge and the cabinets! (Ok, you can buy milk, but that’s it!)


    Liked by 1 person

    1. YES! I love that! I used to call it the pantry challenge and it’s amazing what you can make when there’s “no food in the house.” I got to be a pro at this in college! we really lack storage space in our old house, so we have to be very strategic about eating things in order of perishability (if that makes sense).


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