Let’s be honest: We all tend to buy and make too much food for Thanksgiving. I do it every year. And you must have too, or you wouldn’t be looking for ideas for holiday leftovers, right?
Personally, I love holiday leftovers. They may even be the best part of the whole holiday dinner. When I go shopping for the main meal, I think ahead to what I’ll do with the leftovers. Will ham be on the table? I’ll pick up split peas or beans. Turkey or ham? I plan on making stock or soup from the bones.
A few years ago, I quizzed food writer friends about what they did with their holiday leftovers. Here’s some advice from them, along with some fresh ideas.
1. Update the traditional leftover sandwich
“I just recently created some holiday recipes for a grocery store and some of them used leftover turkey,” Amy says. “One of my absolute favorite recipes was a turkey, jack cheese and cranberry sauce melt on whole wheat bread.” A great example: her grilled cheese, pear and turkey sandwich.
“Turkey is really good in all kinds of grilled cheese sandwiches, so get as creative as you like with it,” Sherman says. ” Try it with chutney, slices of apple, tomato, roasted red pepper or a layer of leftover cooked vegetables like sautéed spinach or creamed onions. You could even use turkey or ham in a Reuben (in place of pastrami) or Cuban sandwich (in place of the roast pork). I like cheddar, jack or swiss cheese paired with turkey. Grilled cheese turkey sandwiches are so easy to make even kids can make them. Best of all they let you enjoy some of the flavors of Thanksgiving in a fresh way.”
2. Make a Drink with the Cranberry Sauce
Seriously. For an elegant post-holiday toast, make a simple cranberry champagne cocktail by putting a teaspoon into the bottom of a flute and top with sparkling wine. Alternately, you can try my recipe for a “Crantini” for a post-shopping break. Combine 1 1/2 oz. gin, 1/2 oz. Cointreau, 1 teaspoon cranberry sauce in a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and pour into chilled martini glass. Garnish with lime wedge.
3. Mashed potato patties
Olga Massov has a terrific idea for leftover veggies. “One of my favorite things to do is to take leftover mashed potatoes and make these mashed potato patties with them and whatever leftover vegetables I have. Usually it’s caramelized onions and/or squash so I just combine them (cut the squash into smaller pieces if need be), bind with an egg, and fry in olive oil. I mix a lemon-dill yogurt dipping sauce and voila – vegetables reborn. It makes for a really delicious post Thanksgiving lunch!”
4. Kentucky Hot Browns
My brother’s family has lived in Louisville for more than a decade. When my niece was married at the famed Brown Hotel, the meal options for the reception included a Kentucky Hot Brown. Looking around the room, it appeared 95% of the guests were tucking into one. A Hot Brown is basically an option faced sandwich topped with turkey, thin slices of tomato and a creamy cheese sauce. This is broiled until it’s slightly browned and bubbly and then topped with slices of bacon. I often skip the bacon and top the tomato with diced ham (if it was part of the meal) and then broil it. In place of the tomato, I’ve used leftover green beans or Brussel sprouts with great results. Try the original recipe from The Brown Hotel.
5. Make Stock
“I always make stock,” says Sheri Wetherall, the editor-in-chief of Foodista.com. “I roast the carcass with carrots, onions, celery and whatever yummy root veggies I have on hand until the bones are dark and golden, then simmer it for a long time on as low as I can get it until I have a luscious broth! I freeze it in small-sized batches for soups throughout the year. Check out my latest take on bone broth/stock for tips on how to extract the most goodness from those bones. Works for beef, turkey or chicken bones.
6. Make Soup
When you’ve got the stock, you can make a wide range of soups. You can keep the flavor of the holiday meal or really change it up. Check out my Soup 101 guide for how to make soup out of virtually anything, including bean soup from a ham bone. Meanwhile, here a couple of my favorite options from food writer friends:
- Comforting Turkey Potato Soup from the WhiteOnRiceCouple.com
- Turkey Soup with Lemon and Barley from SimplyRecipes.com
7. Turkey Gumbo
Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen is a fan what I typically do with a leftover turkey: make turkey gumbo. “What’s great about this is that it’s nearly a one-pot meal, easy to make and has such intense flavor that’s DIFFERENT from night-before menu,” Jaden says. I totally agree. See my guide on how to make gumbo out of (almost) anything.
8. Turkey and Dumplings
Keep the comfort food going. Wetherall has a great twist on the classic chicken and dumplings on Foodista.com.
9. Make Meaty Salad
A twist on chicken salad, a simple turkey salad can be an easy lunch when plopped onto a bed of simple greens or put inside a pita. I like this recipe from Kalyn’s Kitchen. Made roast beef? Make a simple green salad, top with blue cheese dressing and slices of roast beef.
10. Turkey or Beef Pot Pie
A classic. I liked this updated version with cheddar biscuits as the top crust from Just a Taste.
11. Sweet Potato Souffle
If you end up with a lot of mashed sweet potatoes like we seem to every year, consider trying your hand at shifting them into a souffle. Note: this won’t work if you covered up their naturally sweet flavor with tons of syrup or marshmallows. Marla Meredith at FamilyFreshCooking.com has a lovely recipe for sweet potato souffles with feta and sage.
12. Fry the Leftover Sage Leaves
I did this a couple of years ago. It genuinely intensifies the flavor and adds a certain something to a leftover sandwich or even crumbled into a dish. Saveur’s recipe is the best one I’ve found.
13. Try Turkey Curry
Remember the opening of Bridget Jones Diary? Every New Year’s Day, Bridget’s mother hosted her turkey curry buffet. I found it hard to get a turkey in November. Why? They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and turkey tends to be reserved for Christmas dinner. Curry is a very traditional means to dispatch the leftovers from the holiday turkey. I’ve used this recipe from the BBC site for the past couple of years. When it calls for “double cream,” you just use whipping cream. I’ve used sweet potatoes in place of the butternut squash.
14. Make croutons
It seems like there’s always leftover rolls and bread from holiday meals. You can only eat so many sandwiches or consume so many carbs. Don’t throw it away. Dice it up, toast it and make it into croutons.
15. Orange Cranberry Smoothies
Even a couple tablespoons of cranberry sauce can transform a simple smoothie. In a blender, combine a few tablespoons of leftover cranberry sauce, ¼ cup orange juice, ½ cup yogurt, a banana, a bit of honey and blend together. Taste and add a bit more honey if needed.
16. BLT Turkey Tacos with Cranberry Salsa
I tried this recipe from How Sweet Eats a couple of years ago. I admit that I use tortillas something of a crutch to use up leftovers. This felt like a great complement to the carb heavy holiday meal with a few crumbles of bacon tossed in to complement the sweetness of the cranberry salsa.
17. Turkey Panzanella
By definition, the famed Italian summer lunch dish, panzanella, is itself a leftover dish. In this classic Tuscan dish, chunks of stale white bread are tossed with sliced onions, chopped tomatoes and basil then soaked with a vinaigrette made with good olive. Take the leftover rolls and bread from the dinner and toast lighter if not sufficiently stale, make a lemony vinaigrette and toss in chopped turkey, tomatoes and herbs.
18. Turkey or Ham Cobb Salad
If you’re ready to go low carb after the big dinner, a cobb salad is just the ticket. Grab a couple avocados, tomatoes and some bleu cheese when you’re shopping for the rest of the meal. After that, all you have to do is boil a couple of eggs. Take leftover turkey and ham (or bacon) and voila!
19. Meatballs from Leftover Stuffing
Finely chop turkey and mix leftover stuffing with an egg and leftover stuffing and Italian seasoning and bake for about 10 minutes. Put on a roll with some cheese for a lovely meatball sandwich. If you want more traditional meatballs with beef (or a plant-based ground protein), check out this recipe from Good Housekeeping.
Originally published in 2014. Updated November 2020.
Another great way to dress up leftovers is to make pastry turnovers. Simply cut up turkey in small pieces and mix with leftover veggies to form a “hash’ consistency. Season well with salt, pepper and a bit of sage. Roll out pastry sheets and cut into 4 x 4 inch squares (you can find pastry sheets in the frozen food section). Place a scoop of the hash in the middle of each sheet and press closed to form a triangle. Brush the top with egg.
Cook for about 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven or until golden brown. Serve with leftover turkey gravy and cranberry relish…yum!
P.S. I’ve actually used this trick for all kinds of leftovers – from pot roast to mexican. It’s always a crowd pleaser!
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I agree completely with Amy about the turkey leftovers! Some great ideas here; thanks for the shout-out.
Jennifer C says
Love all these great ideas. The cranberry cocktails are keeper! Thank you!
Jane Setsuko Hill says
Great ideas, thank you