You can only make microwave the same meal or make the same turkey/stuffing/cranberry sandwich so many times. So how do you make the leftovers of the biggest eating holiday of the year as special as the big day itself? Here's some food for thought.
We're all familiar with the trappings of a quintessential Thanksgiving feast. Whether it's brined or basted, roasted, baked, deep-fried, or smoked, a golden-brown turkey is, of course, the star. Potatoes, sweet or not, come in an array of applications. Stuffing can be given its own spin with variations of bread types and add-ins. Cranberry sauce—canned or fresh—elicits a friendly debate year after year. Then, there are greens, be they beans, sprouts, leafy, cruciferous, or other. And finally, pies, glorious pies. All the other accoutrements, like corn, breads, cakes, and cookies—they're just a bonus.
But just because these items are expected doesn't mean they're boring. Every family has its own spin on all of these essentials. However, not every family has amazing spins on repurposing the leftovers from the big day. Many choose to just make the same plate in the same proportions over and over again until it's gone.
Sure, it's delicious and keeps the holiday spirit going, but this solution also runs the risk of making that banner meal a little less special if eaten ad nauseum to fatigue. That's where a little imagination comes in, and we're here with some food for thought to whet that appetite and tickle that fancy.
Switch Up Your Meals
Instinctively, the word "Thanksgiving" is typically followed by "dinner," but there's no hard and fast rule saying it has to. So change it up and think about how you can enjoy the components of what you've already made last p.m. the next (few) a.m. Turn cranberry walnut bread into French toast. Imagine savory riffs on sweet classics, like waffles made with leftover mashed potatoes or stuffing, which you can then top with slices of turkey or eggs and cheese, or make a classic like pancakes seasonal with yams or butternut squash that you've already mashed.
Just make sure when you make the swaps using leftovers, that you account for ingredients used in their first life. For instance, this sweet potato pancake recipe is a great start, but if you've already buttered and nutmegged your spuds, adjust accordingly.
Put an Egg on It
Nothing says "breakfast" more eloquently than popping an egg on top. This sunny solution immediately changes the tone of your ingredients, which makes seasonal hashes delicious ways to reimagine your Turkey Day scraps. Sub our favorite fall fowl for sausage and don't be afraid to use whatever simple roasted or steamed veggies you have on hand—part of the beauty of hashes is that they're incredibly versatile since the vegetable components are easily interchangeable.
You can also do the same for hangover helper classics like bubble and squeak, using mashed potatoes if you didn’t roast any the night before, subbing sweet potatoes for carrots, and more. Dark meat turkey and skin can add richness to the dish so you won't miss the traditional beef or pork flavors.
And if you're tired of tubers, consider a different starch base. This ramen riff is a good foundation for a fall noodle stir-fry and an easy way to bring something unexpected to the post-Thanksgiving table.
Tasteful noodles aren't the only way Thanksgiving leftovers can get a glamorous international makeover. A lot of classically seasoned elements of our standard feast translate well into other cuisines! For instance, you can never really go wrong with fried rice or general stir-fry—soy sauce can cover and enhance a multitude of flavors.
The same goes with strong flavors like tomatoes, peppers, and curries. So go ahead and let your American tradition take a trip south of the border with enchiladas stuffed with turkey and sweet potato instead of chicken and calabaza and make tacos with Brussels sprouts given new life via air fryer, and top them with cotija cheese. Make a gorgeous Indian-inspired curry with your leftover turkey and serve it up with yesterday's mashed potatoes and peas instead of rice.
Another route you can easily take is to Europe. Try making a turkey paella, adding in your cooked green beans, or just reheat your green beans with some tomatoes for something simply Continental. You can also keep it comfortable by making a turkey cottage pie, which makes great use of mashed potatoes, leftover meat, and whatever vegetables you have on hand.
Wrap and Roll
Another way to dress up your leftovers? Enrobe it in dough. Thanksgiving dumplings are one of the most popular holiday recipes on The Spruce Eats, and leftover turkey empanadas aren't far behind. Consider making sweet potato ravioli or add cabbage to the mashed potatoes and turn it into colcannon... then turn that into pierogies! All are fun to make, easy to eat, and irresistibly poppable, making quick work of getting rid of post-feast excess.
If you want to get really fancy with how you choose to wrap up your leftovers, try rolling them, whether into a burrito or savory crepes that you can supplement with creamed spinach you may have made. Buying pre-made crepes and using gravy instead of the sauce can also cut down on the work.
And of course, good old-fashioned sandwiches and flatbread wraps should always be a consideration. A turkey reuben can feel less seasonal than stacking the standard fixin's on top of bread hearty enough to withstand it... although there's much to be said about making stuffing-waffle grilled cheese!
Riff Off Another Dish
Simple swaps can help you get back to a "normal" menu as well as help you clear your fridge back out. For instance, using turkey for things might traditionally call for chicken, like a Cajun stew or chicken salad, where you can also use up some of your cranberry sauce in lieu of grapes.
You can also just build on things you already made, turning sides into something heftier. We mentioned making a hash before, but also consider bulking up your sides by combining components. For example, turn your creamed corn into something more nutritionally dense by adding black beans and turkey to something like this layered Southwestern corn casserole. You can also turn corn into chowder—here's one that will let you use up sweet potatoes and kale, too—and turkey into noodle soup or turkey and dumplings.
Give your green bean casserole more filling power by tossing in boiled potatoes—if you made mashed from scratch, it's likely you may have extra, and this will be a good way to make some room in your pantry from your Thanksgiving stock-ups. Yet another way to layer up and get rid of ingredients you may have overbought, like pie crust, is to try your hand at a turkey pot pie or roasted vegetable quiche.
Spin That Sauce
Plenty of people use cranberry sauce as a sandwich spread and we mentioned before using that instead of grapes for a chicken salad. But that's only the opening whirl for what you can do with your Thanksgiving sauces once you think beyond that Thursday.
Consider putting cranberries on different meats, like pork chops or salmon for fall and winter flavor that isn't so holiday-specific. Add chili to spice it up and give it more dimension and a different feel. Mix it in with homemade labneh for a dessert-like dip, or into some plain Greek yogurt for a seasonal breakfast. Freeze the latter for some easy popsicles, or stay on the breakfast train by topping your oatmeal with cranberry sauce. And if you made your own whole-berry sauce, consider turning it into a syrup for cocktails or pancakes. Just pick up from where you left off in your original recipe and proceed with this recipe from there.
You can breathe new life into your gravy, too. Swedish meatballs do double duty if you use your cranberry sauce instead of lingonberry, and turkey stroganoff can be hybridized by using your gravy as a sauce base, cooking the mushrooms in it then adding sour cream. Caramelize some onions and add these recommended embellishments to make stellar bangers and mash, and clean off some more potatoes. And if you had the foresight to save some of those turkey drippings, bake up some puffy Yorkshire pudding to top with your gravy.
Parting (With Leftovers) Can Be Sweet Sorrow
One last way to bid adieu to our Thanksgiving bounty is to make it a last bite to remember. Sure, you can make bread pudding with leftover rolls and turn your canned cranberry sauce into a frozen pineapple fruit salad, but you might be surprised by what else you can create with the last bits and pieces of le grande feast. For example, mashed potato doughnuts! Or baked cranberry and orange ones if the former's just a wee bit too daring.
Unused fresh cranberries also lend themselves nicely to upside-down cake, but if they're all already sauced, you can also just make the cake and top it with what you have.
Also remember that sweet potatoes can also do more than transform into waffles and pancakes, too. Try baking some sweet potato muffins, pecan-studded cookies, or a pound cake.
Think Outside Thanksgiving
Because this feast is so specific and iconic, it's sometimes hard to think about its parts as opposed to the sum. But as you can see, the possibilities are endless once you break away from the big picture and look at each leftover dish in a vacuum by itself.