As much as I adore cooking without a plan—canvassing the fridge and making something unexpected—a little planning can go a long way in service of good leftovers. To be frank, just because I like to cook doesn’t mean I want to do it for every meal. Yet it always amazes me how my week improves when I have home-cooked food on hand for an on-the-go lunch or a quick dinner. When it makes sense, I try to maximize my cooking time by making larger quantities of foods like grain salads that really shine as leftovers.
With reason, a common gripe about leftovers is that, after a few days, it’s just not that fun to eat the same thing. As it’s nothing short of a triumph when my partner and I get to eat dinner together, I tend to assume I’m cooking for one. So even when I’m aiming for leftovers, I try to make enough to last two or three days rather than the whole week. This helps cut down on leftover fatigue.
I also gravitate toward recipes that lend themselves to repurposing. For example, if I make a big batch of roasted vegetables, I can eat them as they are, toss them with arugula, use them in fried rice, and—when I get really tired of them—make them disappear into a frittata. As a cook, I’ve come to really relish the challenge of successfully repackaging leftovers.
The recipes that follow are equally as good made and enjoyed right away as they are utilized throughout the week for work or school lunches. They’re portable by design and their flavors work great together. I’d argue for a batch cooking day to make them all. They’re meant to share oven and stovetop space.
I can say from experience that the Maple Mustard Roasted Sweet Potatoes are great stirred into the Wild Rice Salad and a spoonful of Pear Cinnamon Compote is perfect atop the Honey Yogurt Panna Cotta. The Lentils en Escabeche makes a delicious, unexpected taco filling. You’d be remiss not to try the Green Chile Meatloaf on a sandwich. Keep an eye out for the seasonal ingredients like fennel, pears, and red peppers to pop up at the farmers’ market this time of year.
The one thing that I like more than meatloaf is leftover meatloaf. I think this is a somewhat controversial opinion, but I like my leftover meatloaf cold. I use quick oats as a binder because that’s what my mom always used and because I think folks are more likely to have quick oats in their pantry than they are to have bread crumbs. Don’t use a super-lean ground beef here. The fat in the meat and the green chiles help keep this from drying out. I used hot green chiles here, but if you’re making this for kiddos or other spice-sensitive folks, use mild. Makes four mini meatloafs.
Escabeche, the puckery Mexican pickled vegetables with a kick of heat, provides the inspiration for this salad. What we’re doing here is essentially making a super-quick pickle that provides both the dressing and the much-needed crunch in this lentil salad. Black lentils work best in salads like this one because they hold their shape once cooked. If you have a food processor, use the slicing blade and knock out the slicing this recipe requires in no time. A mandoline would also make this job especially easy, but you can just slice things as thin as you can with a knife if that’s what you have. Replace the jalapeño with half of a green pepper for a milder salad. Serves about 4 as a side.
If you pulled out your food processor or mandoline for the Lentils en Escabeche Salad, keep it out and use it to quickly shave the fennel and red peppers for this recipe too. Wild rice salads with celery, some type of nuts, and dried fruit often make an appearance on the Thanksgiving table. For the same crunch as celery, but with a ton more flavor, we’re using sweet red peppers and shaved fennel here. If your garlic clove is too big, the flavor can be a bit overpowering, so select a small clove for this recipe. Wild rice (the long, thin, black grains) can be expensive. Wild rice blends are a less costly alternative. Makes about six servings as a side.
Panna cotta has become one of my go-to desserts over the past couple years. I love that the prep time is next to nothing and it’s endlessly adaptable. You’ll often see panna cotta recipes unmolded and served on a small dessert plate. I forgo that here for the sake of portability. If you make these in small jars like quarter-pint Mason jars, they travel really well. A note about honey: You can choose either a dark or light honey here, keeping in mind that a darker honey will mean the final product will taste more like honey. Makes 6-9 depending on serving size.
These cook at the same temperature as the meatloaf. So if you’re doing a big batch cooking day, these can go in the oven at the same time. If your sweet potatoes are organic or come from a trusted source, you don’t need to peel them, just give them a good scrub. Makes about six servings as a side.
I think simple is best when it comes to beautiful, in-season fall fruits. This basic compote is great with the Honey Yogurt Panna Cotta, but is also perfect stirred into your morning oatmeal or yogurt. Almost any type of pear will be lovely here, but I’d avoid Asian pears. They have such a distinct, crispy texture that I think cooking them does them an injustice. Starting with pears that are ripe, but not mushy, will ensure that they don’t break down too much during the cooking process. Makes a scant two cups.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Modern Farmer and Punch. She’s the author of Beyond Canning: New Techniques, Ingredients, and Flavors to Preserve, Pickle, and Ferment Like Never Before.