How to Use Up Leftovers From a Summer Barbecue or Cookout

by Hannah Walhout

Published: 7/05/23, Last updated: 7/05/23

Break out the outdoor furniture and fire up the grill — finally, barbecue season has arrived. But feeding a crowd while keeping food waste to a minimum is sometimes easier said than done. Luckily, there are things you can do to make your cookout more sustainable: Find ways to reduce packaging and other plastics, consider a plant-based menu and make a plan to shop strategically and make the most of your leftovers.

Remember, you can freeze almost anything — but even things that are better eaten fresh can make for more interesting post-party meals than you might expect. We’ve rounded up ideas for how to repurpose unused cookout fixings, plus other tips for keeping things out of the trash.

How Much Food Should I Buy?

It might go without saying, but the first thing you can do to all but eliminate at-home food waste is shop strategically. A rough headcount is helpful to know how many you’re feeding — if you don’t want to require firm RSVPs, you can always check in with people a few days before or ask them to give you a heads up if they have friends tagging along.

One of the easiest ways to make a meal more sustainable is to use less meat (and better meat). You can go full plant-based and switch to veggie burgers, or use the same amount of money to buy a smaller quantity of grassfed beef or pasture-raised chicken from your local farmers’ market (which will mean fewer leftovers, too). To round things out, go heavy on everyone’s favorite sides. There are some commonly cited rules of thumb for how much to budget for every guest: For sides, a frequent recommendation is to have at least a half-cup to full cup of each per person, depending on how many different dishes you’re making and how hefty each one is. For example, consider creamy pasta salad vs. tossed greens.

Plenty of blogs and recipe sites have per-person quantity guidelines like these, so you can always do a quick search for your main menu items to sketch out a rough estimate…then throw in a little extra in case anyone comes particularly hungry.

What Can I Do Day-Of?

While you’re doing your prep work, set aside any leaves, peels, stalks, eggshells and other organic odds and ends for the compost. If you’re removing any bones before you grill, save them for a stock — also a good destination for any onion skins, celery leaves, herb stems or carrot tops and peels.

If possible, try to make steaks, burgers, hot dogs and the like to order. You can also work in batches as the need arises and do the same for anything else you’re throwing on the grill, like buns or marinated vegetables. Leftover ingredients are generally more versatile if they’re raw or minimally messed-with, so no need to cook everything up top.

For whatever slips through the cracks — plus extra appetizers, sides and desserts — see if anyone wants to take something home. You can ask folks to bring reusable containers if they’d like, or send them home with one of yours. (They’ll do the same for you before too long.) Any unopened cans, jars, pasta and grains can go to a local food pantry if you don’t think you’ll use them; if you have a community fridge in your area, many also welcome unopened frozen products, whole fresh produce or packaged bread and buns.

What Can I Freeze?

Any raw meat or sausages will last at least a month in the freezer, with fresh cuts lasting up to a year when stored properly. Fresh eggs will generally freeze well, but cooked eggs won’t — and freezing has a tendency to change the texture of any raw dairy, like milk or chunks of cheese, or cause them to curdle. (The harder the cheese, the better it will do, and frozen grated cheese does the job when cooked or baked into something, like scones.) Butter is an exception and will keep for 6 to 12 months.

Produce loses a lot of water when frozen and defrosted, which means some vegetables fare better than others; it’s best to blanch first, or for the ones with the highest water content (like cabbage or celery), cook them fully before freezing. Frozen fruit is the stuff of smoothie dreams, and does the trick in sauces and baked goods, too. It’s best to use it within six months to avoid freezer burn, though it can last longer if packaged carefully. Again, the fruits with the most water — citrus, kiwis, melon — may not hold up as well. 

Casseroles will generally freeze just fine. Mayonnaise-based salads may have textural issues as mayonnaise is an emulsion and freezing will cause the ingredients to separate. Carbs like bread, buns, tortillas and cooked rice and pasta will be good as new for several months.

How Do I Use Up the Leftovers?

Meat

Read more about how to use up leftover meat.

Vegetables

Read more about how to use up tomatoes, greens, avocados, mushrooms and herbs.

Fruits

Read more about how to use up leftover berries, melons and bananas.

Salads and Sides

Read more about how to use up beans, pasta, cabbage, potatoes and eggs.

Odds and Ends

Top photo by grinchh/Adobe Stock.

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