16 Versatile Dinners I Make All The Time That Taste Incredible On Day 1, Even Better The Next Day, But Truly Unbelievable On Day 3
These are the dishes that thrive (not survive) with extra days in the fridge — the salads that won't wilt, the soups and stews that don't turn into a soggy mess on the reheat, and the make-ahead meals whose flavors intensify over time versus wear off.
Hey, y'all! Ross here. I'm a food writer and recipe developer who lives to cook (and eat) as many new recipes as humanly possible. Fun fact: I actually track, rate, and organize every single meal I cook in a spreadsheet, shown below. It's my pride and joy...and also very extra, but whatever.
The topic of this particular roundup is one that's near and dear to my heart...and stomach. We're talking leftovers, folks, which I realize can be polarizing. We loved them in my immediate family when I was growing up, but other extended family members legitimately referred to leftovers as "used food." Even now, some people (apparently) cringe at the thought of eating yesterday's dinner for today's lunch or, god forbid, meal prepping.
For me, however, leftovers are the basis of my weekly meals. As someone who works from home most days and only has a household of two to feed, I've found the "Cook it for dinner, save extras for lunch" method to be the easiest way to ensure I always have something delicious to eat when midday rolls around. And through all of my leftover eating, I've also been able to home in on some epically delicious better-as-leftovers meals that I still come back to over and over again.
Although the reality of food tasting better the next day is hotly debated, for me, the definition of "better with time" leftovers (as I like to call them) is quite simple: They're meals that not only survive but also thrive after a few days in the fridge. Hearty salad greens turn tender instead of wilting into a watery mess. Soup ingredients won't absorb twice their weight in broth and end up bloated and soggy. And most importantly, the flavors develop and intensify with time instead of merely wearing off.
These 16 recipes are my tried-and-true picks for lunches and dinners that are absolutely delicious the day or night they're prepared, but even tastier the next day...and the day after that.
And if you have any better-as-leftovers meals that you're equally passionate about, tell me about them in the comments below! ⬇️
1. Eggplant Parmesan: This isn't just any old recipe for eggplant Parm. This version is for anyone who hates breading and frying a zillion slices of the stuff before assembling. Or, more broadly, anyone who likes saving time.
As someone who previously felt very ambivalent about eggplant Parm, I will say that Alison Roman's version of the classic dish made me do a total 180. It's not that I ever thought it wasn't a delicious dish...I've just never found the process of breading and frying each individual piece of eggplant to be all that rewarding. That's why this method's trick of roasting the eggplant slices and layering them in a skillet with crispy bread crumbs is one of my favorite recipe shortcuts that I've ever had the pleasure of trying.
From all the times I've devoured these leftovers, I've also noticed that the flavors are far more pronounced on day 2 — you really taste the brininess of the capers and the herby notes of the parsley and oregano. But one note: This recipe as written makes only two servings, so for the purposes of this post, make sure you're at least doubling the recipe so you'll actually have leftovers to eat.
2. Mapo Tofu: If you think tofu is bland, you've never tried mapo tofu. End of story.
The traditional Chinese dish of mapo tofu is rich and spicy, and it's the perfect gateway dish for people who "hate tofu" because it also contains...meat. Though a fresh, piping-hot bowl of the stuff alongside a bed of steamed rice makes me salivate uncontrollably, I actually think I crave the leftovers even more. Allowing the tofu to steep in all the incredible sauce overnight actually distributes the flavors and spiciness in a more balanced way.
3. Sage Chicken Meatballs With Parmesan Orzo: One thing about me is that I'm the self-proclaimed president of the orzo fan club. And as the self-proclaimed president, I can confidently say that is the most ridiculously delicious, licking-plate-worthy dish with orzo I've ever eaten.
4. Sesame Pasta Salad With Cabbage and Quinoa: Combine the best parts of pasta salad and coleslaw, and this is what you get...with 10 times the flavor, if I do say so myself.
When summer rolls around, you will not catch me without a batch of this pasta salad hanging out in my fridge. Between the chewy pasta, crunchy cabbage, and quinoa pops throughout, it might be one of the most texturally satisfying dishes I've ever tasted, and it's also my go-to for summer barbecues, informal gatherings, or lazy WFH lunches. Basically, there's never a reason not to make this "salad."
5. Salmon and Corn Chowder: While I don't normally think of soup as a spring or summertime dish, this one is the exception. It's bright and light, and it only takes 30 minutes to make.
If salmon isn't your thing, you can totally substitute another fish of your choosing — cod or haddock would both work nicely. But I love the salmon in particular because it holds its own even through the refrigerating and reheating process. (By comparison, white fish tends to flake and fall apart the next day in a way that isn't very pleasant to eat or look at.)
6. Konbi's Egg Salad Sandwich: It's the egg salad sandwich for anyone whose first instinct is to turn their nose up at egg salad (🙋♂️), and prepping the salad in advance turns this into a meal that can be made in a minute or less.
If you've ever so much as engaged with food content on Instagram, the iconic cross-section of Konbi's viral egg salad sandwich has likely made its way to your feed. Though the beloved LA restaurant closed all locations in early 2023, I'm pleased to report that it's ridiculously easy to make their photo-worthy egg salad sandos in the comfort of your own kitchen. If you don't have the patience to position and cut each sandwich into perfect jammy egg–revealing pieces, let me be the first to confirm that they're still exceptionally delicious without it.
7. Chipotle and Coffee Texas-Style Chili: Chili is the king of all better-as-leftovers meals, but this one might just win "most improved" between days 1 and 2 because of its ingredients.
8. Creamy Herbed Chicken and Broccoli Bake: This casserole-ish recipe was inspired by the only 10/10 dish that my college's dining hall served in the dorms, but with several minor changes that make it delicious to both kids and adults alike.
Even if you hate traditional casseroles, you might love this one. It's saucy without being soupy and balances its richness with ingredients that keep things bright, like lemon zest and fresh thyme. Since people on the internet apparently have big feelings about canned soups in casseroles, I guess I'll also add that there's no cream of ____ soup to be found in this one...but TBH, I feel like it could be an iconic addition. (If you try it, let me know.)
9. Chicken in a Pot With Orzo: This is one of the few chicken noodle soup–adjacent dishes I know of that are "fancy" enough to serve company...and then enjoy for lunch the next day, when the leftovers taste even better than the real deal.
If cooking a whole chicken is a feat that gives you pause, this recipe from Ina Garten is your pathway to genuinely loving it. Since the whole chicken is cooked in a pot of rich stock and veggies, it's virtually impossible to mess up; the method here will ensure that you get juicy, tender results every single time. Like, it would be extremely hard to overcook this bird.
10. Day-Ahead Bean and Cheese Burritos: I challenge you to find a store-bought burrito that rivals just how mouthwatering these meal prep masterpieces can be.
With a crisp and chewy exterior and pillowy soft filling, these burritos are cheap, filling, and so damn satisfying. The genius element here is adding store-bought pico de gallo instead of using chopped tomatoes or conventional salsa. It adds a palpable hit of freshness to these burritos that you can taste, even in the days after you assemble them.
11. One-Pot Lentil Green Curry: For a recipe that's free of gluten, dairy, and meat, this one majorly delivers when it comes to flavor and texture.
12. Spicy Sausage Soup With White Beans and Veggies: This comforting, veggie-packed soup truly gets more delicious the longer it sits. So delicious, in fact, that I almost always make a double batch to keep the extras in my freezer.
13. "The" Kale Salad: This 2007 viral salad still holds up nearly 16 years later, and as a direct result of the greens that it utilizes, it's also one of the few salads out there that are not only edible the next day after they've been dressed but, I'd argue, are even tastier.
14. Slow Cooker Brisket With Onions: With a cut of meat as flavorful as brisket, you don't need much to turn it into a delicious meal. This minimal-ingredient recipe is proof of that.
You can serve this dish the same day, sure, but I'd actually advise you to wait a day or so to enjoy it at its peak deliciousness. Something glorious happens when you allow the brisket to hang out in the fridge and mingle with all of the rendered juices, and I find that the flavors are more evenly distributed throughout the meat on day 2. And day 3, if it even lasts that long.
15. Curried Chicken Salad: Leave it to Ina Garten to include white wine in a "salad" recipe...and y'all, it's next-level.
16. Louisiana Red Beans and Rice: Pretty? No. But delicious, ultra-filling, and possibly the most flavor-packed meal I've ever tasted? You bet.
Of all the chef's kiss–worthy Southern comfort food dishes out there, gumbo tends to steal the spotlight more often than not. Don't get me wrong — gumbo is life-affirming. But Food & Wine's recipe for red beans and rice is just as satisfying, in my opinion. And since dried beans make up a significant portion of the ingredients, it's also a lot cheaper.
What meal do you swear is actually better the next day? Drop a link or describe it in the comments below — or DM me! I'm always down to try new recipes and add 'em to the tracker...especially when the leftovers are A+.
And for even more recipes, you can check out my previous roundups of must-make meals below:
• Best 5-Ingredient Or Fewer Recipes
• Best Budget-Friendly Recipes