Tips for using Thanksgiving leftovers in bento lunches

[From the archives: If you’re in the U.S., I hope your Thanksgiving was great! If you have a lot of leftover turkey, please give the shigureni a try. It works with dark or white meat. Originally published November 2007.]

thanksgivingleftovers.jpgHappy Thanksgiving to all U.S. readers! After today’s feast you’ll probably have quite a lot of leftovers. Here are some ideas for re-purposing those leftovers for future bento lunches, beyond just using them as-is, which is okay but not that exciting.

In general, you should try to get the leftovers wrapped and into the fridge as soon as possible for the sake of safety, though I know the urge to just flop down in a horizontal position is strong. You can divide it up for longer term storage if necessary later.

The sides

  • Vegetables can be chopped up finely and included into egg dishes such as tamagoyaki, or sautéed with rice for a veggie-rich fried rice.
  • Mashed potatoes can be used to make quick pan-fried korokke (croquettes): make the cold mash into patties, maybe mixed with some of the chopped up leftover vegetables (if you made corn, corn-korokke is a classic), dip into flour, beaten egg and panko breadcrumbs, and shallow-fry in oil until browned and crisp.
  • You can do the same with mashed up sweet potatoes - sweet potato korokke are delicious, especially if you have made them very sweet Southern style - they become rather like a little dessert. Or, bake the mashed-up sweet potatoes in small aluminum foil cups in a toaster oven until browned on top. You can treat pumpkin pie filling in a similar way.
  • Stuffing can be made into sort of crispy stuffing-burgers: form cold stuffing into mini-patties, and fry on both sides until crisp. Add some spicy ketchup if you like.

The turkey

  • The white meat I think is really best for using as-is, sliced for sandwiches and salads, since re-cooking it can really dry it out. Try to keep it moist (assuming it was moist to start with!). If you freeze it, divide into single-portion size packets for ease of use. (One of my favorites is a turkey white meat, stuffing and cranberry sauce sandwich, which is made even more decadent with a generous layer of cream cheese. Try it on sourdough bread!)
  • The dark meat has endless possibilities. For storing, chop it up if you can so you can pull it out and use it right away. You can add it to stir-fries, fried rice and so on. Or, use it in the following recipe…

Recipe: Turkey shigureni

Shigureni is a classic method of cooking meat in a savory-sweet ginger filled sauce. The ginger helps to preserve the meat somewhat, so this can be stored in the fridge for up to a week. It’s usually made with beef or pork, but is quite good with the dark meat of turkey too.

Per 2 cups of chopped up or roughly shredded turkey meat, use:

  • 1 small piece (about 1/2 inch / 1 cm long) fresh ginger (or more if you like ginger), julienned into thin bits
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sake
  • 1 tablespoon mirin
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds (optional)

Heat up a frying pan; add the oil and ginger. Sauté until the ginger is a bit limp. Add the meat, and toss around. Add the sugar.

Add the liquid ingredients. Let cook down, stirring frequently, until the liquid is almost gone, and what remains is a bit syrupy. Toss in the sesame seeds and stir around until they’re evenly distributed.

Store, cooled and well covered, for up to a week in the refrigerator.

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Turkey day

excellent ideas, thank you

from Eve

Hmm.. is there any good substitute for sake? Since the drinking age here is 21 I don’t know if I’m allowed to buy it yet…

Rice Wine

US, right? Though I’m over 21, when I buy cooking sake, I’m never carded (and I look like I’m about 15). Also, when I use the automated checkouts, it does not ask me to enter my age or show an ID.

Do you live with your family? Would you be able to get a parent to buy it for you? If everyone at the universities in my area has no problem getting beer every weekend, surely somebody will help you with your cooking ingredients!


Eve you didn’t say where ‘here’ is, but you can probably buy cooking sake, which has salt and things in it and is undrinkable on its own and should not be subject to alchol-restriction laws. Or use mirin - there is an alcohol-free version. Sherry can be used as a substitute also, or Chinese rice wine. But if all else fails, just leave it out. (Using alcohol such like sake in meat cooking helps to eliminate some of the ‘gaminess’ of meat, something that is rather disliked in Japanese as well as Chinese cooking. So there really isn’t an alchohol-free substitute, since chemically that wouldn’t make any sense.)

Croquettes and a comment on Eve's

Made the croquettes today and they were delicious - thanks for the idea. My roommates were jealous. :)

As for the alcohol thing, don’t be so sure about being able to buy cooking sake - the first time I got carded was when I was buying rice wine vinegar. Ridiculous, huh?


I agree, carding in some places is ridiculous…I’m like well over my 20s (like by more than…a decade) and I STILL got carded last year in Florida!

I live in California,

I live in California, actually! and I haven’t had any problem buying mirin, but I think that’s just because the people at the Asian grocery like me… I was worried that they would card me at the normal grocery store since it says right on the bottle “x% alcohol by volume,” and I didn’t want to be embarrassed by it, so I just made the extra trip to the Asian grocery instead. I was unaware that there was a difference between drinking sake and cooking sake though, so thanks for that !


Oh my goodness, sweet potato croquette sounds amazing. I think I’ll try that next. You have such great ideas Maki!

Turkey shigureni - serve with?

Would you serve the Turkey shigureni with rice, and are there other options too? I have had sweet potato korokke in Japan, they are indeed delicious :)

I would just mound it on top

I would just mound it on top of rice. You could also mix it with other grains, mix with egg to make an interesting omelette, toss it into stir fries, and so on. Freeze it in small portions to use later!

Another tip

That’s funny - there’s my comment above about being carding buying rice wine vinegar.

I’ve made the croquettes periodically through the year - they’re really tasty.

Another bento blog I follow posted the idea for it this year, but one thing she mentioned was that you can freeze them after they are breaded and just fry them frozen. I hadn’t thought about that, but think it’s a great idea so figured I’d pass it on here. I like them, but it can make quite a mess (or maybe that’s just me), so I like the idea that I can just do it once with all the leftovers and have a stash for when the urge hits me. :)

Turkey and Sweet Potatoes

My husband really likes when I reheat turkey in cream of mushroom soup, it makes it extra moist and adds a little extra flavor.

And with sweet potatoes being so cheap around this time of year I make a lighter version of the mashed treat you usually see on Thanksgiving. I just peel and chop a few potatoes toss with a little honey, olive oil, cinnamon and nutmeg; then roast them in the oven.

The turkey shigureni sounds

The turkey shigureni sounds delicious!

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