Quick: what would you do with leftover cooked chicken, grape tomatoes, half an avocado, fig jam and some orzo?
Glancing in the fridge can often feel like you’re a contestant on “Master Chef” or “Chopped” with your own mystery box challenge. (For the uninitiated, that’s where you must cook a dish using only a small selection of foods presented to you, which often include some unusual combos.) But the alternative to improvisational cooking is to let some of that expensive food go to waste.
Even so, that doesn’t mean you need to fly solo. There are plenty of cool virtual kitchen tools out there that’ll help you find creative-yet-edible recipes using some of the foods you have on hand. Here are five cheap (and mostly, free) places to hunt for inspiration:
Use the ingredient search to hunt for recipes that include certain foods. Separate fields let you exclude foods you don’t want. You can also narrow the search to recipes from particular categories or sources, like side dishes or Weight Watchers. The free Dinner Spinner apps for iPhone and Android let you search by ingredient; the $2.99 Pro version offers the same multiple-food include/exclude capability as the site.
Make sure those shelves of cookbooks aren’t just for show. Kitchenware designer Scott Doty likes this site because ingredient searches can be limited to recipes in the cookbooks you already own and the magazines you subscribe to. The site currently has an index of 2,000 books and more than 440,000 recipes. Of course, you’ll still need to crack open the book — the site just tells you which page to turn to. Add up to five books to your virtual shelf using the free membership. A paid membership of $2.50/month or $25/year buys you an unlimited bookshelf.
Frugal Foodie uses this set of tools, which help from grocery shopping through leftovers. To use up stuff in your fridge, the recipe hunter tool lets you add foods one at a time to narrow search results. You can also add your own recipes to the account so they’ll turn up in a search, plot meals based on what you have (and will have, with leftovers) and build a shopping list to minimize waste. The site is free, but you need to sign up.
Add items in your kitchen and this site returns recipes that include one or more of those items. Reader Nalani Sheils says she uses the site to figure out ways to combine a “mishmash of random things.” Narrow them further by answering prompts about availability of other commonly paired ingredients (Tomato sauce? Click on it and it’ll be factored into recipe matches. No Romano? Click “x” and it’ll eliminate recipes that call for it.) You can also click to emphasize the ingredient you want one to be the dish’s star.
When in doubt, Google it
It doesn’t get much easier. Denver publicist Marcia Noyes reserves Google for times when she has a very specific measure remaining, such as a quarter-cup of pearl onions. “That way I’m getting a recipe for the amount of the ingredient I need to use,” she says. “Otherwise, you may find recipes that call for more of the ingredient than you have.”
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie http://www.twitter.com/mintfoodie.