Lucky Charms were not a staple of my childhood breakfasts. The morning meal that stands out the most in my memory is a heaping bowl of leftover spaghetti and meatballs.
My mother and I would sometimes sit at the counter of (the now-departed) LJ Diner in Margate, Florida, where I’d order pasta covered in red sauce. The portion was huge for an 8-year-old, so while my mom got some well-deserved rest the next morning, I’d scoop some into a bowl and warm it up in the microwave. There was something so delightful about a morning pasta twirl ― the savory dish was comforting and made me happier than a bowl of cereal ever did.
My mother thought it was strange at first, but shrugged it off (hey, I fed myself while she got some zzz’s). I still love a bowl of pasta for breakfast, although now I typically add an egg.
Viv Lee, a pop-up chef and baker in Atlanta, is also a fan of leftovers for breakfast. “I know this is probably an unpopular opinion, but spaghetti with classic red sauce just tastes better the next day, and sometimes even cold,” she said. “Cold fried chicken is also freaking delicious.”
Another go-to for Lee is a gussied-up leftover cold cuts sandwich that she’ll toast and top with an egg. “The cheese gets all melty, and that egg is usually sunny side up because runny yolk is nature’s gravy and it helps to soften the stale bread,” Lee said.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to wonder: Are leftovers for breakfast a healthy option? It turns out that yes, they can be. Here’s what you need to know.
First, some cultural context.
While American palates have been programmed to prefer sweet items like waffles, pancakes and cereal first thing in the morning, people in many other countries eat savory dishes when they wake up.
Lee, for example, grew up in a Korean home, which influenced her taste in breakfast.
“My mom sometimes gave us leftover kimchi and Spam fried rice for breakfast. One really easy breakfast my mom made on summer mornings was leftover barley rice mixed with barley tea and cucumber kimchi,” she said.
She was surprised when she visited Korea for the first time and discovered that eggs, toast and bacon weren’t prominent breakfast items. Instead, she found that people ate leftover stew with a small selection of banchan.
There’s no nutritional reason not to eat leftovers in the morning.
If you have meal composed of protein, a healthy fat, a source of complex carbohydrates and vegetables, then it doesn’t matter when you eat it.
“A savory dish can be a really great way to balance your blood sugar and really give you the energy you need to start the day, especially if you’re balancing your meal,” said Jessica Bippen, a registered dietitian based in Missouri. “If leftovers are easy and convenient and check those boxes off and you really enjoy them, go for it.”
In fact, there are benefits of eating leftovers for breakfast.
Kim Rose, a dietitian based in Lakeland, Florida, eats leftovers for breakfast most days. When she spoke with HuffPost, she had just finished eating a leftover burrito with a side of strawberries and papaya.
“I really try to get all my veggies and plant-based foods in one meal,” Rose said. She’s a proponent of savory dishes for breakfast because they help people feel fuller longer — and therefore make them less likely to graze on snacks.
Those carb-heavy waffles you eat with a healthy drizzle of maple syrup? The muffin you grab on your way out the door? They might taste delicious (and sometimes, a muffin on the go is the best we can do), but you might want to consider looking toward last night’s dinner when it’s breakfast time if you want to get in more nutrients.
“A lot of our standard breakfast items tend to be too low in protein and too high in carbohydrates,” said Tara Allen, a registered nurse and health coach. “So I think sometimes when people are open to having leftovers, they end up with a more balanced meal with enough protein, healthy fats, carbs and everything all together.”
Besides contributing to weight gain, sugar ― whether natural or added ― has a host of negative effects on our bodies: It creates a vicious cycle of intense cravings, may contribute to depression and anxiety, and is a risk factor for age-related cognitive decline and dementia. Eating a lower-carb breakfast can also ward off late-morning food cravings. A Harvard Medical School study found that levels of ghrelin and leptin, hormones that stoke hunger and food intake, were significantly lower in people who ate a lower-carb breakfast.
Consider repurposing your leftovers.
OK, maybe reheating a piece of chicken and eating it as soon as you roll out of bed sounds unappealing. Why not repurpose it? Both Rose and Bippen are fans of savory oatmeal bowls, which are a great way to make use of leftovers.
“You cook oatmeal like you would normally cook it, but instead of adding sugar, put it in a bowl, add your different seasonings, your salt,” Rose explained. Then you can top it off with leftover protein (shredded chicken works great) and some vegetables like spinach and tomatoes.
Have some leftover salmon? Eat it cold on top of a bagel with cream cheese and tomatoes. If a bowl of pasta is your jam, add some protein to it. We all know things taste better with a fried egg on top, and pasta is no exception.
So, what’s off-limits?
When it comes to your morning leftovers feast, the same guidances applies as for other meals of the day. Try to make the best choices possible. Obviously, it’s best to avoid greasy, fried foods.
“These are not really nutrient-dense,” Rose said. “These are more calorie-dense, so I think those should be left out.”
But if you have a penchant for spicy foods, don’t hold back. If you can handle them, Rose said they are actually a benefit in the morning.
“In the United States, we have a real problem with high blood pressure (hypertension), so spicy foods really afford a benefit,” she said. Some studies, like this one conducted in China, suggest that people who eat spicy foods may be more likely to curb salt cravings and have lower blood pressure.
“No, it’s not a shock to the system,” Rose said. “I know a lot of people may not be trained to handle leftovers in the morning, but the good thing is that that’s not your destiny. You can actually retrain your stomach to handle a little heavier portion and also spicy foods.”