Eat your leftovers! Did your parents tell you that when you were a kid? Mine did. My mom knew it was a perfect way to reduce food waste, but it seems like these days, attitudes are different.
I remember a family meal at a friend’s house a few years ago. My friend had ordered Chinese take-out for our two families. In the spirit of being a generous hostess, she’d doubled the amount that four adults and six small kids could consume.
By the end of the evening, there were piles of noodles, beef stir-fry, and assorted dumplings scattered across the table. Containers of rice were left untouched.
Helping her clean up, I couldn’t believe it when I saw her scoop up everything and throw it all in the garbage. When I asked her what she was doing, she replied, “oh, my family hates leftovers. We never save any.”
From my point of view, I saw this as an enormous waste. To her, she felt it wasn’t worth storing the leftovers in the fridge, only to have it sit untouched before it would eventually end up in the garbage.
So, what can you do with those leftovers to reduce food waste? I have a two-part answer:
- Make the effort not to make or buy too much food so that it ends up in the garbage.
- When you do have leftovers, consume or dispose of the food responsibly.
My post on food waste addresses the first answer. This post will show you how to store and repurpose your leftovers so that they seem like a new meal.
Storing Leftovers to Reduce Food Waste
Proper storage is key to prolonging freshness. Stock up on a variety of containers in different shapes and sizes.
Take it out of the take-out containers. Store take-out leftovers in your own durable containers. Those plastic or cardboard take-out containers aren’t going to keep food fresh for an extended period of time.
A plate works wonders for keeping leftovers contained for a day or two.
Avoid single-use storage bags/wraps. There are so many reusable options to choose from these days. For ideas and my picks, see my post on single-use disposables.
Reuse what you have. Even better, instead of buying new containers, clean and use those from grocery purchases – yogurt, pasta sauce, soup, pickles – for leftover food.
Freezing leftovers is a great way to reduce food waste while not boring your family with the same meal two days in a row!
Almost any food item can be frozen. Visit the USDA page for freezing and food safety guidelines.
Here are some leftovers that I regularly freeze for a later date. I write the date and food item on the container in order to keep track of when I stored it.
Overripe bananas. Use these as the ingredient for banana bread or a smoothie base.
Canned tomatoes. Any remaining in the can is frozen to be used for soups or sauces.
Baked goods. Leftover cookies, cakes, and muffins from meetings, parties, or any event.
Breakfast Items. Uneaten pancakes, waffles, or muffins from that Sunday brunch can all be frozen in containers or (reusable!) baggies to be enjoyed at a later date.
Smoothies. Made an enormous smoothie batch and have tons left over? Freeze it in small containers for future use.
Nuts. I toast, then freeze most nuts to avoid them going rancid. They actually taste delicious frozen and are a tasty mid-afternoon snack.
Bread. Slice loaves of bread and freeze them in a baggie or container. Pop a slice or two in the toaster and enjoy that freshly baked taste!
Leftover veggies. Freeze cooked/roasted vegetables and use them as a base for soup.
“Re-purpose” Those Leftovers
Instead of tossing food in the garbage because your family won’t eat leftovers, create something new from those leftovers. Here are a few of my easy, go-to meals, but I’d love to hear some of yours.
In the morning, my family is rushing out the door, so we look for simple-to-make meals. These breakfast items can be made or bought in bulk over the weekend and then stored in the fridge or freezer.
Oatmeal. Make a large pot of oatmeal to last as a base for a few days. Add different toppings each day for variety. When you’ve had enough, simply freeze what’s left over for a later date.
Pancakes/waffles. Surprisingly, the homemade versions freeze very well. I reheat waffles in the toaster. For pancakes, I microwave them a few seconds to thaw the interior and either toast or reheat them in a pan with a bit of butter.
Muffins, baked goods. Bake or buy in bulk, freeze the leftovers and then pop them in the microwave for 20-30 seconds. Your kitchen will fill with the smells of freshly baked muffins and other baked goods!
Smoothies. Those containers of leftover smoothies that you have sitting in the freezer (see Tip 2, above)? Take one out and use it as a base for your morning smoothie.
I usually eat lunch at home and try to reduce food waste by using up as many leftovers as possible. To spice things up, I’ll buy or make a variety of different sauces, marinades, or toppings to mix in.
Rice bowls. This is my favorite lunch meal. I make a large pot of rice at the beginning of the week to serve as my base. It’s then a snap to add my leftover meat or vegetables. I top it off with a sauce, nuts, avocado or hummus.
Frittatas/Omelettes. Another easy, but nutritious meal. Add your leftovers with cheese and seasonings for a healthy omelette or frittata.
Stir-fry. Start by stir-frying a few fresh vegetables, then add seasonings and mix in your leftovers to warm them up. It’s a nutritious and filling lunch!
Soups. What to do with those cooked vegetables from the night before that are now a bit mushy? Make soup! Add stock, some herbs and spices and then once everything has simmered for a while, simply puree everything. For extra protein, puree in a can of beans or chickpeas. Or freeze the vegetables to make soup another night.
Pasta Sauce. Add canned/fresh tomatoes and Italian seasonings to chopped or pureed leftover vegetables and meat.
Pasta Bake. I make this from leftover bolognese or meatloaf. Boil short pasta and mix with the leftovers and shredded cheese. Bake at 350° for about 15 minutes.
Burritos/Quesadillas. My go-to “second-night” dinner for leftover chili.
Fried Rice (noodles too). So easy: stir-fry leftover veg, meat (even chopped deli meats, like ham). Add cold rice (I use a mix of brown and white, or whatever I have on hand), soy sauce, garlic, and a scrambled egg. You’re done!
Store and Reheat Safely
Here are some resources to help you store those leftovers and reduce food waste:
Reheating guidelines. The USDA’s guide also includes tips on how to cook food safely.
Shelf-life and storage. Check the shelf-life and how best to store foods at Still Tasty.