Managing Leftovers: Use It or Lose It

Leftover pasta salad with steamed green beans, tomatoes and grilled chicken

Leftover pasta salad with steamed green beans, tomatoes and grilled chicken

With the costs of food rocketing up and more awareness about how food production and distribution impacts climate change, I’ve been seeing a lot of news lately about food waste. Apparently, we Americans (and the British too) waste a lot of food. Well, it’s no wonder with food being so cheap and plentiful here, but that may change. It’s good to have some strategies for dealing with leftovers so you waste as little as possible.

Chefs are notoriously thrifty and try to waste as little as possible, such as by making homemade stock and devising recipes to use up day-old bread. Why not put a few of these practices into place at home? Here are some strategies I’ve devised to reduce food waste in my house.

Making up a menu and shopping list for the week is the number-one way to reduce food waste. Get in the habit of checking the pantry and freezer to see what can be used before buying new items. Buy only what you need when you go to the store.

Even the best-planned menus can get thwarted by the events of the week. Have an unexpected dinner out or a night when you don’t feel like cooking anything more strenuous than scrambled eggs, and you might have some produce hanging out in the crisper that was intended for a recipe you never got around to making. This is where the freezer comes in handy.

Most fresh produce lasts about a week in the fridge (more or less–it’s a good idea to get acquainted with storage times for produce and the best places to store them so you have less spoilage). Just before I go shopping, I go through the refrigerator and take out all the bits of produce that are about to go bad. Most produce can be frozen with just a little prep. Invest in a book like The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food, so that you know the best strategies for freezing food. If you have a garden or belong to a CSA, you might want to invest in a small freezer, which is more efficient for freezing food for long periods.

Besides produce, bits of cooked meat, vegetables, rice and pasta are the leftovers I most frequently have on hand. Some dishes are very freezeable, such as soups, chilis and casseroles. I always make extra and freeze them in single- or double-serving sizes.

But what about when you have just a bit of grilled chicken, cooked pasta or steamed green beans left over? I like to store these in the fridge on the same shelf in glass dishes. Whenever I open the fridge, all of my leftovers are staring me in the face. Usually, this starts the wheels turning on how they can go together, such as in the pasta salad pictured above. Salads, soups, frittatas, tacos — many dishes are designed to use up leftovers.

When I’m meal-planning, I always designate one night (usually Thursdays) as “leftover night” to use up those bits and pieces. If I don’t have any or I end up eating them for lunch, I can always pull something out of the freezer instead.

With just a little planning and thought, you can really reduce the amount of food waste in your home. And if you still have some food that goes to waste, try composting it instead of throwing it away. Then you can reuse it in the garden.


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One thought on “Managing Leftovers: Use It or Lose It

  1. Pam 25 July 2008 at 9:51 pm

    Great post!

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