Updated on 01.03.07

I Hate Leftovers: Fighting The Battle With Recycled Food … And Winning

Trent Hamm

One of my resolutions for the new year was to give up fast food. There were two big reasons for this: health (I’m trying to lose a little weight by eating less fattening stuff and more healthy stuff) and money (dining out, even on fast food, is pretty expensive).

The end result is that I’m eating at home a lot more. I’m sinking deeper into my love for cooking (I swear it, I will start a blog like The Simple Dollar for cooking someday … I’ve even done a bit of preliminary planning) by preparing some delicious meals at home for the family, and we’re enjoying marinated meats and such things almost every night.

I’ve also done the calculations and I’m saving about $5 a day for the whole family on food, merely by rejecting most of our take-out.

This leaves one big problem, though: lunch. Previously, I would eat lots of prepackaged foods at work and sometimes go out with coworkers (often eating fast food, but not always). Now that I’ve made a commitment to stop eating fast food, I am looking to change this, mostly because it is much, much cheaper to take my lunch to work than it is to go dine out.

My first thought when I think of leftovers is “Eww… they save money, but… ewww….” so the first thing I did was make a list of the things that bothered me about leftovers:

1. I just had this stuff yesterday. I don’t particularly want to have the same thing I had for dinner again the next day for lunch every single day.

2. It’s messy. I don’t usually cook sandwiches, if you know what I’m saying. I like sauces and things that aren’t … neat. Thus, transporting them back and forth to work can be a mess if I’m not careful.

3. It takes effort in the morning when I’m already busy. Usually, I’m rushing around feeding my son breakfast with one hand and shaving with the other in the morning. I don’t have time to deal with leftovers.

4. Reheated food sucks. It often becomes homogenous and bland on the second heating.

That’s a pretty negative list for someone who is trying to convert fully to the brown bag club. So, I tackled these issues one at a time.

1. I take leftovers not the next day but the day after that. This gives me a gap of four meals between a repeated meal, which means that I won’t be grumbling about having what I just had for supper the night before.

2. I use a series of meal-ready Tupperware containers. On the top of each container, I write a weekday on it. When I put the meal into Tupperware, I find the one marked for the day I intend to eat it, fill it up with a solid meal sized portion, and put it in the fridge.

3. I prepare the meals at night. Each night after dinner, I put the meals into the appropriately dated Tupperware containers and put them on the fridge, then I take my lunch bag, put the Tupperware container marked for the next day in it (along with a jar of milk and a fruit) and stick that in the fridge. The next morning, I just grab my lunch bag and run.

4. I include a “spice bag.” Whenever I use spices to prepare a meal, I put a little bit extra into a “spice bag,” a tiny Ziploc bag. I seal this up good and toss it on top of the Tupperware container before I seal it. Then, when I go to heat the meal up, I pop off the lid, dump the contents of the spice bag on top, stir them in a bit, and heat them up. Boom, suddenly the meal has recaptured some serious flavor!

These four tactics have made the cost-saving measure of taking leftovers to work much more palatable and have made me appreciate home-cooked meals all the more. Now, I can just microwave a great meal at work and spend my lunch break doing more fulfilling things than standing in line for some greasy fast food – and also enjoy the jingle of money in my pocket.

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  1. Jeremy says:

    Welcome to the brown bag club! It is amazing how much money you can save and weight you can lose by cutting back on buying lunch. I don’t know if you saw this post I had a while back so I’ll link it:


    But by my wife and I switching to leftovers or a brown bag lunch just 3 days of the week we saw a potential savings of over $1,300 a year, or over $100 a month. Obviously if we went to a full schedule instead of just 3 days we could see a savings of probably around $2,000 per year.

    I like the tips for leftovers though, my wife is a hard sell on leftovers so anything I can do to encourage her to take them will help.

    On a side note, one of my goals for the new year was to cut back to almost all leftover or brown bag lunches at work. So far this week I haven’t had to purchase a single lunch, and the cost of sandwich meat and other items used totaled less than $3 as opposed to the usual $25 or so. It is a great feeling knowing I saved over $20 this week almost effortlessly.

  2. Mrs L says:

    I *love* leftovers, but my company got rid of the microwave. I’ve purchase a food thermos, but using it would require heating up the food in the morning enough for it to retain its heat all day, and is really only suitable for soups and stews. Does anyone have any ideas?

  3. Erika says:

    A technique I use is to put the leftovers in a different form. This works better for reusing leftovers in dinner than in lunches, but can be used for lunches too. For example, left over flank steak or chicken can be used as a salad topping. I find that this really helps reduce the monotony and reduces the feeling that the meal is not fresh.

  4. The bag of spices is brilliant! I too have problems with bland reheated food, and I would have never thought to re-add spices.

  5. Ravi says:

    Hey Trent,

    Actually, my wife and I follow a better idea. We cook in great quantities and then we freeze stuff in lunch size tupperwares. So we sort of have this stock pile n the freezer. Every morning, my wife just drops the frozen meals in a bag, along with some fruit( and sometimes treats like chocolate). So rarely do we eat anything that’s been cooked the previous night.

  6. MidnightUT says:

    I actually love leftovers. My problem is that I can’t cook. I’d love it if you ever did find the time to start a cooking blog as well. The few things I have figured out how to cook are pretty unhealthy, and I’m trying to shed more than a few plans so that pretty much leaves me with prepackaged foods and fresh fruits and vegetables. Which while not as healthy as true homemade food, its at least cheaper and healthier than fast food and eating out which I’ve pretty much given up.

    I am very interested in learning how to cook, but time is always a factor and pretty much all the “research” I have done takes it for granted you at least a fair cook to begin with, where I’m stuck on some of the basics. Plus I hate going to the grocery store so I tend to buy nonperishables as much as possible and only make a trip once a month or so. Something I could change but I never really know what to buy to whip up a nice healthy home cooked meal.

  7. Jeff says:

    I actually enjoy leftovers most of the time, and I’m really not that wild about fast food anymore either. You’d think it would be easy for me to give up going to lunch. But it’s not, for two reasons: 1. I do still like buffets and chinese food (and especially chinese buffets!), and 2. it’s about 85% of my socialization time. I go to lunch with 4 guys who work in a different department than I do, who sit all the way across the building. I’m the only guy in my department locally (I work with a remote team), so the only face-to-face time I have with any peers is at lunch, and at home with my wife. So it’s tough to give up that time with “the guys”. I have cut back, though, and financially that is a help.

  8. sfmoneygal says:

    I bring mostly sandwiches, peanut butter to work or rice and some vegetables to make it really easy because soups just get messy in my bag as I’m walking to work, or making subway style sandwiches at home like tuna or ham and cheese with lettuce.

    It’s amazing how cheap it is to prepare lunch in advance. Once in awhile I’ll go to Subway or another deli but even a Subway sandwich is like $3 for a basic one. It costs way less for me to replicate something similar. And it’s much healthier since I don’t put mayo and I use sprouted wheat bread.

    You should do a cooking blog or maybe have some tips on how to chop and cook certain vegetables. I bought some red swiss chard that I’m trying to figure out what to cook with or if I even eat it raw. Still learning the cooking part …

  9. Loubilou says:

    There are several foods that actually taste better the next day, and are ideal for leftovers. Some of my favourites are: dal (if you use fresh chilli this seems spicier on day 2), chowder (the flavour seems to develop and blend better overnight), tabbouleh (again the flavours of the spices seem to blend and get stronger if left in the fridge overnight)

  10. Ben says:

    The last point about saving time lining up for geasy food is so true. The combination of using leftovers and packing salads or sandich fillings saves me just under two and a half hours per week. It also reduces lunch costs by 65% over the year.

  11. Patrick Krieger says:

    For those who want warm food without a microwave, invest in one of those mini-ice chests and an unglazed teracotta tile the size of the bottom (it can be bought or broken off a big one.) Wrap the tile in foil and put it in the oven at 250 – 300 while you are getting ready in the morning. Drop it in the cooler, set your food on top, and go about your day. Just make sure you don’t get the tile too hot or you’ll melt the bottom of the chest.

  12. mary says:

    Several of us pitched in and bought a microwave for our office. We found a small one on sale – you can find one that will reheat your lunch for around $55 at Target or Walmart.

    I’m another fan of leftovers – I think gumbo and jambalaya taste better the next day. Any thick spicy soup will be great!

  13. Kris says:

    Microwaves are essentially commodity items now. You can buy second hand microwaves that are only a few years old and in perfect condition for $10 at garage sales, on craigslist, etc.

  14. Stephen says:

    I would starve if we did not have a microwave at work. I bring in left overs to work every single day. I love leftovers…..well most of them, there are a few that I find do not reheat well. But oh well, it saves me a ton of cash from not going out to lunch everyday.

  15. Crys says:

    I’ve been avid about switching to home lunches for a while now. I don’t always have one ready, but when I do, I usually cook it the night before.

    I have saved several of the black plastic dishes with the clear lid that you get form Chinese or Indian food places, and use those to carry my meals in. It recycles them and they are great for a portioned lunch.

    I think preparing it the night before is what makes it easiest. No one wants to rush to get a decent lunch before work, and perhaps that’s why they don’t.

  16. Ben says:

    I’m a big fan of leftovers but not a big fan of reheating in the microwave. The only dish I reheat is soup. I’m the only person I know who can eat leftover casseroles, stews, pasta dishes, risottos etc cold. Leftovers are better than the overpriced and overheated foods I can but at work.

  17. Rachel says:

    This is something I hear all the time, ” we don’t eat leftovers.” And it is something I do not understand. Why would you throw perfectly good food away?! It just goes against my grain. I think anything leftover can be made edible. I never like reheated box mac n cheese, but I have found that adding a little milk and a handful of grated cheese makes it really good! Years ago I read an autobiography by the woman who helped to hide Anne Frank and her family in the attic. She also hid people in her home, and she had to help feed them all. She said that sometimes she would ride her back out into the countryside and return 8 hours later with only a handful of carrots! This made me even more determined to not be wasteful. We are definitely a very spoiled country!

  18. Roberta says:

    I tend to nest, so I keep a lot of things at work, in a drawer and in the fridge. A container of Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up Salt
    , some balsamic vinegar, mayo/mustard in the fridge… these are all things that bring leftovers to life.
    And I love when the office has a toaster oven (or a really good toaster). Bagels, rolls… I can make a yummier, fresher sandwich. When I’m not on a leftovers kick, It’s ham & swiss for a week… and all of it brought in on Mondays… with fresh veggies, like sprouts and cabbage, to top it with. I might keep some bagels and cream cheese as well. All the things that stop me from ‘stopping off’ on the way to work, or going out to lunch.

  19. Kate says:

    If you buy a good thermos and then preheat it by filling it with boiling water and letting it sit for 10 minutes before pouring in your hot food, the food will stay warm until lunch.

    For me, having proper containers is key. My laptop lunchbox (http://www.laptoplunches.com) made taking a packed lunch fun, and it keeps even fragile or messy foods well protected.

  20. Marian says:

    I made a columned list with each member of my familys name at the top of each column. Then I listed all the foods each one of them likes. Afterward, I go grocery shopping and spend one weekend a month cooking and making our own “TV dinners”. I pack them in 3 section sealable plates that are freezer to microwave to dishwasher safe, and label/date each one so everyone knows what is in each plate and how long it has been frozen. The following month, I fix something different and keep a check on what has already been eaten to see if it is something I need to fix again. Be sure to rotate any items still there from previous months so it will not get freezer burned. No savings there if it has to be thrown out. This saves a ton on electricity and time as it takes the same amount of time to cook a little as it does a lot. We use army pots that I bought at a surplus store. They are great for cooking large quantities.

  21. PiFreak says:

    I’ve found that cold lasagna, or warm if you can, tastes great. Lasagna gets better with age, so if you make a well oversized one and freeze it in individual containers, that’s 20 lunches, and if you have one a week, it doesn’t get old. If you eat part of it, just refridgerate it. My family also has buffet days once a week or so. When we have enough leftovers, we just heat everything up, and everyone picks what they want.

  22. Rachael says:

    I agree with Loubilou that daal and tabbouleh are better the next day, I only make them for a day or two later.
    Rachel mentioned how many people say they won’t eat leftovers. But let me tell you from my experience in restaurant industry, everything you are eating is LEFTOVER!! To be sure that ‘special of the day’ is some crap that’s just an hour away from the dumpster.
    A dear friend of mine is junior partner at her firm. She told me that getting ahead means adopting the wasteful habits of the higher-ups, such as lunch at over-hyped restaurants. She asked me for some ideas on how to change this situation, and I didn’t have any ideas. Anyone?

  23. Brenda W. says:

    I pack a lunch every day, and have found that dishes with no animal products in them (no meat, dairy, or eggs) have two huge advantages for brown-bagging: 1)They keep incredibly well (meals will be just as fresh and good a week after being made) and 2)For whatever reason they actually taste better the next day and following (think chili and how that always seems to taste better the next day).

    Two great sources for finding animal free recipes are the blogs by Bryanna Clark Grogan (http://veganfeastkitchen.blogspot.com/) and Susan Voisin (http://blog.fatfreevegan.com/).

    As for transporting your meals, I have a selection of Ziploc’s TableTop dishes (which, sadly, Ziploc no longer makes). This (http://stores.ebay.com/Glass-Addiction-Etc) ebay store always seems to have a good supply of them. They are leak/spill proof, have a domed lid so you even if you have say a nice slice of quiche, it’s not going to get squished (yes …. you CAN make quiche without animal products!!)

    Additionally, those TableTop dishes are nice … you feel you are eating off a nice set of dishes.

  24. Karen W. says:

    Salads seem to be a nice lunch if you do not have a microwave. Also, I do most of my cooking on Saturdays and/or Sundays and stick food in freezer in portion sizes for the week.

  25. wendy says:

    One of my favorite left overs IS the boxed macaroni and cheese, refried in butter. Granted this isn’t a weight watchers meal, but I like it that way.

  26. Schwamie says:

    This post is for Rachel (albeit very late):

    One idea for your friend is to have her talk with the Office Manager and have them set up a “Pot Luck” lunch once a month. Once that becomes successful, have her push it to be done every two weeks. While this will not fully eliminate the issue, it would at least eliminate two days a month of having to spend a large sum of money.

  27. Laura says:

    Another really late post for Rachel:

    Your friend might consider packing things she could eat at her desk right before lunchtime–carrot sticks, nuts, peanut butter sandwich, etc. Come lunchtime, she won’t be that hungry and could order a small (albeit expensive) salad and water. This time might be better spent impressing the full partners with all her wonderful ideas (i.e. talking rather than eating) anyhow. Or she could really impress the boss by working through lunch.

  28. Mary says:

    If there is one leftover I absolutely love, it is cold pizza. I know, not good for you, but there are some pizzas (frozen, homemade) that can be actually healthy. Cold pizza rocks for lunch.

    I usually have sandwiches. Tuna, turkey ham and cheese, and good ol’ PB+J. I also pack at least one fruit (frozen or fresh) in there, as well as string cheese and yogurt. Also I’ve found nuts are good for snacks. I like peanuts and cashews.

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