Updated on 07.16.12

Learn to Love Leftovers (197/365)

Trent Hamm

Any time you throw food into the trash can, you’re throwing money into the trash can.

Quite often, that food you’re throwing away is the remnants of a meal from a few days ago. You stuck the remnants in the refrigerator, but every time you went to grab another meal, you overlooked the leftovers. You talked yourself out of them or you just simply didn’t bother to consider them.

Simply put, every time you choose to eat leftovers, you’re basically getting a free meal. It’s a meal where you’ve already accounted for the ingredients. It’s a meal that is going to disappear in a day or two if you don’t eat it.

I often look at it this way: a meal of leftovers “pushes back” the other meals you might consume. If you eat leftovers, then the meal you would have had at that time is saved for another day. You might be able to put off grocery shopping for a day or two if you do that a few times, reducing your trips to the grocery store in a month, which directly reduces your food bill for that month.

A meal made of leftovers is money directly in your pocket.

Learn to Love Leftovers (197/365)

The challenge many people have with leftovers, though, is that they can often seem really unappealing compared to other options. When you’re considering what to have for lunch or for dinner, leftovers represent eating something again that you just had in the last day or two. It often represents something a bit less fresh than making a new meal, too. Thus, it’s often easy to talk yourself out of leftovers.

Here are a few tactics I use to overcome those challenges.

First, I maximize the convenience level of leftovers. When I pack away leftovers, I usually arrange a plate for myself so that I can simply grab it, throw it straight into the microwave, and have a meal on the table in just a couple of minutes. If I lower the effort and time investment of leftovers in the moment, I’m more likely to choose them in the middle of a busy workday.

You can apply this yourself by packing leftovers to take to work with you. If your leftovers are the only convenient option for lunch at work, that’s the option you’ll take.

What about flavor? There are a lot of techniques for spicing up the flavor of leftovers. Keep some common flavor enhancers on hand in your home (or at work). Salt, ground black pepper, hot sauce, oregano, basil, and tarragon are all great things to add to leftovers to add a kick of flavor for just a penny or two.

You can get creative with leftovers as well, using them as ingredients in other dishes. Leftover baby carrots can be chopped up into a salad. Leftover ground beef or beans can quickly be turned into a burrito. Leftover tomato sauce and/or tomatoes can quickly be turned into a pasta sauce.

Your goal should be to never throw away leftover foods that you would otherwise eat. If you’ve got it in your home, you’ve paid for it in some fashion. Throwing it away is no different than throwing money away.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. krantcents says:

    I have leftovers for lunch everyday! My wife and I take leftovers to work.

  2. Johanna says:

    Or…learn to cook the right amount of food in the first place, so that there’ll be no leftovers. That works too.

  3. Johanna says:

    (I do love leftovers, myself. And Trent left out what I consider to be by far the most important ‘tactic’: Cook recipes that make good leftovers.)

  4. Katie says:

    I find the thing that most often makes leftovers unappealing is their texture. For many types of food, they’re better reheated in the oven or on the stovetop instead of the microwave.

  5. Roberta says:

    What Johanna said at #3. And some things do taste better the second time around.

    Actually, I freeze lots of things in lidded Corelle mugs, and my husband takes them to work. He’ll add a little mozzarella to leftover microwaved spaghetti, or take along some fresh bread to go with soup or stew.

    And stew, soup or stir-fires can use up almost anything!

  6. Roberta says:

    #5 that would be “stir-fries”

  7. Kevin says:

    I often make a huge batch of rice, noodles, pasta, stir-fry, or whatever, then portion them out into individual containers for lunches to take to work. A single batch makes 15-25 meals.

  8. Riki says:

    Kevin – I do that all the time. All the convenience of frozen meals without the added preservatives or sodium. It could be a good way to cut costs, I suppose, although that’s not why I do it.

  9. Johanna says:

    Another tactic: Cook delicious things. If a meal is delicious enough, I don’t mind eating it many times in a row.

  10. Izabelle says:

    A rather surprising tip: lean to cook (more) vegan meals. Most vegan dishes taste better after a day or two in the refrigerator, as the flavours have more time to develop. Meanwhile, meat, dairy and eggs tend not to keep as fresh as plant-based dishes.

    Added bonus: the ingredients are also cheap!

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