The War Over Leftovers – and How You Can Win

A few days ago, I came across an interesting article in the Washington Post by Caitlin Dewey entitled “Why Americans have stopped eating leftovers.” The article pointed to a fascinating data set from ReFED, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing food waste.

The data presents an interesting picture:

+ The average American produces 3.5 pounds of food waste per week. That’s half a pound per person per day, just tossed in the trash.

+ Of that waste, only a third of it is inedible. Two thirds of the food thrown away is perfectly good to eat.

+ About 40% of the edible food that we throw away is prepared food – food that is actually completely ready to eat if it were simply warmed up in a microwave or on a stove top.

So, if you do the quick math there, the average American person throws away roughly three ounces of prepared food a day, tossing it right in the trash. Three ounces of prepared food is enough to make a small lunch every day, or a decent sized lunch every two days – and the average American just throws it away, choosing instead to pay for that lunch.

Not only is that a huge burden on America’s waste management system and landfills and a huge strain on our food production capacity, it’s also a giant waste of our money. Perfectly edible food, thrown out for whatever reason, amounts to throwing away money.

Why does this happen? The article points to two primary reasons: people either thought the food had gone bad, or people simply didn’t want to eat leftovers.

Here’s how you solve that problem.

First, if you are thinking about what to eat for a meal, or are about to leave for the day and will be eating a meal while gone, look in the fridge for leftovers first. This should always be your first step for many of your meals. It is my first step when considering what to eat for lunch each and every day, and it’s often my first step when planning what to have for our family dinner each and every day.

If you do this, and you see leftovers in the fridge, eat them for that next meal. Take them to work with you for lunch. Make that leftover part of dinner.

There are only two exceptions to that rule that I follow, and they’re minor. The first one is that I’ll sometimes pass over a leftover item if I just had it for dinner the day before, as I don’t always want to repeat a very flavorful meal that quickly.

The second exception?

Plan on having a leftover “smorgasbord” for dinner twice a week or so. If you prepare a lot of food at home, you’ll often have quite a few leftovers. The best way to use those leftovers is to simply have a “leftover smorgasbord” for dinner, where you pull all leftovers out of the refrigerator and allow everyone to make a plate for themselves from those leftovers.

This does often result in some odd flavor combinations, but the thing is, in a multi-person household, you don’t have to put everything on your plate. In fact, in our house, I usually perform “garbage time” duties on leftovers night by simply taking what’s left of the leftovers. Why? I genuinely don’t care that much about having weird combinations on my plate, as long as I keep the contrasting flavors segregated. A bit of lasagna, then some water, then a bit of something completely different like root vegetable stew? Completely fine with me.

One big advantage of doing this twice a week is that you can be sure that none of the leftovers have gone bad yet. There simply isn’t enough time for that to happen if you eat all leftovers within three days of initial preparation and they’re covered and refrigerated, which is what happens when you have a leftover smorgasbord twice a week.

In general, we schedule these on Mondays (because it’s Monday, and an easy supper is nice) and Thursdays (because Thursdays are usually our busiest evenings).

Another useful technique is to package leftovers so that they’re as convenient as possible to take to work the next day, or to quickly heat up for lunch the next day. Take a few minutes right at the end of your meal to package up a leftover container so that it is incredibly easy to grab the next day. If you had meatloaf and mashed potatoes, use a two-section container to pack it up or use two small containers. If you had soup, put a lunch’s worth of soup into an easy-to-transport container.

The goal here is to make it very, very easy to just grab leftovers at the start of your busy day the next day. Try to put yourself in a situation so that, the next morning, all you have to do is open the refrigerator door, grab the already-packaged leftovers, and head out the door.

Another valuable tip is to know how to actually reheat foods. While I was researching this article, I found this rather humorous argument against leftovers entitled “Why I Hate Leftovers and Refuse to Eat Them.” While the article made me laugh, it also made me cringe because it was clear that this person had no idea how to reheat most foods in a palatable way.

Take soups, for example. Soups really are best reheated on a stove top under medium heat and stirred constantly. If you must reheat soup in a microwave, do it in short bursts and stir it between heatings. Doing this keeps the soup from turning to mush, which is what happens if you just toss it in there and nuke it until it’s boiling.

Pasta? You can microwave it just fine, but the secret is to add just a little olive oil to it. This person apparently tried to add water, which just makes it mushy, and also tried what sounds like a whole stick of butter, which would be fine for a buttery pasta but would usually result in something… less than palatable. A small amount of olive oil stirred gently coats the pasta and preserves the structure of the pasta without drastically changing the flavor of the dish.

Chicken? The best way to reheat it is to bake it in the oven. If you want to use a microwave, then coat it with something – yep, even olive oil is fine, but barbecue sauce or Italian dressing also works – and then cover it with microwave-safe plastic wrap or heat it in a lidded container.

You don’t need to remember these things, either – that’s what Google is for. On your way to the kitchen, whip out your phone and Google “how to reheat X” where X is whatever it is you’re trying to reheat.

Hint: Simply tossing stuff in the microwave, hitting “High” and setting the timer for three minutes, then coming back and immediately eating it is probably going to disappoint you, but the truth is you wouldn’t use such a basic technique for the original meal, either. You’d boil some things, but not others. You’d grill some things, but not others. You’d bake some things, but not others. If you try to do the same exact thing to all leftovers, you’re probably not going to be thrilled with the results.

A final tip: It can be a great idea to put some dishes aside for leftovers from your normal meal before adding the final touches. If you add a lot of seasoning or other things right at the end, try taking some out for leftovers before doing this. I often do this with things like steamed vegetables, which are often seasoned just before serving.

Keeping the leftovers plain means that you can season them just before or just after reheating in a way that complements other leftovers that you may be eating. For example, I am going to season steamed carrots very differently if I’m eating it alongside a roast versus eating it mixed in with pasta and olive oil.

In short, putting in just a little extra effort with your leftovers makes a world of difference and keeps you from wasting a lot of food. Knowing how to use leftovers in a tasty way turns something that’s not exciting and perhaps unappealing into a normal part of your food routine, and it’s far less expensive than wasting the food!

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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