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Thursday, January 10, 2013

My raging passion: managing leftovers

Our kitchen freezer. It's a jumbled mess, isn't it?
Good thing smorgasbord night is scheduled for Saturday!
I am passionate about leftovers!

The notion of using it all up, getting all the bang there is for my buck, waste not, want not -- really gets my juices flowing. Perhaps this explains why I am just so passionate about using our leftovers. I don't want to think that I've just dumped $3 or $4 into the compost bin. Those leftovers are food that I paid for. I can't really make you as passionate about leftovers as I am. I think it's one of those things that I was born with.

But I can share techniques that others, and myself, have used successfully, to minimize throwing out leftovers. There are several techniques for managing one's meal leftovers that actually work for families, meaning, food does not go to waste, it gets eaten! Here are some of the more successful techniques.

1)  The big bucket in the freezer

With this technique, all savory leftovers go into a bucket stored in the freezer. At the end of a couple of weeks, when the bucket is full, this is thawed, dumped into a stock pot, and vegetable or meat stock added for an interesting soup or stew.

Those that use this method tell me that their "bucket soup" is indeed tasty, contrary to everything that I had thought about this idea. Just a suggestion, though, you may want to be discriminating in what goes into the bucket. Brussels sprouts, fish patties, curry, Italian sauces, and refried beans might not be the best combination for a soup!

2)  The pack-it-up-for-next-day-lunch plan

This plan is highly successful for many families. Whatever is leftover from dinner goes into individual containers, to be taken to work or school for lunch the next day.

(In our house, as I'm packing away leftovers from dinner, I may ask the family if anyone wants some for lunch the next day. But our rule is, if someone forgets to take their leftovers in next day, then I am free to do what I want with them. We had a lovely coffee cake with stewed prunes swirled into the top the other morning, because someone forgot to take their container of prunes in with lunch. Or perhaps they didn't really "forget"?)

3)  The freezer fix

With this technique, all leftovers are packed into freezer containers and kept frozen until needed. Sometimes they are then used as lunch items, or quick snacks in between meals. Other times, a mis-matched set of many leftover containers become a smorgasbord buffet.

(This is actually how we handle the bulk of our leftovers. Both breakfast and dinner leftovers get packed for the freezer. Once every fortnight, I cull the freezer for all savory leftovers, heat them and set on the counter for everyone to pick and choose what they want. This was the favored meal by our children when they were small, as they actually got the chance to choose what went on their plates. I often will round out these leftovers with pickles, olives and bread and butter.

We also do a breakfast leftover feast about once every couple of months. We don't accrue breakfast leftovers as rapidly as dinner ones.)

4)  The leave-it-in-the-fridge-and-plan-for-its-use plan

This plan will work for many families. They pack their leftovers into refrigerator containers, and plan for their use later in the week.

Many of these families have a designated spot in the fridge for leftovers. Some even place a tray on the shelf, making it clear that "this spot is for leftovers". In some houses, these leftovers are fair game for any hungry soul. In others, the cook knows to keep an eye on that spot and make use of these items very soon.

(I store leftover cooked rice and beans in the fridge, with the goal to use them all up by the weekend. If there's any left by Saturday, at lunch I make a pot of soup or casserole using it up. Our Saturday lunches tend to be rather motley. But so far, I've not yet sent anyone to the hospital with my motley Saturday lunch cooking. That's a sign that I'm doing pretty good, don't you think?)

5) The "make them eat it all" program

With this program, you simply force-feed your entire family everything that could possibly be wasted. Of course, this could be considered child abuse in some districts, as well as may lead to a number of eating disorders. So, I don't heartily advocate force-feeding anything but geese.

A variation of this program was in force in my elementary school. The lunch room monitors roamed the room, enforcing the "clean plate" rule. I'm afraid this rule and its enforcement didn't so much to encourage good eating habits, but instead brought about very creatively devious behavior. Did you know that you can fit an entire lunch into an empty small milk carton? Believe me, it really all fit.

There really isn't a single perfect, one-size-fits-all plan for managing leftovers. We each need to find the method that works best for ourselves. But if your current plan isn't working for you, give consideration to one of the others. And for the record, even the best of plans fail from time to time. I had to toss almost half a jar of green tomato pickles last night. The liquid was murky and thick. I am not sure what happened. Maybe you're not supposed to keep an opened jar of homemade pickles for 2  1/2 years. Now to go find something good for lunch in the freezer!


  1. I love leftovers! In fact, I roasted a chicken the other night (it was a BIG one!) and darned if my family didn't gobble almost all of it down--I had been counting on the leftovers for making chicken pockets for dinner the next night! (but I got my frozen leftovers out and was still able to make it happen).

    If leftovers are something that will be used pretty quickly (breakfast or lunch the next day) we leave them in the fridge but typically I try to get them in the freezer ASAP as I have a tendency to forget about them till they are sporting penicillin spores ... sigh ...

    1. Hi Kris,
      I think the best part of Thanksgiving weekend is not having to cook on Friday or Saturday!
      So if your family gobbled (pun intended, sorry) that whole chicken, it's only testimony to your fabulous cooking skills! But good thing you had some back=up in the freezer for the next night. Pockets sound tasty.

  2. My favorite and highly effective way to use up leftovers is to have two teenage boys around the house. However, I realize that this method is not available to everyone, but it certainly works.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      Sounds very effective, indeed. Perhaps not so cost effective, however. Your savings in little waste might be offset by the cost of raising those boys. Good thing there are tremendous emotional advantages to having kids! :) A couple of teenage boys can really plow through leftovers in a hurry, if there are any leftovers! While they were going through growth spurts, did you ever find it hard to plan for their booming appetites? I remember with my son, thinking I'd made plenty for dinner, only to find not nearly enough, night after night.

    2. Time after time, I thought I was fixing enough to have leftovers for the next day. However, I never had anything left by the next morning. My husband, who grew up with brothers, helped me adjust to this. I grew up with all sisters, and while we were good eaters, we didn't eat like boys. I just learned to have a lot of snacks around like cereal.

    3. Glad I wasn't the only one who had trouble adjusting cooking quantities!

  3. This is a well written article with sound advice on managing your leftovers, Lili. Great job! I like having leftovers, so I don't have to cook the next day. We often eat the food until it is gone or my family is tired of it.

    1. Thank you, Belinda!
      When it was just the two of us, my husband and I, I would make a casserole or pot of soup, and we'd just have it several nights in a row, until it was gone. Most recipes make from 4-8 servings, much more than 2 of us could eat in one meal. And being an inexperienced cook, I didn't try to halve recipes, so this worked well for us. Now, my leftovers are usually 1/2 to 1 portion. So , for us, those are best just frozen.

  4. I like to use a mixture of most of those methods. These are the things that work for me.

    1. I keep an ice cream bucket (the kind with the snap on lid) in the refrigerator and add leftover bits for soup. I keep a ziplock bag in the freezer for leftover bits for stock.

    2. Hubby takes leftovers for lunch.

    3. I do what I call cook once and eat twice. Planned leftovers if you will that I turn into another dish. (For example I can never cook just the right amount of rice, so I cook a large batch and plan to use the leftovers in soup, stir fry, casserole or whatever.)

    4. I did the teenage boy's moved out now. (Kind of found that amusing, but so accurate.)

    5. I somewhat freeze leftovers, but normally it is in portions for other meals. (Like turkey for casseroles or things like that.) Most of the time the only leftovers I freeze are deliberately planned.

    I don't do the force them to eat it all plan just because I don't believe in forcing people to eat. However, I do reserve the right (if someone doesn't eat and then pleads starvation) to say that I did indeed cook and there are leftovers in the

    1. Hi Shara,
      It sounds like you've got your leftovers all under control!

      Your last paragraph about some family members not wanting to eat what was prepared, then hungry later, resounded with me. When my kids were younger, we occasionally had meals where one of them would declare they weren't hungry (and I knew it was just that they would rather have their favorite instead), then would later say they were starving. I'd pull their plate out of the fridge and tell them that I had made dinner, and here it is. Most of the time, they would rather reluctantly take their plate to the table and try a few bites! Funny memories!

    2. We still occasionally do that with our kids! :)

    3. The good news is, it really seems to works. With our kids, eventually they learned that what I made was what there was to eat! I did try to be sensitive with one or two things that they just could not stand to eat.

  5. Does anyone else worry about freezing something before it goes bad and its self life when it is unfrozen to eat or cook. I always figure if something only had a day or two left before it went bad, that's all I have when it comes out of the freezer even if I make it into something else.

    1. I have the same mental estimate in mind. If I'm freezing milk that has about 3 days left till expiry, then I figure we'll need to drink or use it within 3 days of thawing.

      If it's a large package of something that I don't think we could go through in time (like a gallon jug of milk), then I'll divide up what I have into smaller containers, so that I'm only thawing what we will go through in about a day, once thawed.

      From what I understand, freezing just suspends the time frame, until the food is thawed again.

  6. We eat most of our leftovers for lunch the next day. It's got to the point that it's annoying if there aren't any because then I have to make something specific for my lunch the next day! At the moment because it's summer I usually eat them cold but in winter I heat them up in the microwave.

    Our freezer is a bit of a black hole at the moment because I put a whole lot of stuff in there before Christmas and can't remember what else is in there. It's due for a clean-out this weekend, I think!

    1. Hi Economies,
      I really don't enjoy fixing lunch just for myself. In fact, if it is just me at home, I don't. I have a cup of tea or coffee and a slice of toast or piece of fruit and that's it.

      But while my kids were home on break (and it was a long break, they had a month off), I prepared somethings ahead of time. I would cook up a large pot of rice, and another of black beans. Lunch would be make-your-own burritos. Then on other weeks, I made and froze a bunch of mini pizza rounds, thaw some pizza sauce, and lunch would be make-your-own pizzas. No one seemed to tire of these, and occasionally we'd make something different. But having prepared foods, ready to assemble was a big help for lunches for us.

  7. There are just two of us at our house. We use a meal plan and have developed a very high tolerance for leftovers. So we might make a crockpot stew and have it for 3 days in a row. We'll break the pattern by having a no-leftovers meal after that (such as stir fry or pasta). As long as we've made it ourselves, we don't get too tired of anything!

    1. Hi anexacting,
      That's a great way to manage leftovers, too! And it sure does make fixing dinner very easy, on the nights that you're eating the leftovers.

  8. I share your passion! In addition to the strategies you mentioned, I have a number of recipes for using up odd bits of ingredients (fruit, veggies, cheese, bread, rice, etc.) that might otherwise go to waste. These are all linked in my Thrifty Tips page, although I'm beginning to think they really deserve their own article....


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