We waste a lot of food. So much that food waste accounts for 20% of what we send to landfill. Leftovers is one way to prevent it, but sometimes it’s hard to remember (or want) to eat them. I’m still falling victim to saving food just for it to go bad waiting in the fridge. In this post, you’ll learn not only how to properly store leftovers but also how to use up leftovers before they go bad.
Save Those Leftovers
Before we get to discussing how to use up leftovers, you have to remember to save them first! Don’t toss extra food into the trash after dinner (or even the compost bin if the food is still good). Even if it’s a few bites, it can add up over time to a lot of wasted food.
The best way to store leftovers is in a clear, airtight container. The reason you want a clear container is so you can easily see what’s inside and if it’s gone bad. We still use plastic containers, but I try my best to avoid microwaving them. At higher temperatures, plastics can leech out endocrine disruptors into the food. Glass containers or jars are your best bet.
If storing for a short time, you can keep the containers in the fridge. Make sure they stay towards the front and don’t get buried. Place newer leftovers behind older ones so you remember to eat the old first.
If it helps, add a strip of masking tape to the lid and use a pencil to write the date. Using a pencil allows you to erase and write a new date for another batch of leftovers. You could also use a grease pencil directly on the container.
If storing for a longer period, you can put them in the freezer. Marking them with the date will be more important for frozen items.
If using glass jars, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, ensure there is space at the top for expansion as the food freezes. Wide mouth jars are better to freeze than ones with “shoulders”. If you don’t have any wide mouth jars, just leave even more space (a couple inches below the shoulder). Cap loosely until they are frozen, and try to keep glass containers from touching each other.
For all glass containers, let your food cool a bit before putting it in the freezer. Quick changes in temperature can cause the glass to shatter. Similarly, when you want to heat up frozen leftovers stored in glass, let the food thaw a little first before putting it in the microwave.
Tip #1: Leftover Day
The first way to use up leftovers is to dedicate one night a week to eating a leftover meal. Not only will you prevent food waste, but you’ll also clear up space in the fridge and save yourself some cooking time.
Leftover Day should be the day or so before you plan to go shopping. This allows you to know exactly how much food you currently have so you don’t overbuy. And as I said, eating up those leftovers will make space in the fridge so you have room for new groceries. Taking inventory of what leftovers you have can also inspire what you’ll make next, whether that means incorporating leftovers into a new meal or going in a different direction for variety.
Most of our days are Leftover Days because we meal prep a large portion at the beginning of the week and eat it throughout the week. It saves so much time to make everything at once! Plus, we don’t have to worry about perishable items like produce going bad while it waits in the drawer to be cooked some other night.
Tip #2: Leftovers For Lunch
Making lunch every night before work is an absolute breeze when you use leftovers. When I didn’t use this tip, I ate the same PB&J or bagel every day. But now, I have hot food for lunch pretty much every day, which to me is more filling especially if it’s cold outside.
When you go to store your leftovers, portion them out into smaller containers you can quickly throw into your lunch bag. Many times, our meal prep “leftovers” are a bunch of ingredients I can mix and match and season differently so it’s not exactly the same each day. These ingredients tend to include brown rice, quinoa, lentils, corn, beans, and broccoli.
If you’re bringing in leftovers that are just last night’s dinner, I suggest waiting an extra day or two before bringing them in. How many times do you want to eat the same thing you ate the night before? By spacing things out, you can create a bit of variety in your meals.
Tip #3: Mix It Up
I mentioned this in the section about Leftover Day. You don’t need to just eat leftovers as they were when you had them the first time. Spice them differently, like I do for lunch. Add in a new ingredient. Add the entire container to a new recipe.
Here’s some ideas for how to use up leftovers:
- Add different spices, hot sauces, or condiments to your leftovers (soy sauce, barbecue sauce, mustard, etc.) to give them a new flavor
- Add leftover side dish veggies to a stir fry or pasta dish
- Leftover roasted potatoes can turn into mashed potatoes seasoned with garlic or cheese
- Make a burrito, taco, or quesadilla out of your leftovers
- Add leftovers to a soup, stew, or chili
- If bread gets stale, make breadcrumbs or croutons
- Juice leftover fruits and veggies or add them to a smoothie
- Use leftovers as pizza toppings
- Make homemade veggie burgers using rice, beans, and veggies
- Compost when leftovers produce, legumes, and grains have gone bad
Leftovers can easily be incorporated into your weekly meals without becoming boring by eating the same thing again and again. If you properly storing leftovers, you’ll make sure they aren’t forgotten. By scheduling out specific times to eat leftovers and getting creative with their usage, pretty soon you’ll be an expert on how to use up leftovers.
Curious about other ways to minimize food waste? Check out my 12 Ways To Reduce Food Waste!