Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Three Rules of Leftovers

It has been said that if everyone in the U.S. packed a lunch to bring to the office, we would obliterate the U.S. deficit inside of three days.

From Flickr's Muffet
Okay, that’s a lie. But brown bagging it to work will save you, personally, a lot of money over the course of a year. Maybe not trillions, but definitely hundreds, and perhaps even thousands. Of course, buying the ingredients, finding Tupperware, taking 10-15 minutes, and actually assembling that lunch may seem a bit complicated for a $3 daily savings.

But that’s where leftovers come in. When applied carefully, they can:
  • Reduce food costs, because you're not spending extra to eat out.
  • Optimize the health quotient of your lunches (or any meal, really), by allowing you to control exactly what goes into your food.
  • Eliminate packaging waste, since there's no need for restaurant meals.
  • Decrease the time it takes you to prepare an office lunch – just pop 'em in your bag and go.
Of course, you have to get over the stereotypes. Day-old food has a bad rep, thanks in no small part to decades of suburban-set sitcoms in which an army of mop-topped, precocious children have perpetually whined, “Leftovers, AGAIN?!?” to their frazzled, beautiful mothers and suspiciously-out-of-her-league-so-it-must-be-his-show fathers. Frequently paired with words like “moldy” and “congealed,” the mere invocation of leftovers conjures images of rot and disease. I’ve heard tale of folks who flat-out out refuse to eat them, as if last night’s lasagna is today’s ebola factory.

And to that, I proclaim, “What a bunch of hooey. Seriously now.” Leftovers are decidedly un-lame. In fact, they’re the universe’s way of saying, “Nice work with dinner last night, chief. As a reward, here’s some more of the same. And – bonus – this time, you don’t have to do as many dishes.”

The secret to successful leftover-ing is creating them intentionally. You can't look at them as an occasional bonus, but an almost-every-night inevitability. To make this easier, remember MSR:

M: Make more than enough
S: Save the extra
R: Repurpose it later

Let's elaborate.

Make more than enough: Instead of cooking just what you need, make two or three times the amount. Never scale recipes down, even if you're cooking for one.

From Flickr's Apreche
Save the extra: Don't throw food out. Portion it into individual serving containers and store it in your fridge or freezer. You can even portion the meal before you settle down to dinner, to ensure you'll have enough for lunch tomorrow.

Repurpose it later: Most likely, you'll be using the leftovers as straight-up lunches, with little or no alteration. But in some cases, you can save part of a meal to make into something entirely different later. The perfect example is Fried Rice, which uses leftover grains as a base for all-new flavors. Another example: last week, HOTUS and I ordered Mexican takeout. There wasn't much left beyond onions, peppers, and about a cup of enchilada sauce. This week, we combined them, added some pinto beans, scooped it on rice, and shredded some cheddar into the mixture for an excellent, 10-minute chili.

And that's it: MSR.

Readers, do you make leftovers intentionally? Do you consider them a vital part of your diet? How do you optimize their use? Fire away in the comment section.


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Jessie said...

I always make food intending to have leftovers. Whether or not hubby *leaves* any leftovers is another story. I've found that putting some away before he gets to the food helps solve that problem, and helps him eat a more appropriate portion size.

Jazmin said...

Always always always. In fact, we cook for a family in spite of being a couple, portion out leftovers right after supper into plastic pots (aka store brand tupperware) and stick 'em in the freezer. Both of us have microwaves at work, and we choose lunch out of the freezer stash so that we dont usually eat the same thing every day for a week. When the freezer stash is gone, it's a mournful sad instant noodle lunch day. Been doing it for years. The repurposing of food into another dish also is a big thing in our household. Its rare that we re-heat something (other than for lunch) without changing it up somehow. It took me a long time to realize that this wasn't the norm. :)

Sassy Molassy said...

As a teacher, I only get 30 minutes for lunch, so I have to bring it with me. Left overs are my lunch of choice, so I do try to make enough dinner to feed lunch to at least me the next day. I also often make enough of certain things to freeze for another dinner later.

When I'm off in the summer, since my husband works from home and is also there, I can get a bit more creative with the leftovers. meatloaf is a good one for this. I make two loaves side-by-side on a broiler pan (grease goes underneath), and then slap leftover slices on the griddle to put in sandwiches, burritos, and our fave, meatloaf marinara (with, what else, leftover spaghetti and sauce).

Di said...

With two kids I'm always cooking with the intention of having leftovers. Especially since my daughter doesn't particularly like to take sandwiches for lunch.

Danielle said...

My husband and I switch dinner duties...I try on purpose to make enough for leftovers. He's getting better at it. The best part is that some things (soups, chilis, curries, etc.) taste BETTER the next day. Score! Of course, if you're going to bring curry it helps if your office has a door or, better yet, a common eating area.

I do get teased for it by some of my coworkers, but...there are 5 20-somethings in my office, and me and the guy who brown-bags are the only ones w/o cc debt. Some things aren't worth it, and office lunches out aren't one of them, for me.

Lorena said...

We actually repurposed some leftovers last night. Monday's leftover steak and rice because Tuesday's beef and broccoli stir-fry with rice. It was quick and easy, a big benefit when Tuesday is my busiest day of the workweek. Of course, today's lunch is what is left of last night's stir fry.

I have a tougher time getting my husband to eat leftovers, but I don't mind "leftover lunches" in the least, especially when it was something particularly tasty that I made.

alternakiddy said...

I love leftovers! In college I would batch cook two or three meals, containerize 'em, wash the dishes, and return to my room with the spoils of nourishment for the week not from the dining hall (ew).

At home, my siblings don't believe in eating leftovers, even if my mom literally put the meal on the plate and wrapped it. Weirdos.

Now, working full time, I batch cook two or three things and make my breakfast and lunch when I come home at the end of the day.

It's way less wasteful environmentally, it's nicer to your wallet, and it's better for you nutrition-wise.

Huzzahs for leftovers!

Jen said...

Leftovers = love! Especially for those things that are yummier the next day (as I munch my leftover veggie-pie at my desk)

A said...

I'm on the road for work two or three nights a week, so over the weekend and Monday I tend to cook large batches of one-pot meals my guy can just reheat while I'm gone. Left to his own devices he'd go to the corner bar and order something called "The Colonel," which is a deep-chicken-fried burger thing. I can't let him do that when with one block of turkey meatloaf (with oatmeal, spinach, and dried cranberries, HEALTHY!) he'd happily live on sandwiches all week. I just have to make sure there's enough barbecue sauce in the house.

That said, I really appreciate the tip about putting some away before we have it the first time. That's going to make a big difference! I've also discovered that we have to store leftovers in clear containers so we can see what they are; if I use repurposed cottage cheese tubs or other opaque things they get ignored or lost in the fridge until it's too late.

Jeanie said...

Love the post. Love leftovers. Especially love less dishes. Sigh. (In fact, I'd wager that those who turn their noses up at leftovers are not the ones with dish duty.)

kensingtonkitchen said...

Leftover love.

Like everyone else here, I make extra for lunches, but remembering to bring it as I run out the door is another thing entirely.

Any ideas for helping with that?

Adrienne said...

If I don't bring my lunch, the cheapest thing I can get is a really crappy sandwich for almost five bucks. If I want anything decent it's going to cost more, plus I'm going to spend my entire lunch break going to get it. It's very easy to put part of the dinner leftovers into a tupperware while I'm cleaning up- voila, lunch ready to go for the next day.

TJ said...

Absolutely use leftovers. At home and on my own, I always cook enough for at least another full dinner (which can also act as two lunches or more). Food does not deteriorate THAT quickly (some foods do, I am positive), but in general, what most of us will be cooking can last for days in the fridge if properly stored. I plan my lunches around my dinners, as well as my I-dont-feel-like-cooking days.

(I loved the description of the beautiful TV mom and dad!)

Autumn said...

We actually don't take leftovers for lunch, but that doesn't mean I don't like them.

I work 3 days a week, so on the weekends or my off days, I cook a good meal (when my evening sickness isn't bothering me) and then it's much less work after work the other days. Especially now when I really have no interest in food after 5PM, and the husband isn't the greatest or fastest in the kitchen.

LBSki said...

I bought a dozen glass containers from C&B a few months ago and they have made my leftover situation much more pleasant. I always hated having to heat things up in plastic tupperware and/or having to take it out and put it in something else before heating. I would save leftovers for dinner the next night but never wanted to bring something like lasagna to the office becaue of the microwaving plastic situation. I highly reccommend getting some glass containers! They make eating leftovers much less icky!

Dee Seiffer said...

I'm on the leftover love bandwagon. Both hubby and I work from home, so we love to raid the fridge for leftovers for lunch.

I stock the freezer right after dinner with leftovers, which I use more for dinners than lunch. Since there are just 2 of us, a batch of turkey meatballs makes 3 or 4 meals. Love to "shop" the freezer when planning meals for the next couple of days.

I label my containers with blue painter's tape - the item and date. That way I know what I've got and when I need to use it up.

Maggie said...

leftovers are always "planned-overs" for me! it just MAKES SENSE. amen to this post!

Becky Smith Kuk said...

I love leftovers. I can't stand it when people refuse to eat them. The only caveat is if you're trying a not-your-normal-recipe for the first time and it goes bad. Then, you truly get sick of those leftovers. However, I haven't been eating them so much lately since some friends and I started a meal exchange! It's a wonderful idea. We all cook enough for 8 (since there are 4 couples in the group), package it up, and trade. One cooking session turns into 4 nights of food. Love it.

Leah said...

In my weekly menu plan, I usually schedule two leftover nights each week. Monday night's leftovers are dinner on Wednesday (which is great, because we are always busy on Wednesdays). Tuesday night's leftovers are eaten up on Thursday. Friday night is homemade pizza, and I don't plan the weekends, so boom! Cook twice, eat all week!

I have found the if I don't put it on the menu plan, we end up throwing a lot of leftovers away because they are forgotten in the fridge.

Heidi said...

Just had leftover beef barley soup for lunch today. Made it in November. I have 8 kinds of soup in my freezer. A few minutes in the microwave and I'm good to go.

Karen L said...

I love leftovers for breakfast. Most days I need to go 6 or 7 hours before lunch and I need something hearty to get me through.

Also, so true about the packing up before the first offering and opaque containers.

Chookie said...

I have very fond memories of being a student and eating yesterdays leftover takeaway curry for breakfast. Cold pizza also made a very fine breakfast back in those days!

Nowadays I don't even get a look in, the kids have snaffled all the leftovers for their packed lunches!

I do usually make more than I need, but with one hungry husband and 4 hungry teenage girls (and believe me teen girls are just as bad as teen boys!)we don't always have much left.

M Family said...

I'm almost obsessive about making extra, in fact our second freezer (told you I'm obsessive) is almost filled to the brim with frozen meals. Now for a couple weeks I will have very little to do (including leftovers for lunches because they are full dinners with leftovers built in) until I decide it needs to be full again. I am having an affair with the new vacuum sealer I got for Christmas, it's the best appliance ever! Oh and for recipes I have too much of an element for, I write new recipes to use the leftovers of that. Kind of like your chili :)

M Family said...

To A: I label all containers whether clear or not with scotch tape and a sharpie, that way we know what we are getting :)

Becky said...

Though I'm currently living with the parents for financial reasons, I cook like a single person due to their dietary restrictions. And I don't get to cook nearly as often as I'd like to from lack of time. I work part-time as a music teacher, which takes up a great deal of the time around dinner, and so my usual method of cooking is to make a normal-sized recipe, eat one serving that day, maybe save one or two servings in the fridge for the next day, and freeze the rest of the leftovers so I can pull them out for fast dinners as needed. (I'm boring for lunch and usually just make a sandwich, since I have to eat it fast and on the go more often than not.)

Kris said...

You guys, I had no idea leftovers would inspire such passion. (Though, considering the leftover spinach lasagna we had a few weeks ago, I should have known.)

The strategies here are so solid, too. I bet we could turn them into a whole other post ... Hm.

Jacqueline said...

I've started consistently cooking in bulk so I can pack lunch. And if you're going to the trouble of cooking, anyways, might as well make a little extra, right? I can definitely thank my boyfriend to converting me fully to the cult of leftovers.

Andrea said...

My husband and I fight over leftovers of my enchiladas. They're even better the second day. But, one of our favorite ways of using leftover meat is homemade pizza. We'll have cheeseburger pizza, veggie pizza, Mexican pizza using meat and refried beans, and my fave buffalo chicken pizza with ranch as the sauce. We look forward to pizza night and kill the leftover sitatuation at the same time!

Tanya said...

Love this post. My best friend keeps square plastic sandwich-sized boxes handy and dishes up individual portions of leftovers after mealtimes. Her husband loves to take these for lunch.

The only point I'd disagree with in this post is not cutting down recipes if you're cooking for one. Typically, then, you're stuck eating something eight or nine times, sooner or later. Even if you cut a typical casserole recipe in half, you've still got enough for dinner and some leftovers, too.

Theresa and Robert said...

We bbq up a bunch of things on Sunday (and have a nice Sunday dinner) with the bbq'd leftovers for repurposing the rest of the week, sandwiches, burritos, tacos - usually we grill chicken, fish and veggies - no one wants to cook when we get home. It worked great when we had the kids at home too, dinner only took sometimes 20-30 minutes to make, especially after the boys had to alternate days making salad.

Anonymous said...

Portion control, lack of places to eat near work and living alone all make for compelling reasons for me to embrace leftovers. The only consideration I keep in mind is that 3 incarnations ( 2 dinners + 1 lunch, usually) of the same dish per week is my limit. After that, even the tastiest dish palls. So, extra portions get frozen away. Lunches get supplemented by homemade batches of chicken enchiladas and burritos - well worth the effort of making large batches and freezing them away


Carol said...

I've long taken leftovers to work, or just made sure I had enough for a dinner the next night. My mother taugh me this. I can't remember how often we were told that leftovers were off-limits for snacks or lunch, because they were for dinner. Leftovers from a roast would become meat pie, or pasties, which could then be taken for lunches themselves. Small amounts of leftover vegetables and meat even went into the freezer, to be added to that week's soup.

I make enough of things like spaghetti sauce and chili to freeze individual portions for quick dinners. I don't call them leftovers, but rather, planned-overs.

Rachel said...

I came to this website for the recipes about a year ago...I keep reading because of writing like this. SO funny, clever, and TRUE. Thank you! said...

I'm on a new diet: eat leftovers for lunch instead of eating out.

Eat out only on Friday/Saturday nights with friends -- instead of hurriedly at lunchtime while working.

So far -- with NO other changes to my diet except that -- I've lost 2 pounds AND saved a lot of money!