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How to Make the Most of Your Leftover Food – Recipes & Tips

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A shocking amount of food goes to waste in this country – according to Feeding America, about 70 billion pounds of it is discarded every year. That’s 219 pounds per year, or 0.6 pounds per day, for every single person in the country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that between 30% and 40% of all the food produced in the U.S. is never eaten.

Much of this food gets thrown away before it ever reaches consumers, but a lot of food waste comes from our own kitchens. Some of this waste results from leftovers from meals that aren’t eaten, and some is created during preparation, such as vegetable peels. Either way, food waste is expensive. A survey by the American Chemistry Council found that the average American households wastes $640 worth of food every year.

There’s no point in spending your hard-earned money on food just to turn around and throw it away – so if you find yourself frequently discarding leftovers and food scraps, it’s time to be creative and start using them.

Using Leftovers

Many people just don’t know what to do with leftovers. After finishing a dinner of roast chicken, potatoes, and spinach salad, a family might look at what’s left on the table – one chicken leg, a few ounces of spinach, and one and a half potatoes – and can’t see any way of serving it again. So rather than put it in the fridge to grow fuzzy, they decide to throw it away and be done with it.

But that food is still perfectly good, and there are plenty of ways to put it to good use. By thinking outside the box, you can turn those odds and ends into a meal for one person – or use them as ingredients in a different meal that can feed the whole family.

Leftovers for Lunch

The simplest way to use up leftovers is to eat them for lunch. If it’s a weekend or if you work from home, it’s easy enough to reheat that chicken leg and the potatoes, put the spinach in a bowl, and sit down to a replay of the previous night’s dinner. If you don’t want to eat the same thing two days in a row, simply save it for the next day.

If you have to go to work, these leftovers can still be the basis of a brown bag lunch – put each item into a little reusable container to be reheated in the microwave.

Or, if you want a change, you can combine your leftovers with fresh ingredients to make a new dish, such as a salad or sandwich. For example, you could chop up the chicken leg and add it to the salad, along with some other veggies, to make a hearty chicken salad. The potatoes can be heated up with a little cheese on top to make a stuffed baked potato appetizer.

If you find yourself with a larger amount of leftovers – say, half of a big pot of chili – you can still use it for lunches. You can either give a portion to everyone in your family to take to work or school, or have one or two people spread it out over a few days. Or, if you don’t want to eat the same thing so many times in a row, you can just put the whole pot in the fridge and reheat it later in the week for a quick second dinner.

Freezer Meals

If you think you’re not going to have a chance to finish your leftovers within a few days of preparation, you can transfer them to a freezer-safe container and store it in the freezer. Good containers for freezing leftovers include:

  • Pyrex Bowls. Pyrex bowls with plastic lids are great for freezing because they won’t develop stains or scratches after repeated uses. Better still, you can reheat the contents right in the container – they go from freezer to fridge to oven, and are also microwave-safe.
  • Mason Jars. Ordinary glass mason jars also work well for freezing. Their only drawback is that they can shatter if the contents expand in the freezer. To prevent this, leave extra space at the top of the container and freeze the jars with their lids off. Once the contents have frozen and expanded, secure the tops in place.
  • Plastic Containers. These inexpensive containers don’t hold up as well as glass, but they’re convenient for short-term use. You can buy reusable Rubbermaid containers, or reuse deli dishes or containers from yogurt or whipped topping.
  • Zip-Top Bags. Zip-top freezer bags can be used for just about anything, even liquids such as stew or soup. Just lay the filled bags out on a tray to make sure they freeze flat. Once they’re frozen solid, you can line them up in the freezer like books on a shelf.
  • Freezer Wrap. Solid hunks of leftovers, such as breads and large cuts of meat, can simply be wrapped in foil, plastic, or waxed paper. This type of wrapping is nice and compact, so you don’t waste any freezer space. It also does a good job preventing freezer burn.

It’s a good idea to label containers of leftovers with the contents and the date frozen – that way you can eat them while they’re still good. Different types of leftovers keep for one to six months, according to the USDA. Write the date and contents directly on the container or on a piece of masking tape attached to the top.

If you have only enough leftovers for one meal for a single person, you can turn them into a homemade frozen dinner. If you ever purchase frozen dinners, simply wash and store them until needed (or, simply use a paper plate or plastic container). Place each food item into a compartment of the tray, cover it with cellophane, and put it back in the freezer. And presto – you have a ready-made, single-serve freezer meal.

Freezer Meal LeftoversThe Leftover Buffet

Sometimes, if you’ve had leftovers from several meals in a row, you find yourself with a hodgepodge of different items stored up in the fridge. For instance, you could have stir-fry and rice from Monday night, spaghetti and meatballs from Tuesday, ham and scalloped potatoes from Wednesday, and so on.

That’s the time to serve up a leftover buffet for dinner: Place all the dishes on the counter and let family members take turns loading up their plates with whatever they like. Kids often love leftover night because it gives them a chance to choose their own meal.

You can even turn the leftover buffet into a party. Invite your neighbors to come over and bring their own leftovers, and set everything out together. That way everyone has more options to choose from – including some dishes they haven’t seen before.

Universal Recipes For Leftovers

The most interesting thing to do with leftovers is to take a plain dish, such as a roast, and redesign it into a whole new meal. In fact, some people deliberately make extra when cooking so they’ll have leftovers to work with later on. For instance, they’ll serve a roast chicken on Monday, cut the leftover meat from the bones to make chicken pot pie on Tuesday, and then boil the carcass to make soup on Wednesday. Having the leftover chicken on hand saves cooking time for later meals.

There are dozens of articles online devoted to ways of using up different types of food, such as meats, bread, and mashed potatoes. However, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of looking up a new recipe each time you have leftovers to use, you can rely on universal recipes. These are flexible recipes that can work with just about any kind of protein, starch, and veggie ingredients. With these recipes, you can turn whatever you happen to have in your fridge into a quick dinner.

The Universal Quiche

Universal Quiche Dish

A quiche is a great way to use up any vegetables that have gone a bit limp or mushy. This dish is also very flexible – you can vary the amounts of egg and cheese quite a bit and still get good results.

Ingredients:

  • 1 unbaked pie shell (or use a rice crust – see below)
  • 1 1/2 cups leftover vegetables, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped (optional)
  • 1/2 to 2 cups cheese (cheddar, Swiss, or any hard cheese), grated
  • 2 to 6 eggs
  • 1 cup milk, soy milk, yogurt, or vegetable broth mixed with dry milk powder
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions:

  1. Place leftover veggies and grated cheese in the bottom of the pie shell. If you want to add more flavor to the quiche, you can quickly sauté an onion and combine it with the other veggies before adding it to the crust.
  2. Beat the eggs with the milk (or milk alternative) and add salt and pepper to taste. Pour this into the crust and bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes, or until solid.
  3. If you don’t want to use a rich pastry crust for your quiche, you can make a lighter crust out of leftover rice. Blend 1 1/2 to 2 cups of rice with an egg and a bit of grated cheese, pat it into the bottom of your pie plate, and bake at 450 degrees until firm.

The Universal Frittata

Universal Frittata Dish

An even simpler alternative to quiche is the frittata, a combination of veggies and eggs cooked on the stove top. You can make a frittata with almost any kind of raw or cooked leftover vegetables, including cooked potatoes.

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups raw or cooked leftover vegetables, such as zucchini, peppers, spinach, green beans, carrots, broccoli, corn, raw mushrooms, or cooked potatoes
  • 4 to 6 eggs, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (plus an optional 2 tablespoons more)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Chopped fresh herbs such as basil, sage, parsley, rosemary, or thyme (optional)

Instructions:

  1. Heat the oil in a skillet. Sauté the onion until it softens (approximately five minutes).
  2. Add raw vegetables to the pan and cook them until they’re nearly tender. Then add any cooked vegetables you’re using and cook them for just a minute or two to heat them through.
  3. Mix the vegetable mixture with your eggs in a bowl and stir in two tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese. Add herbs and salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Next, add a little more oil to the pan if necessary. Pour the egg and vegetable mixture back into the pan and spread it evenly. Cook over very low heat until the eggs are firm – this should take about 15 to 20 minutes.
  5. If you’re using an oven-proof skillet, you have the option of sprinkling the frittata with another two tablespoons of Parmesan and heating it under the broiler for a minute or two to give it a lightly browned top. When the frittata is done, loosen the edges with a knife and slide it out of the skillet onto a plate.

The Universal Casserole

Universal Casserole Dish

Another option is to concoct a casserole with any kind of protein, veggie, and starch ingredients. Because it uses whatever you have on hand, this casserole never comes out the same way twice. You could make a classic tuna-noodle casserole with peas, a chicken-rice casserole with mushrooms, or a tofu-potato casserole with cabbage. Nearly any combination you can think of can work in this dish.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup main ingredient: any protein-rich ingredient such as canned tuna or other seafood, tofu, or cubed cooked chicken, turkey, or ham
  • 1 cup secondary ingredient: another ingredient with a contrasting texture, such as peas, mushrooms, thinly sliced celery, or chopped hard-boiled eggs
  • 1 to 2 cups starchy ingredient: cooked noodles, cooked rice, or thinly sliced potatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups “binder”: canned cream soup, homemade white sauce, or sour cream
  • 1/4 cup “goodie” ingredient: any flavorful ingredient such as olives, pimentos, almonds, or water chestnuts (optional)
  • Seasonings of your choice: salt, pepper, herbs, spices
  • Topping: bread crumbs, crushed potato chips, or cheese

Instructions:

  1. Combine your main ingredient, secondary ingredient, starchy ingredient, and binder in a bowl. If the resulting mixture is dry, you can add some milk or vegetable stock. Add seasonings to taste.
  2. Pour the mixture into a buttered casserole dish and sprinkle on the topping. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes.

The Universal Stir-Fry

Universal Stir Fry Dish

Whenever you have any kind of leftover raw vegetables – half a cabbage, a few stalks of celery, part of a green pepper – a stir-fry is the perfect way to use them up. It doesn’t matter what you have or how much of it there is – a stir-fry can accommodate anything.

The trick to a successful stir-fry is to add your vegetables in the right order, from the toughest to the most delicate. That way, everything comes out tender-crisp upon completion.

Ingredients:

  • Vegetable or peanut oil
  • 1 or 2 eggs, beaten (optional)
  • Chopped onions and minced garlic (optional)
  • Group 1 vegetables: carrots, celery, cauliflower, eggplant, winter squash, thinly sliced potatoes, thick asparagus spears
  • Group 2 vegetables: mushrooms, peppers, broccoli, summer squash, zucchini, thin asparagus spears, canned water chestnuts, snow peas
  • Group 3 vegetables: scallions, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, greens of any kind (such as spinach or chard)
  • Cooked white rice
  • Soy sauce

Instructions:

  1. Heat a little bit of oil in a pan. If you are using the eggs, add them to the pan and cook over high heat in a thin, pancake-like layer. When the egg becomes firm around the edges, flip it and cook the other side. Remove the egg from the pan, slice it into thin strips, and set it aside.
  2. Add more oil to the pan, if needed, and start adding veggies, one group at a time. Cook over high heat, stirring almost constantly so that they cook evenly.
  3. If you are using onions and garlic, add them to the pan and cook them by themselves until they begin to soften. Then add group 1 veggies and sauté until partially done. Add the group 2 veggies and cook until everything is very nearly done. Finally, add the group 3 veggies and stir them around for just a few seconds before turning off the heat.
  4. If you used eggs, add the egg strips to your stir-fry and mix them in. Serve your stir-fry over rice with soy sauce on the side.

The Universal Kabob

Universal Kabob Dish

A kabob is comprised of meat and veggies cooked together on a skewer. It’s a particularly good way to use leftover beef, but other meats work as well.

Ingredients:

  • Leftover meat cut into cubes (about 5 cubes per person)
  • Bite-sized pieces of veggies: mushroom caps, green pepper strips, chunks of zucchini or summer squash, quartered tomatoes or whole cherry tomatoes, sections of onion or whole pearl onions
  • 1/4 cup inexpensive red wine
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Seasonings to taste: salt, pepper, fresh or dried herbs

Instructions:

  1. Mix the red wine, olive oil, garlic, and seasonings to make a marinade. Pour it into a dish and add the meat cubes. Let them soak for several hours, stirring occasionally.
  2. String the meat cubes onto bamboo skewers, alternating with chunks of vegetables. Brush each completed skewer with marinade.
  3. Grill or broil the skewers, keeping them close to the heat source until the meat is brown and the veggies are tender-crisp. Since the meat is already cooked, this shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. If you use a broiler, put a pan under the skewers to catch drips.

Using Food Scraps

Food scraps are all the little pieces you’d normally discard, either when preparing a meal or following it. Examples include:

  • Vegetable peels, ends, and cores
  • Tough outer leaves of cabbage and cauliflower
  • Tops from root vegetables like carrots and beets
  • Mushroom stems (since many recipes call for just the caps)
  • Pieces of fruit that have turned brown or mushy
  • Tiny amounts of meal leftovers that are too small even to make a meal for one

To many, these little scraps are just waste, fit only for the garbage disposal or the compost bin. However, it is often possible to squeeze some nourishment out of them if you know how to go about it.

The Perpetual Soup Container

When you have a just a few little morsels left over from a dinner – say, a few peas, a spoonful of rice, and a chicken bone with some scraps of meat clinging to it – it’s hard to see how they could ever become part of another meal. However, if after each meal you toss all these odds and ends into a container that you store  in the freezer, you can eventually accumulate enough to make a hearty soup.

Start by setting aside space in your freezer for a large container, such as a big glass jar or an empty five-pound peanut butter tub. This is your “perpetual soup container.” After each meal, toss whatever leftover scraps you have – meat, veggies, even gravy – into the container. When it’s full, simply dump the contents into a pot with some stock and cook it all together.

Frugal living experts say leftover soup can be surprisingly tasty if you follow several basic rules:

  • Avoid Conflicting Flavors. If you put leftovers from Monday’s curry, Tuesday’s sweet-and-sour pork, and Wednesday’s spaghetti Bolognese into the same bag, the different spices will clash. To avoid clashing flavors, stick to basic ingredients, such as plain meats, potatoes, and veggies.
  • Use a Good Stock. Leftover food scraps generally don’t provide enough flavor to make a savory soup without help. So start off with a good, flavorful stock – homemade, canned, or prepared from powdered soup base or bouillon. If you have leftover gravy, you can add this to your soup container to boost the soup’s flavor. Alternatively, you can add seasonings or canned tomatoes to a plain stock to give it an extra flavor punch. Bring your stock to a boil first, then let it simmer as you add the contents of your freezer container to thaw.
  • Adjust the Ingredients. If you don’t have enough material in your perpetual soup container to make a hearty soup, feel free to add more. You can add extra vegetables, such as peas or carrots, or bulk up your soup with canned beans, rice, or pasta. You can also adjust the seasoning as needed, adding salt, pepper, or other spices.
  • Keep It Safe. Food scraps can keep for a long time in the freezer, but they won’t stay good forever. So each time you start a new batch of scraps in your perpetual soup container, add a new label with the date. If three months pass from that date and the container still isn’t full, go ahead and make your soup anyway. You can add fresh ingredients to bulk up the soup if necessary.

You can also use the contents of your soup container to make a pot pie. Spoon your leftovers into a pie crust, starting with veggies, then meat, and then enough broth to cover them both. If you don’t have any broth, you can make some from bouillon. Then cover the whole dish with a second crust and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until it’s nice and brown.

The Stock Bag

A variant on the perpetual soup container is the stock bag. This is a bag you keep in the freezer to store meat bones and miscellaneous vegetable scraps, such as:

  • Carrot and potato peelings
  • Celery leaves
  • Pea pods
  • Mushroom stems
  • Onion ends, including the green shoots
  • Corn cobs

When the bag is full, put the contents into a pot, fill it with water, and add a little salt. Bring the contents to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer for a couple of hours; or, put everything in a slow cooker and cook it overnight. Afterward, let it cool, then strain out and discard the soggy vegetable remnants. The resulting stock can be used right away or frozen until you’re ready to make soup.

Just about any kind of scrap can go into your stock bag. Some people like to include not just bones and veggie scraps, but also apple cores and peels, which add a hint of sweetness to the stock. Others save and freeze the water used to boil potatoes or vegetables and add this vitamin-rich liquid to their stock. Just remember to label your stock bag with the date each time you start a new batch so you can use the contents while they’re still good.

Keep in mind that there are some vegetables that aren’t ideal for your stock bag. For example, strong-flavored vegetables such as cabbage, turnips, rutabagas, broccoli, and artichokes can overpower the flavor of the stock. Beet roots and onion skins won’t harm the taste, but they may turn your stock red or brown.

Perpetual Soup Container

Vegetable Tops and Stalks as a Side

To some people, the green tops of root vegetables such as carrots and beets look like a waste product. But to those in the know, they’re actually a healthy and tasty food. The same goes for the stalks of leafy vegetables, such as kale or chard.

Usable vegetable tops and stalks include:

  • Carrot Tops. These have a somewhat pungent, herbal flavor vaguely reminiscent of the commonly eaten carrot roots.
  • Radish Tops. Radish greens are slightly peppery, though milder than whole radishes.
  • Turnip Greens. These have a slightly bitter flavor.
  • Beet Greens. Although beets themselves have a strong, sweet taste, beet greens are quite mild – much less assertive than familiar green vegetables like spinach and kale.
  • Onion Tops. The green tops of spring onions can be used just like green onions (scallions), but they have a somewhat stronger flavor.
  • Fennel Stalks and Fronds. The fronds on top of a fennel bulb can be used like any fresh herb. They add a delicate, licorice-like flavor to salads or fish. The tougher stalks can be chopped and cooked.
  • Stalks of Greens. The stalks of leafy greens like spinach, kale, and chard have the same flavor as the leaves. They’re a bit tough for salads, but they’re good sautéed.

Young and tender vegetable tops are good in a salad. Larger, tougher greens – including stalks – can be added to stir-fries or sautéed in olive oil or bacon fat, perhaps with a touch of garlic. You can also toss them into a soup or a quiche.

Because so many people see green vegetable tops as waste, farmers often cut them off before selling these veggies at farmers markets. However, the tops are often still available, and many farmers are happy to give them away for free with your purchase.

Smoothies

Smoothies make a great catch-all for any kind of fruit scraps you need to get rid of. Best of all, they’re nearly impossible to mess up. Just use whatever you have – half a banana, a few pear slices, a handful of berries – and blend it with any kind of milk or yogurt to make a creamy treat.

Another perk of smoothies is that it doesn’t matter if the fruit you use is a bit too ripe, or not quite ripe enough. Once it’s been blended, the texture doesn’t matter, and you can just add a little extra sweetener if the fruit wasn’t sweet enough. So if you have a brown banana or a few under-ripe strawberries, a smoothie is an easy way to put them to good use.

Final Word

Naturally, it’s best to salvage leftovers whenever you can instead of letting them go to waste. However, this only applies to food that’s still safe to eat. If leftovers have already gone bad, they’re not really food anymore – they’re a case of food poisoning waiting to happen.

To keep yourself safe, it’s best to discard any food that looks or smells at all suspicious. However, you can’t always identify bad food by smell, so you should also keep track of how long your leftovers have been in the fridge. This is particularly important with cooked meat and any type of salad containing mayonnaise, since these food go bad quickly. If either of these foods has been in your fridge for longer than three or four days, the USDA suggests that you discard them.

However, even if your leftovers and food scraps are no longer fit to eat, there’s still one way left to get some use out of them: By putting inedible fruit and veggie scraps in a compost bin, you can turn them into fertilizer for your garden. So even if your leftovers can’t feed you, they can still feed your plants. And the best part is, if you use the finished compost in a home vegetable garden, you’ll get more food out of it in the end.

What are your favorite tricks for using up leftovers and food scraps?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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