For some reason, leftovers get a really bad rap. Many of us are just not aware of the proper way to store and utilize leftover food. Well, let’s remedy that! Today I’m writing about tips for making some leftover magic happen in your kitchen, saving you time, money, and preventing food waste.
Store Food Correctly
The first step to setting yourself up for some leftover magic is making sure you’re storing the odds and ends in your freezer or refrigerator correctly. Here are a couple important notes that will help you with food storage:
- Are you keeping a freezer bag for making veggie broth or meat stock handy? If not, this is a great place to store leftover ingredients on their last leg.
- Cheese keeps best when it is wrapped in parchment paper. I will never understand why stores sell cellophane-wrapped wedges! If you want to keep your cheese from drying out, just wrap it in parchment paper and secure with tape or twine.
- Greens and herbs can be preserved for longer if you wrap them in a paper towel. It absorbs moisture from the leaves, which can cause them to wilt or get funky (in a bad way).
- Any fruit you know you won’t get to before it goes bad can be stored to use in smoothies. You should slice strawberries or cut up the peaches or mangoes before they go into the freezer. Freezing fruit such as grapes can make for a delicious snack all by itself.
- Pay attention to humidity levels in different areas of your fridge. You can adjust the humidity levels in different drawers to prevent the contents from wilting. The shelves in the door of the fridge are usually meant for condiments, and food may spoil quickly if kept there.
- Do you own a proper set of storage containers, or are you using flimsy plastic boxes from take-out joints to hold your various leftovers? Yesterday’s dinner will look far more appetizing in clear, glass containers neatly stacked in your refrigerator. Glass is superior for storing food for multiple reasons. For one, plastic sometimes warps if you put hot food in it, or try to heat up a meal in the container. It can be handy for setting appropriate portion sizes, too. Plus, you can see the contents easily without concern for stained or scratched plastic.
Generally, the smell and sight test will tell you whether something has gone bad. Avoid eating cooked food that has (a) been left at room temperature for over 3 hours, or (b) been stored in the fridge for over 6 days. Freezing is the best option for saving items longer than six days, though it can change the texture of some foods.
Importance of an Organized Fridge & Pantry
So if you’ve got storage techniques down, you’ve conquered a good portion of the battle. But even if you’ve got those noodles tucked away nicely in a glass container, you might still forget about it until weeks later, when it’s developing its own small civilization of mold.
Maintaining an organized fridge and pantry are key to prevent meals and ingredients from going to waste. This can mean different things for different people. You might try labeling food storage containers with the date a meal was made, or the ingredient purchased. You can use glass jars in your pantry to inventory ingredients at a glance. You could try to keep a designated bin or basket in a prominent location of your refrigerator, full of the items that need to be used the quickest. Whichever way you do it, organization will not only help you with some leftover magic, it will also aid in your grocery shopping week-to-week.
Work Lunches and “Leftover Nights”
Integrating leftovers into your meal schedule is the best way to prevent them from going to waste. If you pre-portion meals while storing them, those containers become very easy to grab on your way out the door to work. You could also host one “leftover night” for dinner each week. If you arrange it like series of tapas, full of small dishes that may not add up to a meal by itself. IT may not seem like those items go well togehter, but such a meal can be both delicious and filling.
Dishes for Using Up Leftover Ingredients
If you have a well-stocked pantry and some leftover ingredients, you are in an enviable situation. This is where your creativity can shine. Below is a list of dishes that are perfect for using up odds and ends that might be on their last leg, creating a complete meal where you didn’t even know one existed:
- Risotto: Leftover vegetables, meats, and herbs can find new life in this creamy rice dish. Try not to use more than three “mix-ins”, and make sure to factor in time to prepare those ingredients separately from the risotto base.
- Rice or grain bowl, including fried rice: Just top a bowl of rice or quinoa with a medley of leftover onion, carrots, mushrooms, some protein, and maybe a sauce; or stir fry it all together, and you have a fantastic and adaptable meal.
- Omelette or scramble: Eggs are the superhero of leftover magic. You can diced up ingredients to include in an omelette or scramble- almost any veggie, herb, or meat will do!
- Pasta dish: Like a rice bowl, you can cook some pasta and toss it in a skillet with some olive oil, garlic, and whatever odd pieces of vegetable or herbs, maybe some stray tomatoes. Any lonely hunks of cheese can be grated over the top too!
- Pizza: Whether you buy pizza dough in a tube or from a fancy bakery, having some on hand is a great way to showcase the tidbits of gourmet ingredients you may have lying around. You can also use fruit! One of my favorite leftover-laden pizzas is sliced peaches, blue cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette, baked to perfection.
- Sandwich or wrap: Two slice of bread, the last of the pesto, some tomatoes and lettuce? A nice portion for lunch. If you’ve got some chicken tenders, cheese, and spinach, add some salad dressing and turn it into a wrap. There are almost endless possibilities here as well, just make sure to remember that a condiment or dressing will really tie it all together, especially something like hummus.
- Salad: Just as adaptable as a rice bowl or wrap, a salad is a great option if you have a ton of lettuce or greens lying around. Take some time to consider what flavors and textures go well together. It can’t all be mushy avocado, try throwing some crunchy seeds or tortilla strips in there! If you’re working with heartier greens like kale, dress the salad with dressing or oil at least an hour before assembling the salad. This will make the texture much more pleasant to chew, and much more complementary to the toppings. And don’t forget to make your own, customized vinaigrette!
Sometimes using up leftovers can feel like a challenge straight out of the cooking show Chopped. If you don’t have fun while trying to make the most of what you have for dinner tonight, try to look at it like a competition with roomates or partners. If you have other ideas and suggestions for the best way to use leftovers, let me know in the comments below.