Don’t Throw Out Your Leftovers! Here’s How to Use ’Em Up

Tossing out what’s left after a meal is a waste of money and food. Here’s how to save more of both.

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It’s a scene familiar to many households. After dinner is over, you carefully wrap up any leftovers and stash them in the fridge. Then, a week later, you find them rotting in the fridge and throw them away. So what’s keeping your family from finishing up food that’s left behind after a meal?

According to a recent study by researchers at Cornell Food and Brand Lab, the top reasons that food goes to waste are buying too much, preparing too much, unwillingness to eat leftovers and not storing food properly. “Not planning well while grocery shopping and buying impulsively contribute to excessive purchasing of food,” says lead author Gustavo Porpino, Ph.D. candidate at the Getulio Vargas Foundation and recently a visiting scholar at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. He also noted that the perceived low cost of bulk food (such as from Costco and Sam’s Club) can lead people to buy more than their family can realistically use. And once food is prepared and left over, the researchers found, it often goes uneaten purely because it’s considered “old food” that’s no longer good enough for a family meal.

But the truth is that cooking enough food to intentionally have leftovers is actually a smart approach that can save you time. Here are a few tips for making the most of your meals:

  • Cook enough veggies (whether you stir-fry, steam or roast) that you can repurpose them for several days in dishes like salad, pasta or quiche. “It’s a huge timesaver that enables me to eat nutritiously without cooking again,” says Mary Ryan, R.D., founding member of Hole Food Rescue in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a nonprofit that rescues still-edible food and redistributes it to low-income people and social agencies.
  • A dish like roasted chicken can be easily reused throughout the week. “On Sunday I roast the chicken and serve it with roasted vegetables and potatoes,” says Lauri Wright, Ph.D., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “For another meal, I’ll shred some chicken and use it to make tacos; then for a third meal, I’ll take the rest of the chicken and the bones, the leftover roasted vegetables from Sunday and some rice to make chicken and rice soup.”
  • Even if your leftovers aren’t enough for another dinner, they can make a great lunch. “Stir-fries or grilled meats and veggies are delicious the next day wrapped in a tortilla or stuffed into a pita pocket for a sandwich,” says Ryan.
  • Don’t toss leftover spaghetti or other noodles. “I use them in a breakfast frittata or instead of rice with a stir-fry,” says Wright.
  • When in doubt, get creative! “I’ve even turned leftover nachos into a yummy tortilla soup,” says Ryan.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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