Make leftovers better

This week, I’ve been re-reading All the Money in the World, the personal finance book I wrote a decade ago. I’m discussing it with a book club and I realized that I hadn’t read more than a few pages from it in at least 7 years. So I wanted to make sure I remembered what I had written!

One of my arguments was that if you get the big pieces right (e.g. spending less on housing than you could) then basically you can buy whatever you want in the grocery store. A decade after writing the book, I am happy to report that I am more comfortable with this philosophy. We buy a lot of great ingredients and cook many good meals.

Once we cook those meals, though, I become more flinty. I would prefer not to waste leftovers, which just feels like throwing money into the trash.

My big kids are usually home for lunch, and they have been eating a ton of Annie’s shells and white cheddar mac and cheese (hey, it’s organic!) Some days they devour all they have made. Some days they don’t. On those days of slighter appetites, I have been packing up the leftovers in our handy containers, and sticking them in the fridge. Then, they sit there. When reminded about the existence of said leftovers, the kids would demur.

This was starting to irk me. Eventually I asked what was wrong with the leftovers. I learned that they were “hard” and “dry” and “not as tasty.” So this week, I hit upon a solution. We would skip the microwave. We would re-heat the mac and cheese in a sauce pan on the stove, with fresh butter and milk (basically making a new cheese sauce).

Sure enough, the leftovers were deemed far tastier. They got eaten.

I had a similar victory myself with leftover fries. We’ve been experimenting with baking fries. My husband has a new process that involves soaking the cut potatoes in cold water, then cooking them first at a low temperature, and then at a high temperature. They are good straight out of the oven. They are just not good the next day. We had been throwing them out, but then I decided to see what I could do. I chopped up some leftover steak, some veggies, and cut the fries into little cubes. Then I cooked it all in olive oil on the stove top. The potatoes became tasty again and had a much more pleasing texture with so much cooked surface. No mush!

I generally think leftovers are pretty good as they are (see the photo of the Sunbasket meal kit salad that I will be eating for lunch today!), but if they aren’t so good, there’s probably a way to improve the situation. Any meat and veggie combo can become an omelet with scrambled eggs (we put pepperoni in the other day!) If a meat and veggie combo didn’t have a strong flavor profile before, it could be incorporated into fried rice.

Ok, and I recently ate a “leftover” cupcake for breakfast. Hey, it’s not that different from a cinnamon roll!

Have you had any leftovers victories lately?

In other news: Not exactly leftovers, but I’ve also determined that if no one wants to eat the broken pieces at the bottom of the cereal box, you can open a new box and then mix in a few of the cereal dregs to each of the first few bowls.

In other other news: I was in the Washington Post this week, writing about “6 ways parents can deal with work-from-home interruptions.” (subscription required after the first few articles)

18 thoughts on “Make leftovers better

  1. Decreasing our food waste has been a big goal of mine for 2021. I am helped along by the fact that my husband is eating at home all week long. However, I have been trying to get better at managing how much I cook if the leftovers are not likely to get eaten (leftover chicken and steak always find their way into sandwiches, pork never seems to). Still with a household of 7, 4 of whom are children, it can be a tough target to hit. Keeping a fridge and pantry inventory has been helping some. Then everyone can see at a glance what is in the fridge for the taking.

  2. I’m a big believer in the leftovers in scramble. Extra roasted veggies, potatoes bacon, someone’s steak half, etc all get thrown in little containers and then later tossed in a skillet. Add a couple of eggs and some cheese and it’s a $14 brunch entree that I eat probably 4 mornings a week.

    When the weather is warm, the adults in the house eat salads most days for lunch with whatever leftover grilled meat is in the refrigerator and we grill an extra chicken breast or whatever with those salads in mind.

    Kids and leftovers are a hard sell.

  3. I use leftover meat for tacos for lunch and add veggies that need to be used up from the fridge and freezer. I’ve also been using my freezer more strategically. My kids won’t eat leftovers in general but if I freeze extra cooked ground beef or sausage, I can pull it out a few days or a couple of weeks later and no one minds.

  4. I’m originally from Europe and my father and grandparents survived WWII, so wasting food is a mortal sin in my family and food waste is something I try to limit. We eat leftovers a lot, and I often rearrange different meal elements into new meal combinations. I sometimes struggle with fruit on hot days going bad too quickly (I then need to think in advance and process/freeze as much as possible), and with things that generally expire quickly such as kale, lettuce, and celery (they come in my weekly fruit and veg pack in different ratios).
    One way in which I deal with leftover oven-fried potatoes is putting them in the electric grill. They’ll warm up well and quickly if they still have a bit of oil on them.

    1. Same here, as a European, wasting food is just…not really possible. Too painful. There’s actually a Swedish dish named Pyttipanna which is what Laura describes with the potato, steak and veggies: all your leftovers sliced into tiny cubes, fried in a pan. Literally it translates to Tiny-in-pan.
      Things like stews, I find, taste even better as leftovers, somehow it improves their taste to just sit for a night.

  5. I LOVE LEFTOVERS! With a few exceptions, I think they taste better. And even better, no cooking for me and I just have to wash the storage dish! Win, win, win! Luckily my kids and husband are pretty good about eating them too. (My 4 year old will sometimes refuse to eat something he devoured the previous night, but I think that’s more about being 4). I do try to find the best way to reheat things, as Laura suggested. Many baked goods or breaded items can be warmed in the microwave and then finished on a skillet on the stove. I usually put bread in the oven. Soups do best on the stove. And everything else goes into the microwave. We eat a lot of one pot meals, where the starch, veggie and protein are all mixed together and I think this both helps keep the food moist and reheats well and also leftovers can be stored in a single container for easier cleanup (and you don’t have a million small containers in the fridge) If we have a lot of something, we will have that for a meal another night, but we often will have an evening where we eat a little bit of everything and those are my favorite! We are a family of 4 (two kids, 4 and 6) and I generally only have to cook 3 nights a week (we do pizza one night). I’m often sad when a recipe doesn’t make enough for leftovers or it’s so good we eat more than intended. My FIL doesn’t eat leftovers and they have to cook something new every night. Sounds exhausting to me, lol! I grew up eating leftovers (my Dad always said leftovers were his favorite meal!) so I didn’t realize until I was an adult that some people don’t eat them. I also do some food prep by preparing meals a day or two ahead of time or doubling and freezing. Does that count as leftovers? Is it only you can’t eat it twice in a row? I also prep lunches and eat the same thing for 5/6 days. A huge shortcut in my life that I can’t imagine doing everyday!

  6. Love this!
    Leftovers are a huge hit in our family and I agree with every point already made. In fact, supper tonight is all leftovers and it will be delicious.
    A few things to add:
    I work part-time/flex hours and have two mornings designated to cooking. For 2 hours on Tuesday and Thursday morning I cook multiple dishes. Roast veggies, make a soup, make and freeze a white pasta sauce, prep a homemade salad dressing etc. Having two dedicated times to cook in a week has been a huge boost. We eat better because I have concentrated time but I spend much less time overall.
    Also, freezing small amounts of leftovers works too. A cup of soup, when combined with the cup of chilli, can both be used in the same night for a buffet of leftovers and everyone seems to enjoy picking and choosing.
    Also, making – in general – healthy recipes everyone enjoys just makes using up leftovers SO much easier. No matter how I swing things, Brussels sprouts fresh or reheated are just not going to be met with enthusiasm…

  7. As the cook in the family, leftovers are pure gold: they save money and, more importantly, they save me precious time (that would have been reversed 10 years ago when I had more time but less money). My kids have just accepted they are a fact of life and readily eat them. I’m proud that we waste very little food. In fact, as I type this, I’m eating bites of leftover grilled pork and roasted butternut squash!

    A “quid pro quo” strategy that has worked for us: if a kid opts to select a leftover for lunch, I will throw in a special treat. So, if you eat some of those leftover beans, you may have some tortilla chips (a treat in our house) to go along with them. No leftovers, no treat. Related, some dinners are “leftovers only” with dessert as the reward. This has proven to be quite a motivator!

  8. Food ware is one of my pet peeves too!
    One thing we try embrace in our family is that food doesn’t always have to be tasty; it just has to not kill you. There is an anecdote from The memoir of one of Obamas staffers where she just couldn’t with the umpteenth salmon dinner on the campaign trail, and said as much, and Obama’s response was, “Food is fuel. Eat the Salmon.” And this has become a catchphrase in our family. So yes, leftovers might be less appealing than something else, but food is fuel and they just need to eat it and move along.

    1. This! The internet … tv … etc., make me nuts. No, every meal does not have to be “the best beef stew…” or whatever, it just has to — feed us. I’m quite happy to eat boring sameness much of the time, if doing so limits the amount of time I have to spend in the kitchen.

    2. Yes! We talk about this with our kids a lot – you don’t have to LOVE every meal. Sometimes you just need to eat…something.

  9. I confess I am the only one in this thread who doesn’t like leftovers. And my family doesn’t seem to either, so sadly we waste a lot of food! I prep the meal, I diligently save the remains intending to eat them, but eating the same thing a couple days later just doesn’t appeal to me. When I type that out it sounds horrible! I guess a reasonable change would be for me to start cutting recipes in half, so there are no leftovers? I’m inspired by this post however and going to preheat the oven now for some sausage/spinach baked ziti leftovers. Fingers crossed that it gets eaten at dinner! I will try to be more creative about reheating as this post suggests.

  10. I save leftover cereal bits for simple homemade bread by microwaving them for 1 minute with a cup of the bread’s liquid. The resultant “mush” actually improves bread texture. I use a super simple recipe over and over that I now have memorized. This works best with leftover oats, shredded wheat, bran, etc. More flavorful cereals could be incorporated into banana bread or zucchini bread.

  11. Great post and comments. I am a big fan of leftovers, but even if I wasn’t I think my current dislike of cooking on weeknights would outweigh it! Our evenings just flow SO much smoother if we eat close to right when my little one comes in the door (kids 6 and 3). Cooking with a hangry 3-yo hanging on you is also not pleasant. We have shorter school hours though (husband picks her up by 5pm) and so I really need to work every minute of that childcare so I don’t spend all night/weekend working. Enter: leftovers, a lot! (Also quick things like scrambled eggs). The book cook once, eat all week (author was a BOBW guest) has good ideas for things that translate well to leftovers.

    1. Yes! When I was going into the office and my husband was coaching (the “before-times”, ha) we would arrive home between 4:45 and 5 and try to eat by 5:15, otherwise my 3 and 5 year olds spent the whole time whining or eating snacks and then not hungry for dinner. So I would often cook big meals on weekends and we’d eat them all week or fill in with quick meals like tacos. I’ll have to check out that book. Thanks!

  12. My go-to for leftovers is soup. Just about anything (other than lettuce or fruit) can be turned into soup. We don’t usually have enough leftovers to eat exactly the same thing for more than one meal, but there is always something left. Once a week or so I just put everything in a big pot and add some broth and an extra bag or two of frozen vegetables and see what needs to be done with seasonings. In your examples above, it’s so easy to put leftover potatoes, pasta, etc in a soup and they aren’t dry. I always have bone broth on hand (because I make it in the crockpot after we get rotisserie chicken, super easy) and so turning things into soup or chili is really easy.

    But I’m a very extemporaneous cook anyway, so this might not work for someone who always needs a recipe .

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