Using leftovers — A big step towards reducing food waste at home

There are many good reasons to be thoughtful about leftover food.

You’ve likely heard by now that about 40 percent of the food in the United States is never eaten. In fact, the USDA estimates that each of us wastes over a pound of food per day! At the same time, about one in nine Americans is hungry, including over 11 million children, according to Feeding America

Your household budget takes an unnecessary hit when you waste food (the average household wastes $640 worth a year), and wasting food also contributes to wider-reaching problems, too, such as climate change and hunger. 

Our recent ancestors knew how to make the most of the food they grew and served. And those values have been making a comeback. Many of us are learning to can and otherwise preserve food, to grow our own food, and to make delicious, healthful meals with the natural foods that are available to us locally.

One key component to being mindful about food waste is using up leftovers. It’s so easy to toss them in the fridge and forget about them until they go bad, or not even bother to save them at all. 

Here are some tips for using up leftovers and for making sure you keep them safe to eat.

salad with greens, tomatoes, and feta cheese in a white bowl

Tips for using up leftovers

• Keep leftovers in the front of the refrigerator, where you won’t forget about them. While you’re at it, keep the refrigerator tidy so nothing gets exiled to mold land. Designate a certain drawer for fruits, another for vegetables, a certain shelf for dairy, and another for leftovers, for example. 

• Have a dedicated leftovers night once a week. I schedule ours towards the end of the grocery shopping week, when we’re lowest on the food we bought and likely to have the most leftovers. Don’t worry about how well the leftovers “go together.” It’s fun to eat leftover potatoes along with quesadillas once in a while. Besides, it’ll give family members options on leftover night. If someone didn’t love one of the dishes, they can skip that one in favor of one they did like.

• Label all your containers! Unlabeled containers have a much lower rate of survival.

• Consider leftovers when menu planning. Whenever I make a potato dish, I cook extra plain potatoes to make a potato salad later in the week. Whenever I make spaghetti, I make enough to have it again with Szechuan peanut sauce a couple of days later. 

• Look at individual ingredients as leftovers. If you have leftover broccoli or peppers, for example, you might toss them in an omelet. Leftover beans can top nachos or a grain bowl, enhance quesadillas, bring protein to a salad or be the basis of tasty DIY vegetarian burger patties. Many leftover ingredients can perform nicely in a soup — either homemade or commercial that you fortify. 

• Use all kinds of leftover veggies to make your own soup stock. (You might toss veggies in a container in the refrigerator throughout the week and use them to make stock on the weekend.)

a hand sprinkles spices over food in a dark gray bowl

• Try spicing up the leftovers with different spices the second time around. This works especially well if a dish wasn’t distinctly seasoned the first time you served it.

• Freeze food that you know you won’t be serving soon. If you buy a large loaf of bread and you live alone, you might freeze half of it as soon as you get home from the grocery store, for example. 

• Use leftover bread to make croutons, bruschetta, or bread pudding.

• Use leftover rice for stir fries, casseroles, and rice pudding. (Yes, I like puddings!)

• Elevate grilled cheese sandwiches with added leftovers — everything from sautéed mushrooms and onions to sauerkraut or olives.

• Look for ways to use all of the parts of a food. For example, sauté beet greens to top a rice bowl, and make an appetizer out of potato skins. 

• Keep staples on hand that mix well with leftover ingredients. Pasta, rice and other grains, tortillas, and tortilla chips are good examples.

• Pick apart leftovers before putting them in the refrigerator. In other words, don’t put a salad containing leafy greens, raw broccoli, and sliced avocado in a container together. Pull out the broccoli and store it by itself so it’ll stay fresh — and be a great add to a new salad, soup, or other dish down the road.

ice trays filled with leftover fruit & veggetable cubes

• Don’t be too picky. If fruit has a bad spot, cut it out and eat the rest, or use the rest to make a smoothie. Or put good pieces in an ice cube tray and fill with water to elevate your next glass of water.

• Consider maintaining a compost bin for items that don’t make it to the table in time. 

How long do leftovers last in the refrigerator?

It’s safest to eat any leftovers that have been stored in the refrigerator within four days. (That’s the guideline given by the food experts at the USDA. I’ve been known to eat leftovers that are twice that age, but it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution if you’re not sure.) 

If the leftovers are in the freezer, three or four months is a good cutoff. Frozen foods won’t be unsafe after four months, but they won’t taste as good — they’ll have lost some moisture and flavor. 

What’s the best way to thaw frozen leftovers?

First, a couple of don’ts: Never thaw food on the counter at room temperature, and never thaw food by running it under warm water. Both are invitations for bacteria.

In the refrigerator. If you have the time, thawing the leftovers in the refrigerator is best. This method leaves no chance that the food will encourage bacterial growth during thawing.

In water. To thaw more quickly, place the leftovers in a waterproof bag and seal shut. Then place the bag in cold water until it’s thawed. It’s important that water not leak into the bag, so make sure it’s air (and water) tight. Once thawed, store in the refrigerator until you’re ready to cook it.

In the microwave. The quickest way to thaw leftover frozen food is the put it in the microwave. But don’t use this method unless you’re going to continue cooking the food right away. Continue heating meat, once you start defrosting it in the microwave, until the temperature reaches 165 degrees F. 

Of course, you can also reheat some leftovers without defrosting them first, either on the stove, in the oven, or in a microwave. It will just take longer to cook than thawed food.

Leftovers in a deep cast iron pot

Can I refreeze thawed leftovers?

Yes, you can, though it doesn’t make for the best quality food. That’s because thawing and refreezing causes more of the food’s cell wall structure to break down, potentially affecting the color, taste, and texture of the food.

Make sure that the food you are refreezing is still good and that it was properly thawed (not left on a counter or run under warm water, for example). And when it comes to meat, only refreeze meat that was thawed in the refrigerator.

Storing leftovers safely

Put it away.

To prevent food from going bad (growing bacteria that will make you sick, in other words), it’s important to refrigerate it promptly. Don’t let it sit on the counter while you watch a movie after dinner. You don’t need to clean the whole kitchen; just put the food away.

The very maximum amount of time food should be left out before being put in the refrigerator is two hours. If perishable food has been sitting at room temperature longer than that, throw it away. And if food has been sitting in hotter temps (at a picnic, for example), don’t wait two hours — discard it once it’s been out for an hour. 

When storing food, help it cool faster — so you can get it in the refrigerator more quickly — by dividing it into smaller storage containers. To cool meats and poultry, slice them into smaller pieces. (It’s safe to put hot food directly in the refrigerator, but it will tax your fridge a bit, so most people like to cool it off, at least to warm rather than hot, first.)

Seal your leftovers well before putting them in the refrigerator. This will keep them from drying out and prevent bacteria from getting in. It will also prevent the foods from picking up odors from other foods in the refrigerator. 

Serving leftovers safely

Keep all food hot/cold when serving.

Bacteria grow quickly between 40 and 140 degrees! If you want to serve hot food for a longer period of time (say, at a party buffet), arrange to keep it at a minimum of 140 degrees F or warmer. You can do this by using chafing dishes, warming trays, or crock pots.

a casserole in a round dish

If you want to serve cold food for a longer period, arrange to keep it below 40 degrees F. Nestle that pasta salad in a bowl of ice, for example, or keep it in an ice-packed cooler. 

Reheat leftovers to the right temperature.

To be perfectly safe, you may want to invest in a food thermometer, especially if you eat meats and poultry. Reheat:

• Red meat to a minimum temp of 145 degrees F. Then let it sit for at least three minutes before slicing or eating. 

• Ground meats to an internal temp of 160 degrees F.

• Poultry to reach an internal temp of 165 degrees F.

• Leftover sauces and gravies and soups to a rolling boil.

Being savvy about storing and using up leftovers will up your game when it comes to reducing food waste — and it can be kinda fun (and delicious), too. 

What’s your favorite way to use up leftovers?

You might also like: How to clean and store strawberries and Eggs — How to keep them fresh and how to tell when they’re not.

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