Third Time’s The Charm: Doing The Leftover Dance & Reducing Food Waste

Have you ever forgotten your leftovers or take-out containers in the back of the fridge (or the back seat of the car) for a few weeks? Maybe given up on the celery because it’s so limp even Viagra couldn’t revive it? Ever had your rice grow fuzz or been surprised by fizzy apple juice? Ever found a cucumber-turned-liquid or milk-turned-solid? Ever thought the 20/$1 sale on squid-flavored ramen bowls was too good a deal to pass by, only to reconsider your love of artificial squid flavoring with 19 bowls still in the pantry? You’re not alone, you’re the average American.
The average American household throws away 14% of the food it purchases. That household spends $600 a year (in 2006 dollars!) on food that will never be eaten and sends 470 pounds of edibles into the waste stream each year. A quarter of the fruits and veggies purchased will just get tossed. 
The average American wastes a lot of food, and the consumer is just the tail end of a wasteful supply chain. From farm-to-table about half of the harvestable food in the US never gets eaten.
I don’t know about you but I’ve got a lot of things I’d rather spend $600 than moldy leftovers. I’ve always been pretty good at re-purposing food. I think I was the only kid in culinary school who enjoyed the challenge of the “Grand Buffet” (aka Clean Out The Walk-In Freezer Day) because you had to make something from everything. Waste wasn’t allowed. Thankfully, chalupas were.
When I started growing our own veggies, I became even more protective of leftovers.  Once, my husband threw away about a half-cup of sauteed green cabbage after dinner. The condemned left-overs were the delicious remnants of the first cabbage I ever successfully got to head up, after a remarkable series of failures. I had spent two years trying to grow that cabbage. When my husband cleaned up the dinner leavings and failed to save the last few bites of cabbage I cried.
Clearly, I take this stuff too seriously, and maybe because of that I’ve developed some strategies to streamline meals, save money and avoid wasting food.
  • Plan It. Meal planning – doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? But if you have a general idea of what you are cooking week by week you can really cut down on the food waste. There are dozens of ways to meal plan and you have to find the one that works with your lifestyle and family. I plan out the protein components of the week so I know what to thaw from the freezer and can manage our inventory, but leave the details to my day-to-day whim based on the family’s mood and the garden’s production. At least one night per week we plan to eat leftovers. We call this “Pick-And-Choose” night and everyone who’s old enough to have an opinion can pick any leftover they want, but nothing new gets made. We have this rule so our daughter can’t choose grilled cheese instead of braised lamb shanks.
  • Repurpose It. Leftovers don’t have to stay in their original form.  They can be used as ingredients to create entirely new meals. Here’s a few examples: tonight’s leftover halibut or salmon can become tomorrow’s halibut or salmon cakes. Tonight’s marinated flank steak can become tomorrow’s spinach and steak salad for lunch. Tonight’s side dish of chard and kale can go into a white bean and hearty greens soup. Leftover chicken can become curry or chicken sandwiches or barbecue chicken pizza. Pasta and whole grains are almost infinitely versatile, lending themselves to sautes, soups and entree salads. It takes a bit of practice to think about what new dish can be created from previous components, but once you’re in the habit it becomes second nature.
  • Turn Your Fridge Into The To-Go Counter. Ingredients just aren’t as quick to deal with as finished goods. That’s why convenience food is a billion dollar industry and why people will pay $8 for a pre-peeled pineapple in a plastic tub instead of $3 for a pineapple in it’s own skin. If, when you get home from grocery shopping, you take a few minutes and peel the $3 pineapple and put it in your own reusable container, you have just saved yourself $5 and have minimized the possibility that the pineapple will go to waste.  A lot of things are like that. Be your own prep chef and turn your ingredients into ready-to-eat goods or ready-to-use components and you’ll save money and end up wasting less.
  • Buy What You Actually Use. There’s a reason 25% of discarded food is fresh fruits and vegetables. People want to eat healthy, good-for-you fresh food, so at the grocery store they buy crisp, pretty fruits and veggies. At home they run out of time to prepare those fresh products and end up throwing away the produce and getting drive through. It’s a lose/lose scenario. Turning your fridge into the to-go counter will help with that, but so will being honest with yourself before you get to the checkout counter. How likely are you to use those 4 pounds of kholrabi, really? Do you have a plan for those chanterelle mushrooms? Can you use the 5-pack of avocados from Costco before 3 of them turn brown and lumpy?
  • Take Lunch. Because my husband and daughter take lunch almost every day I cook dinner to deliberately generate several portions of leftovers. While we clean up from dinner, we package the leftovers in a reusable container that my husband can take to work the next morning. In this way, packing lunch is no extra work and we avoid the double waste of throwing away food at home and buying lunches out. 
It might take a bit of planning up front to reduce your food waste, but the payoff in time, financial savings, and refrigerator smell make it worthwhile.

What are your best tips to minimize food waste?


  1. says

    I'm so guilty of this. Just tossed a sad, mushy zucchini yesterday. Have to say, I recently discovered the joy of making spaghetti frittata with my leftover pasta & highly recommend it. Thanks for all the tips!

  2. says

    We as a group need to re-learn what our parents and grandparents knew: that waste not-want not proverb is still a good rule of thumb.

    I am sure that there have been a number of Masters Degree disertations given on why we are so profligate in our food waste. I am grateful that I was brought up differently, and raised my daughter differently.

    Even the vegies ends find a new purpose in my house: either as stock makings or compost…

    Good post.

  3. lisa says

    The single biggest thing I changed to eliminate food waste? I absolutely NEVER grocery shop when I am hungry. No impluse buys, no vague grandiose plans hatched spur-of-the-moment when I see a flat of strawberries two days before leaving for a three day weekend, no buying four different proteins, all raw and thawed, because I think we'll totally eat all that. Just hohum sticking to the list.

  4. says

    Love this post – great tips! I've become a bit fanatic on this front and actually relish coming up with new incarnations for various components. But it does indeed take a bit of practice. Now I look at a pot of brown rice and get all excited about the dinner, lunches, and brown rice pudding I can make from one simple ingredient cooked all at once (don't get me started on the saving energy piece of it…yes, I'm a total geek). :)

  5. says

    Umm, get chickens? They'll eat what you don't and what you're about to throw out.

    As for the rest of your post, great thoughts. I'm not so good about planning, but leftovers almost always get eaten. It's the freezer that we lose money on, my wife won't eat anything frozen too long.

    I love that you can come up with great posts even when there's nothing going on in the garden. Great work!

  6. says

    Great tips from everyone! Thank you!
    Thanks Sinfonian, Chickens are *in the works* -yeah!-but we're shooting for next spring.They were only recently legalized in my town and we feel like we need another year to stabilize life with a new baby before taking on a gaggle of girls. :) But leftovers-to-egg conversion is definitely a plus!

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