Reducing Food Waste: Leftovers and Ingredients

For some reason, I seem to be the only person to consume leftovers on a regular basis in my household. If I don’t remember, things are placed in the fridge, not eaten the next day, and by the time I remember them, I’m worried that they have gone bad and I’m not sure when we ate them, so they get tossed. It’s wasteful and it’s also frustrating, because if I bother to cook it, dammit, I expect it to be consumed by my admiring public.

The most important thing you can do to address this situation is to have a system. Many experts recommend having a meal plan, where you have an idea of what you’ll be eating and when.  Your leftovers should be written in on the schedule. This works fairly well, but if you live spontaneously in terms of getting takeout or going out for dinner, you’ll need to create a meal plan that factors in changes in plans.

Another important consideration is that you shouldn’t rely on memory concerning when the leftovers were originally served.  An easy way to avoid this confusion is to write the date on the food container using masking tape and a Sharpie.

Photo of leftovers in storage containers
Labeling your leftovers clearly can help reduce fear of consuming past-its-prime food. (Photo Credit: Everyday Primate)

Finally, you’re going to need to know when food goes bad. The Kitchn recommends Real Simple‘s 2:4 rule: Store leftovers within two hours and eat them within four days. has more specific guidelines on this chart.

If you’re not willing to use a meal plan, then you might want to have other ways of visually reminding yourself that there are leftovers to be eaten, including arranging your refrigerator in LIFO order so that the most perishable leftovers are at the front of the fridge.

If you’ve purchased perishable ingredients for a recipe and haven’t used them all, some food bloggers recommend making a list of them and putting them on the refrigerator so you can be reminded of them on a regular basis. If you are using that meal plan we discussed, then you can use those ingredients in recipes that you make later in the week. If you aren’t sure what recipes to use, I’ve had good luck with Supercook, which allows you to find recipes using only the ingredients you already have on hand.

Another solution that I always see in magazines like Real Simple is to use food multiple ways over the course of a week. For example, you can roast a chicken on Monday, then have chicken and pasta with leftovers the next day, and then make chicken soup with what’s left on Wednesday. For whatever reason, that has NEVER worked for me, probably because I prepare pasta and soups, so there is no way to transform these meals. From what I’ve seen, I think these transformations tend to work best if you have an old school meal with meat (e.g., pork roast, potatoes, and broccoli become a casserole), but you can find some suggestions on how to reuse rice if you are a vegetarian. If you have a meat-centric diet, PaleoLeap has some general ideas about how to use your leftovers. The Kitchn has an impressive list of ingredient-based suggestions for leftovers that might be helpful for everyone else.

Now as far as getting your family members to have more enthusiasm for leftovers, well, I haven’t really been able to come up with any great suggestions except for a combination of bribes, light guilting, and dramatic threats. If anyone has more concrete solutions, I’d love to hear them.

Photo of army chef with leftovers
Using leftovers is patriotic and good for national defense, or at least that’s how I’m reading this. (Photo is in the public domain.)


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Moretta is a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist. Her Twitter is

2 thoughts on “Reducing Food Waste: Leftovers and Ingredients”

  1. This is where most of our food waste comes in. I’m the only one who eats leftovers, usually I turn them into something lunch-y. (Chicken salad, quick omelettes, etc.) But if I have a lot of work lunches that week, then I have a lot of leftover food that ends up in the trash. I know the answer is to freeze it, but we have a teeny freezer and there’s no space in there as it is. Boo. I like the idea of writing perishable ingredients in a space you can see it though. I threw out two peaches and a pepper this week because I forgot about them.

  2. We’re in the same position as you-we tend to make pasta and such that can’t really be transformed and husband is convinced that sauced pasta doesn’t make good leftovers anyway. I think the biggest source of our food waste is that it’s hard to make food for just two people.

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