This page may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn on qualifying purchases. Please see our disclaimer for more information.
What could you do with an extra $1866 per year? Here’s how leftovers can reduce food waste and save money!
Reducing Food Waste: Leftovers
According to 2020 research from the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, the average American household wastes 31.9% of the food it buys. They value this food waste at $240 billion annually or an estimated $1,866 average per household.
The research suggested smaller households, higher-income earners, and those pursuing “healthier” diets produced more food waste. Interestingly, even the least wasteful households still waste 8.7 percent. The least wasteful tended to be large families or those struggling with food insecurity.
I’ve long been interested in making the most of my food dollars. There have been many times in my past when money was tight and my family bordered on food insecurity. When I started blogging in 2009, I often shared menus and shopping trips as we transitioned from a Standard American Diet (SAD) to a traditional, real, whole foods-based diet based on the research of Weston A Price and shared in Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.
Early in my traditional foods research, I’d found many articles that suggested eating such a diet was only for the wealthy, and anyone promoting traditional foods was an elitist.
Personally, I took that statement as a challenge. Could my family of five, which consisted of my janitor husband, two young teenage girls, a toddler, and me, eat traditional/real/whole foods without increasing our budget?
Our answer was yes, we could change to a healthier diet without increasing our food budget. But it did take some creativity. One of the areas we were most creative was with our food waste. We did our best to eliminate it.
In today’s world of potential hyperinflation, many of us are looking at ways to make the most of our food dollars. Even if we don’t see true hyperinflation (here’s an interesting video detailing hyperinflation), reducing food waste and stretching our money is always smart. I’m sure we’ve all noticed the jumps in prices at our local grocery stores.
Dealing with leftovers was the easiest place for us to start reducing food waste. I’d long struggled with shoving a container in the fridge and forgetting about it. I knew I would not only need to have a plan for using the unconsumed food, but I’d need to retrain myself—the entire family—to make them a priority. My husband and I had both been raised to “use it up” but had somehow gotten away from that concept in our day-to-day lives.
We both have stories from our youth of our parents cooking up a big batch of something, his was always spaghetti while mine was pinto beans, and our family would eat it for several days. My husband hilariously tells how the pasta stuck together in a brick by day three. I don’t have funny bean stories like he does spaghetti stories, but those huge pots of pintos spurred my Stretchy Beans passion.
The first thing I did to help eliminate the out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue was to have designated containers specifically for leftovers. One of the “use it up” concepts my husband and I used was to our detriment. We owned very few lidded food storage containers. Our leftovers were being put in reused yogurt, sour cream, and similar containers. No wonder they’d been forgotten!
Why glass? Choosing glass containers was a conscious effort to help avoid potential toxins. While I still haven’t fully broken my need to reuse plastic containers, I’m very choosy about how I use these containers.
At home, we designated a shelf in our refrigerator for leftovers. I went as far as labeling the shelf so others in the house would know what went in that section.
The easiest way to utilize leftovers was for lunches. I’ve worked from home for the past thirteen years. Being able to grab and heat up something quickly is always great. Sometimes, there are enough leftovers we’ll do a “must-go” dinner—everything in the fridge must-go! Pulling it all out and heating it up, then setting it out for each family member to choose their favorites, is almost like an all-you-can-eat buffet!
While this weekly buffet worked well, it didn’t solve all of our issues. There were still bits and pieces that we tossed in the trash.
Time to get radical and use tips I’d gleaned years before when reading The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn.
If you haven’t read this book, you need to! It’s currently out of print, but you should be able to find it at your local library. Some of the tips and ideas seem extreme, but with the way things are going, we may need extreme.
One of the Tightwad Gazette tips was to keep a “soup pot” in the freezer to add small amounts of leftover vegetables or meats. This container (not actually a soup pot) is used to accumulate a tablespoon of corn here, a piece of roast beef there, a 1/4 cup of glazed carrots, and so forth. Every few months, we thawed the container and added it to homemade broth for a unique and, hopefully, tasty soup.
Another way to use the freezer is similar to the designated leftover shelf of the fridge. Instead of stashing the leftovers in the fridge, put them in the freezer. When enough leftovers have accumulated (or when you don’t have anything else planned for dinner), thaw out the containers for a smorgasbord night.
When using your freezer, keep in mind that not everything freezes well. Potatoes, lettuce, celery, and radishes are a few that are best used fresh.
If my freezer is full or I’ve way misjudged how much of something I should’ve made, leaving us with a large surplus of leftovers, I’ll utilize my dehydrator.
My dehydrator isn’t anything fancy, just a simple and economical round style (something like this, only older). I’ll often dry different items in one load, doing a tray of fruit and a second of veggies, even combining things on the same tray! This does take a bit of babysitting since different items may finish at different times.
If the pieces are small, I may put a piece of parchment paper on the tray to keep the bits from falling through. Meals, such as spaghetti and meat sauce, also get the parchment paper treatment before being spread out to a somewhat even thickness.
My friend Wardee from Traditional Cooking School has an excellent class on dehydrating as part of her cooking program membership or standalone classes. The Dehydrating eCourse or book teaches how to dry fruits, vegetables, meats, beans, and more and then gives additional instructions on using your dried foods.
After drying, store dehydrated foods in air-tight containers. My personal choice is, if the dried item contains meat or eggs, we keep ours in the freezer. Dried foods reduce to one-fourth of their original weight, making them more compact than their undried counterparts.
I’ve found that a combination of using the fridge and freezer works best for us these days. I’ll often put something in the fridge with the intention of using it in a future meal. I’ll mark on my menu plan what it is and when I’ll use it. Because I sometimes am wrong in my estimate of how much of something we’ll eat, we’ll have leftovers of the leftovers. That’s when I get creative.
A recent tasty dish for Sunday brunch resulted from leftover shredded pork (used earlier in the week in two meals), leftover Mongolian Beef Egg Roll In A Bowl, and four eggs. By combining the two meat dishes and whipping up the four eggs with a little cream, I made an amazing burrito filling.
Don’t be afraid to be creative in the kitchen. You can create amazing and tasty dishes out of unlikely combinations. Start simple, with flavors that will enhance each other, and go from there.