Help me learn to embrace leftovers.
October 26, 2008 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn to embrace leftovers.

Since I've lived with just my husband for several years, I've gotten pretty good at cooking for us with just two servings. However, due to lack of free time and desire to start eating more home-cooked food (rather than going out to eat when we're tired, etc.) I want to start cooking with leftovers in mind. I want these meals to be able to be used for lunches and to pack in a food jar for dinner, as I have night classes twice a week.

The problem has several facets.

First, I'm suspicious of leftovers that have been in the fridge for more than a day or two, with a concern to food safety. I have no idea what can stay in there for a week or what should be eaten immediately. Chicken soup? Homemade mac and cheese? Kraft dinner? Rice and beans? I know there are plenty of rules and regulations, but I'm looking for practical advice, the way regular people keep food. Currently, I'll put any leftovers in there and then forget about or ignore them until trash day. It's like a black hole of wasted money.

I'm looking for stuff that I can cook in a big batch on the weekend and keep in the fridge. I am not looking for food to freeze -- I've done that before but my chest freezer is currently absolutely brim-full with local meat.

Specific recipes are awesome, but more general concepts are appreciated, too -- I am a super picky eater, which actually makes me good at substitutions, etc. I do prefer recipes that are higher in protein, but it's not a dealbreaker if they're not. Also, things like roasting a chicken, then making sandwiches, then making soup are not so much what I'm looking for -- I need something that's ready for me to grab and go.

Thank you for your help!
posted by sugarfish to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Hearty soups. Usually soups can stand to be in the fridge for about a week, and they have the interesting benefit of actually tasting BETTER when they are leftover.

If you are concerned about food safety, start off cooking soups that have tomato in them. Tomatoes are acidic, and acids at least inhibit the growth of a lot of creepy-crawlies.
posted by rachelpapers at 9:54 AM on October 26, 2008

The main source of danger in stored food is contamination from the body. Don't double-dip; don't spoon food out using a utensil someone has used to eat; don't try to store a partially eaten plate of food; don't doggy bag from a restaurant plate. All are unsafe. Other than that, almost anything you can cook can be kept for a couple of days. I'd stay away from eggs, generally, but everything else is fair game.

Beans are a good choice and can be very delicious if properly prepared. Try cooking green beans the "southern way," with potatoes and a bit of ham for seasoning, for example—they will keep for a week and are delicious cold or hot. Chicken can also be very good.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:11 AM on October 26, 2008

I guess I don't completely understand the question. Almost everything works well as leftovers -- it's probably easier to think of what doesn't work well the next day (a pretty short list, like salad covered in acidic dressing) rather than what does work well.

There have been lots of questions before about food safety and the fridge, complete with authoritative links on how long food can be kept. My personal rule of thumb is that I don't use leftovers that have been in the fridge longer than one week, and a bit less time for things with milk in them. Yes, it's probably safe longer than that; I know I am being conservative.

So soup and chili obviously work great. But so do enchiladas and lasagna, for example. And things like roast chicken, or a big meat roast, can be made "grab and go" by, for example, slicing the meat before you put it in the fridge so it is ready to be made into a sandwich the next morning.

Mac and cheese works great as leftovers, both the homemade kind and the kind from a box; just reheat in the microwave. So does all kinds of other pasta dishes; pre-mix with sauce when you put it in tupperware containers, and all you have to do in the morning is grab one and put it in your bag.

There are a few things that don't work so well as leftovers, mostly because of texture issues, or because there's a bunch of acid that will "cook" things you don't want cooked. Salad greens with dressing on them have this problem; you can see the texture issue when you try and keep something like tomato sandwiches -- the bread ends up soggy and gross (though still perfectly edible, just not pleasant). But those are exceptions -- almost everything else works great.
posted by Forktine at 10:18 AM on October 26, 2008

Cook a chuck roast in a crock pot with carrots, canned tomatoes, onion and red potatoes (for liquid I use a bottle of beer and a can of tomato soup). For a little extra warm spice throw in a small can of Chipotle Peppers in Adobo Sauce. Cook on low for 8--9 hours--the meat will fall apart when done. This will make a great stew you can enjoy several days. And this is a dish that tastes better as leftovers once the flavors have melded.

Also, stuffed green (or red/orange/yellow) bell peppers are wonderful. Make about 6 of them in one shot--that will give you several good meals. One of my favorite recipes is this one from

Another favorite is the following from allrecipes--you can use either bone-in chicken pieces with the skin (takes longer to cook, but is wonderful)--or you can stick with the boneless chicken breasts (or chicken thighs). Leftovers on this dish are fantastic.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 10:31 AM on October 26, 2008

My family was all about leftovers. The things that were the biggest hits with my brother and me (even after several days of eating them) were things like sauces you could put over fresh pasta (chicken cacciatore, spaghetti, pesto), chili, and hearty soups/stews (like vegetable with beef). I think these things succeeded because 1) the longer they sit, the more flavor they get, and 2) they don't really shift into different states upon chilling and heating. Macaroni gets spongy, meat on its own gets styrofoamy, veggies on their own get dessicated.

Also, when possible, reheat your portion in a pot on the stove, not the microwave. The end result is way more appetizing.
posted by phunniemee at 10:44 AM on October 26, 2008

Less about the food, more about a left overs "system" that's beginning to work for me:
- All leftovers go in clear/translucent storage. Seeing what's in the container is half the battle for me. If I have leftovers from a restaurant, I mark on the container with a sharpie when I think it should be eaten by.
- Prepping leftovers before they go in the fridge: this one makes a big difference, but is a struggle for me because the last thing I want to do after cooking and cleanup is work with more food, but... basically taking whatever is leftover and breaking it down into workable components. For instance, if we have leftover roast chicken, instead of just putting the remainder in the fridge, I slice off easy meat and put that in a container (good for chicken salad, caesar salad, chicken sandwich, etc), then put smaller pieces like wings and other bones into another container (good for stock). Another example is pasta - I infrequently mix my pasta and sauce at the stove because it's easier to keep them separate as leftovers and gives each more legs for other uses (tortellini for pasta salad, sauce for meatball sub). If I mixed them at the stove, then I'd only have the option of more pasta and sauce.
- Storage: I've begun to put the oldest or most fragile left overs (salad, cooked veggies, pizza, mac 'n cheese, etc.) on the top or an upper shelf, and the sturdier leftovers (chili, beans, sauces, stock) on lower shelves. So I'm creating a habit to reach to the top shelf for quick lunches or desperate dinners, and toward lower shelves for leftovers that have a little more leeway or that can go toward extending another meal.
- Ditto with non-leftovers: food that should be eaten quickly (veggies) usually goes toward the top of the fridge, food that can sit (yogurt, hummus, condiments) goes toward the bottom. This helps avoid "I don't know what's where."
- Reheating: I used to consider leftovers only "cold" food, stuff you could just pull out and eat without much care (pizza, salad, cold chili, etc.). Thus I grew to dislike leftovers. Since I've been willing to reheat food (and as phunniemee says, stove-top is better) I've discovered that a lot of the mental resistance my brain puts up at eating leftovers has gone way down.
- I do a weekly fridge cleanse so I have a base level of confidence that anything I grab is at least not moldy. But I think I have a much lower threshold than you about what's ok to eat :-)
posted by cocoagirl at 11:24 AM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

The only way I use leftovers is if I put them in their single-serve containers as I'm cleaning up from dinner. That way every bit of tupperware in my fridge is a meal. From time to time I buy my kids' lunchmeats that come prepackaged in these containers, and then I use the containers for single meals.

For things like hummus or peanut butter or other spreads/dips, I grab a handful of those little plastic salsa cups with lids from Baja Fresh now & then, and use those. They fit nicely into the meal-sized containers.

Also I only put leftovers on one shelf in my fridge. That way I know at a glance if I need to make lunch or just grab it.
posted by headnsouth at 11:27 AM on October 26, 2008

A colder fridge might give you more confidence. Our chilled foods last significantly longer since I lowered the refrigerator temperature; now it's 37 or 38 degrees.. (I don't know what it was before, but milk was lasting only one or two days past the sell-by date.)
posted by wryly at 12:23 PM on October 26, 2008

We don't have leftovers - we hve plannedovers. A whole roast chicken is too much for two people to eat, so it becomes chicken tacos. It's a little boring to eat the same stuff day-after-day, so we skip a day. Oops, I see that this breaks one of your guidelines, but's that is how it works here.
posted by fixedgear at 12:32 PM on October 26, 2008

Ratatouille! And you can eat i cold or hot, all week. I use this recipe by Tyler Florence, scroll down a bit.
posted by Sijeka at 1:40 PM on October 26, 2008

Get a bunch of those semi-disposable plastic containers (Ziploc, Rubbermaid, whatever). A number of people have recommended single-serve containers, and that's what they're talking about.

For what it's worth, pretty much everything I eat technically qualifies as "leftovers," because I only cook once or twice a week, but I make enough for up to a week at at time. For example, today I made a peanut-ginger chicken dish (four servings), cranberry-apple chicken salad (five servings), and chicken tikka masala (four servings) that, combined with a bunch of jasmine rice, are all going into individual containers. I won't need to cook again until next Sunday at the earliest. So two hours of cooking on Sunday means I get home-cooked meals that I like for the next six days.

The other benefit is none of these servings cost me more than $2.00 to make, and if I'd made some of the sauces myself instead of cheating and buying them in bottles, that could easily go down to $1.50 or $1.75. All told, I'll probably spend about $30 on food this week, $35 if I eat out once. On a budget like mine, that's no bad thing, and you'd be surprised how much frugality adds in terms of flavor. In today's economy, thrift is a virtue again.

phunniemee is right about pots being more appetizing than microwaves, but for me, part of the point of doing this is so that I only have to cook with and clean pots once or twice a week.

rachelpapers is also right about some things tasting better after they've been in the fridge for a few days. Chicken salad is definitely that way, as after a day or two, the sauce has had a chance to soak into the meat more than it will have when it's first made. I wouldn't push that much past five days though, because meat does start to get iffy after that, but I'm having trouble thinking of anything but wine that lasts less than that. Even things which are supposed to be crispy will go back to being that way after a little time in the oven.

I can't recommend "leftovers" highly enough.
posted by valkyryn at 2:19 PM on October 26, 2008

There's a whole spectrum of 'leftovers' out there from people who like to cook every night but do enough to have lunch the next day to people like valkyryn who basically want to minimise time and expense involved in food preparation and clean up and cook for the next 7days +.

And there's people in between who will cook every 2-3 days - work out what you want to achieve and find a method that works for you.

Anything like stew or soup is great to cook in batches and eat later in the week. They are definitely nicer the next day!

Also anything like lasagne etc that you cook a whole dish of works well.

As for how long to store things - my rule it that as long as it looks and smells fine it's ok to eat otherwise don't eat it...and you will find that most food can be kept for several days and eaten safely.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:25 PM on October 26, 2008

As everybody has said, soups and stews and sauce-y things keep well and often taste better on the 2nd or 3rd day. (Fried things like hamburgers don't reheat well, and grilled things make absolutely tragic leftovers.)

My rule of thumb for "Can I eat this?" is does it look and smell right? If so, give it a taste and if it still seems OK, chow down regardless of how long it's been in the fridge. Some things keep forever, like ketchup or pickles, and some things spoil quickly, so it's hard to set rigid timetables for edibility.

Examples of not looking right: visible mold (typically fuzzy white or green spots), bacterial colonies (typically shiny little spots on top of the food, usually white or beige, sometimes orange or pink), other bacterial growth (typically stringy, viscous "snot" visible when you scoop out some of the food).

As far as the smell test goes, you know what the food smelled like originally. If the smell has changed, it's probably gone bad. If it doesn't smell right, toss it even if it looks OK.

I can usually keep leftovers for a few days, maybe a week, before they go bad. Personally I think most people are way too scared of their leftovers. I'll eat almost anything and it's been many years since I've had food poisoning, so I think the fear factor is unreasonably high concerning leftovers. Film at 11, and all that.
posted by Quietgal at 4:50 PM on October 26, 2008

My trick is to eat or reuse any leftovers within a day or two, otherwise it goes into the freezer. You can freeze pasta sauces, chili, soup and cooked meat. In order for me to remember to eat them, I try to put them in lunch containers right away, rather than plan to make lunch with them later, I'll put it off or forget what is there.
posted by Gor-ella at 7:43 AM on October 27, 2008

BRAISING -- Big pots, long slow moist cooking, food gets better the longer it sits in the fridge. Highly recommend Molly Steven's cookbook "All About Braising". Sally Schneider's "The Improvisational Cook" also has quite of bit of discussion on optimizing leftovers.

Also, cocoagirl is right on:
All leftovers go in clear/translucent storage. Seeing what's in the container is half the battle for me. If I have leftovers from a restaurant, I mark on the container with a sharpie when I think it should be eaten by.
Makes a HUGE difference for me.
posted by chefscotticus at 8:08 AM on October 27, 2008

If you're worried about food safety, store leftovers on a lower shelf, which is a bit colder. I give leftovers 4 - 6 days, stored in airtight containers, and following sonic meat machine's recommendations. I love leftovers. A rotisserie or home-roasted chicken opens a world of 2nd and 3rd meals, at least one of which is soup.
posted by theora55 at 8:29 AM on October 27, 2008

A tangential answer to your question, because we have the exact same problem: we tend to remember to eat our leftovers if we keep our fridge clean and uncluttered. The more stuff we have in there, the more likely we are to lose a tupperware container behind something else until it turns into a science experiment.

Also, feel free to cook for four and bring the leftovers to our house - we live close enough. :)
posted by desjardins at 2:50 PM on October 27, 2008

Another mechanical suggestion to go along with the "divide into plastic meal-sized containers" process: a roll of freezer tape and a Sharpie. (Freezer tape adhesive is more reliable in cold temperatures; you may have to root around the food storage section at your supermarket, but it should be there. It looks like the stuff used to tape gauze pads over scraped skin.)

Until you develop an internal sense about keep/throw, slap a strip of freezer tape on each plastic storage container and write the Eat By date on it. This keeps your containers ink-free, lessening future confusion, and - if you are OCD-ish like me - means that on really boring afternoons, you can sort your fridge by date.

I shared a fridge in college with a woman who enjoyed drawing pathogens on her leftovers containers, so if that makes the Eat By date more immediate to you, go for it.
posted by catlet at 3:24 PM on October 27, 2008

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