For The Love of God, Eat Your Scraps: How To Master the Art of Leftovers and Waste Less Food
So you might remember a pretty alarming study from 2012 back about how Americans throw out something close to half their leftovers per year. Well it’s 2017 and there’ve been a couple more recent ones since then and, well, things aren’t really getting better. As of 2014, America threw out close to 40 million tons of food waste, which was more than double the number in 1980. In 2015, we threw out $165 billion worth of leftovers, and over 20% of all waste in the U.S. is made of food, even more than plastics, papers, and metals.
What the frig?!
No matter how you want to try and spin those numbers, that’s an absolute embarrassment for us a country. And let me say this right at the outset, we at PCFG promise to never get political with our content, and as such this post is not politically-charged. But! Regardless of how you feel about environmentalism or the culture surrounding it, I think preeeetty much everyone here can describe themselves as “pro-food”.
If we all like food, and we all eat food, then why the hell are we throwing so much of it away?! There’s a few explanations, some of which might be a little bit more uncomfortable to hear about (and we’ll discuss in a future post), but let’s focus on the solution here: stop throwing your frigging leftovers away. It’s bonus food. Who doesn’t want BONUS food? At the very least, if you’re not worried about working on reducing the amount of waste we as humans create, you have to at least want to up your leftovers game if no better reason than to just have more food.
I know a lot of people are iffy about eating leftovers. They don’t trust anything that’s been left out, they’re afraid of food-poisoning. A friend of mine flat out told me once “Oh we don’t really eat leftovers. We just don’t.” Unbelievably, the more I talk to people about it, the more I find out that this dopey mindset is more common than I used to think it was. For some reason, there’s a stigma to leftover food. It’s not as yummy, it might be germy, it’s low-class, etc… I know the reasons vary, but there’s no excuse for this kind of horse shit anymore. Especially in a time where more and more people are complaining about wage gaps and the economy. Well let me tell you this: one of the biggest, most effective skills you can learn when trying to save money on your food budget is mastering the art of leftovers.
Using Leftovers To Build New Foods
Let’s think about this in three bullet points:
- By not throwing food out, you obviously keep more food around, thus not having to spend as much money on more of it next time you buy groceries.
- Leftovers in general make for perfect lunches and quick meals, when you don’t have much time to prepare food.
- Leftover food isn’t just important as food in and of itself, but rather it transforms into ingredients!
Those first two points might seem a little bit more obvious, but the third one is the most important part of becoming a leftovers-pro. Let’s look at it this way… Say you have some grilled chicken leftover from dinner one day. Days later, you can just eat one of the leftover cutlets as grilled chicken. That’s fine. OR, you can use that leftover chicken and make the following:
- Fried rice
- Pasta bowl
- Loaded fries
- Bibimbap rice bowl
- Etc etc etc…
As I said, when you have leftovers, you can utilize it to create new dishes. You get to recycle your food. And depending on what the actual flavor/variety of the food was, it can help the new dish take on that style. So if you have barbecued pork chops one night, save the leftovers, then use them to make a rice bowl another day… Well great news, you’re already automatically 1/4 of the way to making a BBQ-flavored rice bowl instead of a regular one.
It may take a little bit of practice on your part, but if you keep enough leftovers around, you eventually get an idea of what you can use them for. All it takes is a little bit of creativity on your part. Leftover mac ‘n’ cheese? It’s pretty good heated up. Or alternately, a few days later you can make some turkey burgers, and holy shit, you now magically get to make mac ‘n’ cheese burgers, and it requires virtually no extra work. Do you know how many times I’ve put together a burrito for lunch out of 99% leftovers?
(Spoilers: It makes up my lunch probably 3 days out of every single week for the past three years)
Making your Leftovers Last
The only downside to leftovers is more or less the one reason why most people tend to not bother hanging onto them in the first place, and it’s that leftovers are essentially just “old food”. Yes, while I am a huge defender of keeping food around for as long as possible, I will wholly admit that you can get sick from eating them.
However, let’s be real, guys. You can get sick from eating any food that’s not prepared properly. And leftovers are just the same. If you handle them fine, you never have to worry about getting sick. As I said earlier, leftovers are an art, and besides the creative field of figuring out what to do with them, there’s also a practical skill you need to learn and practice in keeping track of them and their exposure to the elements.
Let’s stop and think about why people even get sick from food. Bacteria exists. Some bacteria can make you sick. Sometimes food gets bacteria on it, so sometimes that bacteria can make you sick if you eat said food. Alright, it’s not rocket science. And fortunately there’s a few simple steps you can take to avoid the bad bacteria from taking over your unfinished foodstuffs.
Do your best to keep your meals uncontaminated after they’ve been cooked.
Obviously there’s bacteria all around us, floating in the air, and on every surface that exists. Because of that, when your food is all finished, you want to make sure it doesn’t get any additional bacteria added to it. To do so, make sure you only use clean utensils to serve it and put it away into a clean container. Try not to get your fingers or any other bodyparts in it, since this will just introduce additional squads of germs into the food, some of which could make it spoil. Repeat this process for every time that you interact with the food as well, such as transferring it to a new container, or when taking some out to eat it. If you cut down on exposure to new bacteria, your food will last much longer.
Make sure your leftovers are secured in airtight containers, in a cool fridge immediately.
Once you’re done eating, you don’t want food sitting around. The longer food just chills out at room temperature, the greater chance it has for bacteria to start growing on it. The quicker you get it into a container, the “cleaner” it will be. Still though, unfortunately, even the most neurotic of germophobes like myself can’t perfectly disinfect everything, and you will still end up with ambient bacteria flora in your food. That said, most of those microbes won’t hurt you, and even the ones that do can be kept in check by keeping the food cold. Afterall, that is the whole point of refrigerators. Keeping your leftovers chilled will obviously keep them fresher longer. As such, each container of leftovers should be treated as its own little environment. Once you open that world up to the real world, you introduce new germs into it. So if you keep them in a nice little storage, like Tupperware and such, the run-of-the-mill bacteria that happen to make their way in won’t get out of control.
Cut down on exposure time when handling your leftovers.
As said, your food leftovers are a little environment. But as much as you want to keep them pristine and untouched, they do need to be opened so you can eat them. Lots of leftovers account for just one additional meal, but sometimes you end up with lots of them that can be eaten repeatedly. You can easily get multiple lunches out of one batch of curry for example, but when doing so, be smart about it. When you take the food out of the fridge to eat some of it, don’t dawdle. Open the container, spoon out what you want, close the container, and get ’em back in the refrigerator stat. We can all be forgetful, yes, but this step is probably the most crucial if you’re dealing with multiple-day leftovers. Do your best to make sure you don’t forget to put the container back, since even leaving them out at room temperature for like 10 minutes can doom them to an early spoilage.
Keep track of your leftovers, and how old they are.
This final step doesn’t necessarily require any action on the food itself, but it is a good habit to get into. See, as you hone your leftovers-skills, you’re going to end up with more and more leftovers. That’s great news! But it also bears more responsibility since it’s easy to lose track of random containers in a busy fridge. It sounds anal as hell, but consider writing down your saved meals on a whiteboard, piece of paper, or using a phone app of some sort. It doesn’t need to be elaborate; just write the type of food and the date it was cooked. At first you might think “Nah, I’ll just eat them in the order I make them. I probably won’t even have more than a couple at a time.” But realistically if you’re like us, and want to cut down on grocery bills as much as you can, you’re going to have a shit-ton of leftovers. Write them down, and make sure to eat the older ones before they have a chance to spoil Observe:
Bear in mind, that list is only encompassing just this week. A day or two ago, there was another 4 or 5 leftovers listed up at the top as well. You can say what you want, but we haven’t had to specifically buy lunch for ourselves in weeks, haven’t thrown away leftovers ever when using this system, and we’ve had leftovers substituting the need to buy dinner supplies at least 1-2 times per week. If you’re still skeptical, then good sir, I cordially invite you to join us on our level. Bro.
- Another subskill you can learn when upping your leftovers skill is figuring out how to cook en masse. If you have enough ingredients, consider cooking more food than you need on a given night at dinner. These puposeful-leftovers will come in handy, especially when making stuff like pasta or chicken or other main dishes.
- Similarly to making main courses en masse, try doing the same with side dishes or ingredients too. For example, in many Asian households, they’ll make one big pot of rice on Sunday, and just pull from that one pot for the rest of the week. I personally do the same, using leftover rice to make burritos, rice bowls, and to serve alongside leftovers like stir fries. Similarly, lots of Italians do the same, using a pot of sauce. But hey, you can do it with anything that you can prepare ahead of time. As said earlier, be creative!
- While they may not hold up as freshly as plain refrigeration, you can also freeze your leftovers to keep them even longer! We’d recommend doing this only when you have literally so much food leftover that you won’t be able to eat it all in time.
How Long Will My Leftovers Last?
Well, here’s where things get iffy. We here at PCFG are NOT scientists, and we are not responsible for any foodborne illnesses that you may incur from eating old food. That said, we can give you some insight on your food’s shelf life, based on our own experiences.
Chicken and fish are two of the safer meats to keep long term since they’re lower in fat, and thus go rancid less quickly. Typically, if you take good care of the food using the above steps, you can expect them to last about two weeks. Again, this is not scientific proof, just our own observations, so YMMV. Sometimes we’ve eaten chicken dishes leftover from upwards of three weeks ago, however that seems like the absolute limit.
Beef, pork, and other meats tend to spoil a little bit more quickly since they’re fattier. Anything containing fats and high amounts of grease will unfortunately spoil more quickly as a result, so we’d recommend eating these foods in about one week, maybe two weeks tops.
Starchy foods like rice and pasta have a pretty easy time staying good so long as they’re plain, without any sauces on them. (For example, if you do the aforementioned cooking mass food ahead of time). Plain rice lasts well over two weeks, sometimes three weeks, and I’ve had rice last up to a month, if it hasn’t been opened much.
Sauces that you’ve made too much of and stored, or foods like pasta that are saved with the sauce, have a harder time staying fresh since they have more ingredients that can spoil. Pasta with sauce and cheese usually lasts about a week or two, though loose sauces that are saved by themselves, and sealed tightly, can sometimes last about two weeks.
Vegetables tend to be a wild-card since it depends entirely on how they were cooked. Usually, the shelf life of the leftovers depend on how the veggies were when they first got cooked. You’ll need to observe these closely. Usually though you’ll get at least a week, sometimes two weeks, out of some plain ol’ vegetables.
Spicy foods and acidic foods, such as ones with lots of lemon juice or vinegar in them, tend to last MUCH longer than normal since capsaicin and acid are natural preservatives/antibiotics. Hell, some dishes like sauerbraten (a type of German pot roast) have such acidic sauces that you can leave the raw meat marinating in a pot for several days without fear of spoiling.
Creamy foods like sauces with milk or cream, or things with lots butter or cheese, have the opposite effect of spice, and they tend to spoil more quickly, since as stated before, fats can go rancid somewhat easily.
However, the most important part of leftovers is to follow your nose.
Don’t underestimate your sense of smell. As mentioned, again, saving leftovers is not a science. I cannot guarantee your food will last as long as the above estimations. Sometimes they will save longer, and sometimes they may go bad more quickly. But luckily all humans come equipped with a handy device that can, with fairly high dependability, identify to them when food is safe to eat. It’s called a nose.
Generally, when food goes bad, you can tell it went bad because it starts to smell bad. Bacteria tends to have a bad stink to it, so if your food doesn’t smell right, it means it’s bad. That’s the best part about this, the simplicity. If it smells bad, it means it’s bad. If it doesn’t smell bad, it’s generally safe to eat. So easy!
However, sometimes it’s not as clear cut as that. If it seems borderline, your nose can call in for backup: give it the taste-test. Similarly to your nose, your tongue can detect the presence of most things that shouldn’t go in your body. If you’re not sure about how something smells, then take a small amount on your finger to taste. Or just go ahead and straight-up lick it. Either way, if it’s going bad or went bad, you’ll be able to tell. Because the big takeaway from all of this is the following: