How Stop Throwing Away Your Leftovers

How Stop Throwing Away Your Leftovers

How to Stop Throwing Away Your Leftovers

When I was visiting my sister after my niece was born, my brother-in-law couldn’t wait to share a food waste film that he had recently seen.

He is as much of a documentary junkie as I am, so I eagerly agreed and sat down to watch. 

Just Eat It opened my eyes to the amount of food we waste in North America in a way that nothing else had. 

Though the thought of throwing good food away never occurred to me, I realized how often I would be cleaning out the refrigerator only to find containers that were past their prime.

After watching Just Eat It, my resolve to reduce the amount of food waste that came from our house grew. 

I went to my meal plan (check out this post if you are new to meal planning) and worked on ways that I could use all my food.

Here are the 12 steps I discovered to keep the food waste to a minimum:

12 Steps to Reducing Your Food Waste

1) Save Your Leftovers

Yes, it’s the obvious step, but if your first instinct is to toss leftover bits of food into the trash, you are immediately wasting it.

Saving leftovers instead of throwing them out will (hopefully!) decrease the amount of perfectly good food that is ending up in a landfill every day.

Plus, it will save you money and time. Popping something in the microwave is much easier and cheaper than preparing a new meal!

Sure, if you have a dog that you feed the leftovers to, you aren’t technically wasting anything… but it will save you money on your food budget if the human members of your family eat the food instead.

2) Store the Leftovers Well

Use clear plastic or glass containers to store your leftovers. If you know what is inside the container, your family will be more inclined to eat it. 

We humans are lazy. If there is a clear container sitting next to a mystery container, people will generally choose the clear one. Even if it takes less than 10 seconds to discover what is inside the other one…

Investing in a few clear containers will pay dividends in the food that you are no longer throwing out. I love using these Snapware Glass Storage Containers to store my leftovers. 

Another benefit of clear containers is that you will never have your stomach jump into your throat when you open a container only to find out that something has been sitting in there way too long. (Been there, done that!)

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3) Place Your Leftovers at Eye-Level in the Fridge

Organizing your fridge not only saves you time, but it will also help save money when you can easily see your leftovers and eat them before they go bad. 

I have a freezer-on-the-bottom style refrigerator, so the middle shelf of my refrigerator is at my eye level (and, more importantly, in my husband’s line-of-site).

In the past, I would put my leftovers on the bottom shelf, but the dairy drawer is in the way of seeing the majority of that shelf at a glance. 

Often there would be food casualties that had slipped to the back of the shelf and sat there way too long.

When your leftovers are stored at eye level, they are harder to ignore.

4) Separate Your Leftovers as You Put Them Away

If one person heads to work early in the morning, they are more likely to take leftovers for lunch if they are ready to go.

I used to have a conversation with my husband over and over again, asking why he ran through a drive-through for lunch when we had food at home. The answer was always the same: I didn’t have time to make lunch.

When I started separating leftovers as I put them away each evening, he started taking them every day. One container would be for those of us who would be at home, and the other would be for him.

I always get his attention once his container is ready and show him what his lunch looks like for the morning. Yes, I know he’s an adult and could probably figure it out, but the world is a little fuzzy at 5:45 am when he leaves the house, so I try to make it easy.

Now it is rare for him to eat out instead of taking a lunch since all he has to do is open the fridge, grab the food, and leave.

5) Store the Leftovers by Need-To-Be-Eaten Dates

If you put the oldest leftovers in a specific spot in the refrigerator, it is easy to know at a glance what needs to be eaten first. 

In our house, the oldest leftovers are stored in the front of the middle shelf on the far right side. (Remember the eye-level thing?)  

Pick a place in your fridge that works for you. Just be sure to tell your family so everyone knows!  

If the leftovers aren’t eaten before I need to add new ones to the fridge, the new food goes to the left of the old food. Once that doesn’t work anymore, I start putting the newest food behind the front row of leftovers. 

That way I can immediately see what needs to be eaten first when I open the door.

If you always put the newest, most exciting food upfront, you probably won’t look to see what is behind it.

How to Waste Less Food in 12 Steps

6) Eat Leftovers for Lunch

It may seem boring, but we eat leftovers for lunch almost every day of the workweek at our house.

My oldest never asks what we are going to eat for lunch when it’s that time. Instead, she will ask, “What did we eat for dinner last night?”

Having leftovers for lunch makes my life easier for several reasons:

  1. I don’t have to plan what to eat for lunch five days of the week.
  2. It is easy to prepare leftovers, so I’m not spending extra time in the kitchen.
  3. It is easy to clean up after lunch.
  4. I don’t have to decide what to make in the moment when the kids are hungry.

If you don’t already eat leftovers for lunch, try it out and see if it works for your family!

7) Plan You Meals (And a Leftover Night!)

Having a meal plan enables you to only purchase what you need for the week at the grocery store, instead of buying several options that you *might* want to make the coming week.

Menu Planning alone will cut down on the waste that comes out of your house. And adding in a leftover night every week will take you to the next level.

In addition to eating leftovers for lunch every day, I also plan to eat leftovers for dinner one night each week in my weekly meal plan

If you make a lot of food, two leftover nights might be necessary. 

If you eat out a lot, have a large family, or eat leftovers for lunch, one leftover night will probably be sufficient.

I’m a fan of theme nights in my meal plan, so every Thursday night at our house is leftover night. 

I recommend doing leftovers on nights when you don’t have time to prepare a nice meal, or when you need to clean out your refrigerator before the weekend.

For us, Thursday was a great fit for a leftovers night because I don’t have as much time to cook with swimming lessons in the evening, and I like to empty the leftovers shelf before all of the cooking that happens on the weekends.

If you would like more tips for getting started with Meal Planning, check out my post How to Begin Meal Planning… When You Don’t Know Where to Start.

8) Double Your Recipes

This one might seem a bit counterintuitive, but there is something annoying about leftovers that aren’t quite a full meal for anyone.

When that happens, my conscience usually tells me to save it. You know, because of the children starving in Africa, but no one seems to want to eat that tiny bit of food. 

To overcome this problem, I always double my recipes, or one-and-a-half them if the recipe already makes a large amount. 

It takes little effort to double a recipe that I am already cooking, and the increase in cost is also almost imperceptible. This is most likely because recipes don’t typically use an entire amount of anything. 

For example, if I need soy sauce for a recipe, I will probably use between one and three tablespoons. Doubling the amount doesn’t make me buy an extra bottle of soy sauce.

The same is true for vegetables. Often recipes will call for one cup of a vegetable. Typically I don’t measure vegetables and instead will just put the whole pepper or zucchini, or whatever it is into the recipe. 

Unless the vegetable is quite small, one whole vegetable usually works for making one recipe or doubling it. And since I know I double everything, I just look for larger vegetables at the store. It doesn’t make a dent in my grocery budget, but I feed my family twice!

When I first started doubling recipes, I would double everything down to the number of onions. I soon found that it took me forever to cook, and it created a crazy amount of food. Now I only double the bulk ingredients like the beans or broth and the spices.

So for example, if I were making lentil soup, I will only double the lentils, the broth, and the spices. But I will chop the vegetables and garlic as I would for a single recipe.

How to save money on groceries and reduce food waste

9) Transform Your Leftovers

If Chili is on the menu for Sunday night, I might make a Mexican dish for Monday night since I can use the chili as my beans. 

Try to be creative and transform an old meal into a new one.

Could your leftovers be a burrito filling? Can you eat it with Chips? Imagine if you made it into a sandwich? What if you changed the protein and use the same sauce again? Or use the same protein with a different sauce? Have you tried eating it with potatoes instead of rice?

There are so many options, it just takes a little forethought and creativity!

10) Add Something Fresh to the Meal

I always seem to have a few extra veggies sitting around in my produce drawer by leftover night. If you are reusing a meal that doesn’t have a lot of color and freshness with it, here are a few things to try:

1. Add a vegetable to the meal that you didn’t eat with it originally.

2. Make a smoothie to have with dinner.

3. Add a salad to the meal.

4. Eat some fresh fruit for dessert.

Adding color and crunch to any meal is a great way to spice things up!

11) Clean Out Your Fridge Regularly

I am the most squeamish person I have ever met. Finding something in the back of my fridge that I forgot about for far too long makes my skin crawl.

When I started cleaning out my fridge once a week, I stopped finding fuzzy things hiding in the back.

It may seem like cleaning out your fridge every week is just one more thing to add to your list, but it doesn’t take much time when you stay on top of it.

I clean out my fridge on my grocery shopping day.  Typically, it is easier the clean before I go because my refrigerator is almost empty. But if I don’t have time, I just do it when I get back before I unload the groceries.

If you do it before you go to the store, you may also notice if you need any condiments that you are running low on. Or you may find you don’t have as much garlic as you thought you did.

Wiping down the shelves doesn’t take long. Just work from the top down so you don’t get crumbs on your freshly cleaned shelves. Then remove any food that hasn’t been chosen during the leftover nights or lunches as you go.


12) Compost or Freeze Everything Else

After the fridge is cleaned, I take any sad little containers that didn’t make the cut out to our compost bin. This works well for us since we eat a plant-based diet. Everything that we eat is compostable.

If you eat a lot of meat and dairy, you’ll want to separate that out and put it in the trash or in the garbage disposal before composting any vegetables or fruit.

Composting old food makes your garbage can smell better and also makes your garbage disposal so much happier. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever broken your garbage disposal by trying to put too many carrots or potato peels down it ✋!)

Composting uneaten food changes something that would potentially be wasted into useful, healthy soil for your garden.

If you have a large amount of an item leftover that you would use later, freeze it. I often do this with beans, lentils, or soups that we didn’t finish by the end of the week.

I hope these 12 tips have inspired you to start adding leftovers into your Meal Plan!

Ready to Stop Feeling Stressed About Meal Planning?

Then check out Set-It-And-Forget-It Meal Planning!

In Set-it-and-Forget-it Meal Planning, you will learn how to 

  • Create a Breakfast Rotation
  • Create a Lunch Rotation
  • Create a Snack Rotation
  • Choose Theme Nights
  • Create Rotations for Each Theme Night
  • Fill in Your Meal Planning Calendar

Set-It-And-Forget-It Meal Planning walks you through my unique method for setting up your meal plan so you will never have to start from square one again!

Plus you will receive the Set-It-And-Forget-It Meal Planning Workbook and Spreadsheet and email support from me anytime you have questions.

I hope to see you inside the course!

(Or if you are more of a do-it-yourself kind of gal, you can check out my DIY Meal Planning Resources!) 

You May Also Enjoy…

If you want some help getting your meal plan started, check out How to Begin Meal Planning… When You Don’t Know Where to Start.

Want a different way to Meal Plan? Here’s The Ultimate Guide to Seasonal Meal Planning.

Ready to take saving money with meal planning even further? Check out 37 Ways to Save Money on Groceries.

Not sure if Meal Planning will work for you? Read The Pro’s and Con’s of Meal Planning for Moms: How to Know if Meal Planning is Right for You!

12 Steps to Less Food Waste