Fighting food waste: the surprising power of leftovers

Can your leftovers help the planet...and your budget? This month, we're digging into this delicious question and figuring out how to make the most of your food.

The history of leftovers is fresher than you might think: until the advent of ice-boxes and fridges, there just wasn’t a reliable way to keep assembled meals for long. The term “leftover” only came into use in the 1860’s. Before that, families relied on cooking in smaller batches; preserving food in various forms; and feeding farm animals and pets on food scraps from meal times so that in one way or another, everything got used up. Leftovers are a modern luxury—and learning how to rock them might be the solution to an urgent modern problem.

Canadian households throw out more edible food than most other developed nations: in fact, about 60% of the food we throw out is perfectly edible. But there’s good news. According to Love Food Hate Waste, a campaign from Vancouver’s National Zero Waste Council, learning how to make better use of your leftovers could save your family budget $1,100 a year, not to mention help the planet. (If these stats motivate you, you’re not alone—check out how BC teen Justin Kulik took action this month to respond to them)

Besides, leftovers are delicious! Curries, soups, stews, pasta sauces and shepherd's pie all taste better on the second day because the flavours have a chance to develop. If you’re cooking at home with kids, leftovers are a great way to let them experiment a little—the ingredients are pre-cooked and assembled, so kids can run the show and reassemble or combine ingredients with fast results. We’ve talked before about the Lego approach to dinner, and leftovers make this easy: just take your components and build a meal! Having your kids be the ones doing the assembly can help them love the outcome more (memorably, this has been called the Ikea Effect).

How to make the most of your leftovers:

  • Plan for them—think “ingredients”, not “leftovers”; and designate certain days in your meal plan for using up leftovers (we like Love Food Hate Waste’s approach of calling these kitchen clean-outs Fridge Harvests). Check out our guide to getting started with meal planning here.
  • To reduce food waste with kids: let your kids come to the table hungry, let them serve themselves dinner portions, and get comfortable with offering your kid bite-sized samples of new things (think like an ice cream parlour and offer spoonfuls of new flavours before kids commit)
  • Make recipes that are leftover friendly: casseroles, croquettes, frittatas, pot pie, soups and stews are all classic ways to maximize your leftovers. For more ideas,  Love Food Hate Waste has a robust leftovers recipe generator to inspire you. (Have you got cornflakes stuck in the bottom of the box? They have a recipe for you.)
  • Think about what you’re throwing out before you ditch it: veggie scraps saved in the freezer can build up to a flavourful soup stock, and bacon fat frozen in a spare ice cube tray can add a smoky rush of flavour to recipes.
  • Learn quick fixes for produce that’s beginning to go: zucchini, bananas and apples can all go in quick breads and muffins; potatoes, roots and stone fruits in roasts (tip: if your plums are too squishy for the kids to enjoy, roast them!) Similarly, stale bread makes excellent croutons, french toast or bread pudding.
  • Keep your fruits and greens properly to extend their shelf lives—this source has great suggestions on keeping herbs and greens fresh for two weeks.
  • Or, if you find some produce in your fridge that’s got a life of its own, make your own kitchen garden from food scraps.

Do you have a favourite recipe for leveraging your leftovers? We would love to hear about it: please share your recipe with our community here, or head to our Facebook and Instagram feeds for more ideas.

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