A Treatise on Leftovers

If leftovers aren’t your friend, they should be. Cooking in bulk can be a little time consuming, what with the planning and making larger batches, but it is well worth it. However, if you’re like me and have the attention span of a gnat, you might get a little bored with the same pasta dish every meal for 6 meals in a row. I understand that and sympathize completely. I give you my treatise “On Why Leftovers are Awesome and You Need to Learn to Use Them” (Maybe I need a new treatise name, too…)

First, leftovers can be frozen for future use. “I know that, you stupid woman” you may think. Well, yes, but the trick is remembering what you have frozen when. I have tried that system of writing on the container what dish is in what container and when I made it. That isn’t terribly complicated, but keeping everything straight in a teeny freezer is little more than a nightmare for most people. Plus, if you have a family, unless nobody else in your house is tall enough to reach the freezer, you will lose all sense of organization in a hurry with several sets of hands milling about in there. I am currently trying a “running tally” sort of method–I’ll let you know how it goes–where I basically keep a list on the freezer detailing what I have frozen and when it was put there. (At this point, it mostly contains meat, but that will slowly change as I further investigate the endless possibilities that freezer meals provide.) When you have frozen a meal (or part of a meal) you need only thaw it (my favorite method for thawing things like soups or “squishy, non-meats” is by plopping the bag into a pan of warm to hot [but not boiling] water). Meats need to be thawed slowly in a cooler environment to make sure that germs and other nasty things don’t have a chance to multiply but also to make sure that you don’t accidentally cook it before you need to (I have done that more times than I care to mention).

If you don’t have enough of a leftover to be made into a full meal, (say, you need 4 servings for your family but you only have 2 left) then you are a lucky person in my book! You can now be creative! Is what you have a soup or stew? Put it over rice or pasta and you should get enough servings from it to feed 4. Did your casserole only last through 1 meal? Add some veggies to it and serve it with bread and a side salad and voila! I know this sounds corny and, I’ll admit, this concept seemed very “old-fashioned” and like something my great-grandmothers would have done during the Great Depression. Think about it, though. Why throw it out (or let it sit in your fridge for weeks and THEN throw it out) when you could be using it to make something new (or at least something less boring) for a meal. You only have so much money. You will need to make that last as long as you can–and if that means needing to make your actual food stretch–then I’m willing to experiment with it.

Plus, there is nothing wrong with re-heating leftovers for lunch, though, I do postulate that this might be where leftovers got their bad reputation from. They seem like second-class food citizens, and nobody wants them. If pressed, I would say that this has to do with the culture of upper-middle class in the U.S. where wasteful spending is the norm and nobody cares about a leftover dinner when they have soccer practice, dance class, swimming lessons, book club, Brownies, Boy Scouts, Tuesday night Bible study, Wednesday night kids’ clubs at church, PTA meetings, homework, and a dog who has needed to use the bush out back for 12 hours now. (I have a lot to say about how many activities a family should have per week, but I’ll save that rant for…oh, I don’t know…somewhere down the line.) The point here is that people are (too) busy and while leftovers seem like a good, logical idea for a family who never has enough time, they don’t get utilized by those families as often as they should–many times because the nutritious meal wasn’t cooked in the first place. Drive-thru, takeout, frozen pizzas, and fish sticks make up a sad majority of many childrens’ diets in the U.S. and, by the time that family can be in the house long enough for a leftover, there is nothing in the fridge that hasn’t gone bad. Especially if one or both partners are home during the daytime hours (where a lunch meal would be eaten), it doesn’t take much time for one to add some veggies or bread to a leftover and have a nutritious meal without making a big bite in the food budget. For example, my husband works overnight, so his “daily schedule” is all kinds of screwy. He takes a leftover for lunch, if he eats one at all, and it works better for him than eating out ever could because it’s far more nutritious than eating doughnuts and coffee every night and gives him far more energy to do his job well. (By the by, that whole stereotype of cops in a doughnut shop is actually true. Know why? It’s because these shops are a)open 24 hours a day [you try finding a meal that isn’t stomach-rotting drive-thru at 3:30 am] and b)very good to police by giving them free/reduced coffee and food because by being there, the police are deterring 4am robberies.) Sometimes, there is nothing more comforting on a winter day than heating up the homemade soup you had for dinner, only to enjoy it again.

Lastly, I know some people out there (mostly ladies, but I don’t discriminate here, so guys too) have families that are very, VERY picky eaters. My own mother had to “work on” my dad for almost 25 years to get him to try Chinese food. My dad, and I love him dearly, will only eat 4 types of veggies. Broccoli, corn, peas, and asparagus. That’s it. No peppers, no cabbage, nothing else. Fruit is not even an option for him, and he doesn’t touch fish. He eats protein almost exclusively (protein at breakfast and lunch, and anything he wants for dinner within reason), so carbs are nearly non-existent in my parents’ home. With all the protein, however, he will not eat beans unless they are baked beans from a can. So, I do understand how hard it can be to LIVE with a picky eater, but I am blessed enough not to know what it is like to cook for one as a spouse. My darling husband will eat anything I cook. Honestly. I have yet to make something for him (and we ate all of our dinners together for a year before we were married) that he didn’t like. I am a lucky woman on this front. However, having been a nanny, I also know how hard it can be to cook for children who love a food one day and hate it the next. They won’t touch ANYTHING that they don’t immediately sense as “good” and will fight you tooth and nail to not eat something if they don’t want to eat it. For you gentle readers who have a family like this, I suggest sitting down as a family and explaining to those old enough to listen (and that includes a stubborn spouse, if necessary) that you only have so much money to spend on food and that you need their help to not fight you on anything you cook. If your children are old enough, perhaps enlisting their help in the kitchen would be acceptable–they can help you plan meals and shop for bargains–as well as to help “makeover” leftovers. For younger children, this may simply have to be an instance where mom or dad puts her/his foot down and lays down the law of parenthood: “because I say so.” (I have learned from nannying that this isn’t necessarily the worst thing I child can hear–that they are not in charge and that you do have authority over them as a parent.)

So, my dear readers, remember that food is simply…food. It is nourishment for your body. It does not need to be fancy (as many magazines would tell you) nor does it need to be exquisitely prepared. If it is feeding your family and creating a healthier life for them, then it is doing its job. However, it may help to start thinking of food as a “masterpiece” of sorts; a challenge to be mastered and capitalized upon to keep the food budget monster from rearing his ugly head. (Yes, the food budget monster is a “he”.)

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