7 Tips for Maximizing Leftovers

I love leftovers. They make my life so much easier because I can cook once but eat twice. I realize, however, that not everyone shares this sentiment. Some see leftovers as an unappealing burden, but I think that's just because they haven't yet learned these seven tips for maximizing leftovers. With some forethought, careful storage and a bit of creativity, leftovers can become some of your best meals of the week.

  1. Select Recipes That Taste Better the Next Day

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    A little forethought when planning meals may increase the chances that you'll actually eat up your leftovers. Thanks to chemical reactions that continue long after cooking, the flavor of some dishes improves after a stint in the refrigerator. Make recipes that fit this category as often as possible, and you'll start looking forward to eating up leftovers.

    So what meals should you be making for this mouth-watering overnight improvement? Think savory pots of goodness, like chili and beef stew. Lasagna and other casseroles also meld their flavors overnight, and the flavor of a curry comes together beautifully after a few hours in storage. The more often you turn to such recipes, the more often the idea of leftovers will actually excite you.

  2. Cover Food Carefully

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    When you put leftovers away, wrap or cover them tightly. Use a carefully sealed layer of plastic wrap, put food in a lidded glass or ceramic dish, or store leftovers in plastic containers with snap-on tops.

    From a food-safety angle, this careful packaging serves to keep out bacteria, but food safety isn't the only motivation for proper storage. A well-sealed container can also help maintain the appeal of your leftover foods. Covered items retain their moisture better, and proper sealing guards against foods picking up unwelcome flavors from other items in the refrigerator.

  3. Be Aware of Storage Times

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    When you're putting away leftovers, take the time to mark the date that each one went into the refrigerator. This practice can help you avoid the all-too-common, “Is this still safe to eat?” question.

    A sticky note attached to a container of leftovers is an easy way to record the date. Transparent tape labeled with a permanent marker often works well too. In fact, for containers you don't plan to keep, you even can mark directly on the package with the marker.

    Most leftovers last only three or four days. Push your freshest leftovers to the back of the fridge and pull the older ones forward. Placing items whose days are numbered right within sight can help you remember to use them before it's too late.

  4. Use the Freezer to Extend the Life of Leftovers

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    Being a good steward of leftover food doesn't have to mean eating the same meal for three days in a row. If you have more leftovers than you can reasonably eat in a few days, pop them in the freezer. Leftovers that last only three days in the refrigerator can remain in the freezer for a few months.

    The best way to prepare leftovers for the freezer is with a vacuum sealer, but if you haven't yet invested in one of those, don't despair. Zip-top plastic bags or reusable plastic containers are also handy storage options.

  5. Portion Food into Lunch-size Servings

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    There's a reason that those divided trays of crackers, cheese and lunchmeat are a popular kids' lunch option: They're convenient. Make your own grown-up version by investing in reusable divided containers. As soon as dinner is over, portion leftovers into compartmentalized containers with individual spaces for the main course and your side dishes.

    In the morning, just grab the prepared container on your way out the door to work. Eating leftovers for lunch is cheaper and healthier than going out, and when you do the prep work the night before, it can be quicker and easier too.

  6. Reheat Without the Microwave

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    Whenever possible, don't rely on your microwave to warm up your meals. Microwave cooking can change food's texture, so the meal is not as enjoyable as the first time around.

    Oven cooking takes longer, but it will better preserve the integrity of your leftover casseroles or baked dishes. If you originally cooked a meal on the stovetop, pull out a pan and reheat it there. Whichever method you choose, sprinkling a few drops of water into the dish can keep the food from drying out.

    The one exception? Soup reheats quite well in the microwave.

  7. Cook Leftovers into Something New

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    Leftovers don't have to be the identical twin of the previous night's dinner. Instead, brainstorm how you can transform a dish into something fresh and new. You could whip up a frittata to showcase leftover vegetables or slide meat and veggie pieces onto skewers to for grilling.

    The addition of a sauce or topping is sometimes all it takes to change up a dish. For example, a smattering of seasonings and a bottle of store-bought barbecue sauce turns leftover pot roast into barbecue beef for serving on buns.

What's your take on leftovers? I save on food costs by using up as much of our leftover food as I can. Leave a comment with your questions or suggestions about how to make the most of the leftovers. Give your friends a helping hand with leftovers by sharing this article with them.

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