Don’t Leave Leftovers Behind

by Jake Bekemeyer

Leftovers. Some people love them, some people hate them; but everyone has them at some point. Having them is one thing, using them is another. The number of times I’ve seen a container of something once considered food shoved to the back of the fridge for an indeterminate amount of time is higher than I’d prefer. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Leftovers can not only be delicious, but an integral part of your weekly cooking.

Using leftovers fast is the most important step to enjoying them… in most cases. The longer something sits, the more the texture and quality will degrade. We of course make an exception for soups, which get better with time. But for most everything else, getting to them within a few days will ensure the best results.

We’ll start with reheating. I only recommend reheating mixed dishes that can’t be transformed into something else, like lasagna, soup, stir fry, or any other dish with a particular combination of ingredients and flavors, and where its constituent ingredients are already transformed beyond recognition.

The number one tip for reheating is to opt for the oven, air fryer, or stove top before cracking open the microwave. Now, is the microwave the fastest? Yes. Does it create the fewest number of dishes? Typically. But the tradeoffs of uneven heating (hot bowl, cold soup anyone?) and texture change often make the food come out slightly less than appetizing.

So, let’s look at our examples. Want to reheat lasagna? Put a bit of oil in a hot fry pan, crisp the top and bottom of your slice, add a splash of water, cover, and steam for a few minutes until it’s hot. How about soup? Spoon your serving into a saucepan, bring it to a boil, and serve. Easy. And stir fry? Break that fry pan back out, get it hot, add some oil, and toss your stir fry until hot.

If your leftovers aren’t already a full-on dish — say you had herby chicken breast with roast veggies and rice and are left only with one piece of chicken after the meal — then transforming them is almost always your best bet.

That chicken breast, while served hot with rice and roast veggies the night before, can be sliced into bite-size pieces and served cold as part of a fresh salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and a fresh vinaigrette (or your favorite combination of veggies and dressing).

What if you made too much rice for dinner and have a whole container full? Well, I’d say you’re in luck, as plain rice (and pasta) are some of the most versatile leftovers out there. This one is up to you, but I’d opt for veggie fried rice or something where the rice is reheated with oil in a fry pan — the best way to bring it back to life and ensure it doesn’t get mushy.

Last, but most certainly not least, and tied back in with our first tip, is to LABEL THEM. Now, you typically look in the side of the container and see what’s in there. But how many times have you done that and then wondered how old that item is? Using masking tape and a marker (I keep mine on top of the fridge), write the name of the item and the date it was made and stick that on the container before putting it away. Problem solved.

Once you get comfortable with these tips, try cooking enough to intentionally create leftovers. You’ll thank yourself when part of or all your next meal is done. Whatever you do, don’t let them go to waste! There’s always a way to reheat, repurpose, or otherwise improve what you have, which will save you money, time, and stress.