Integrating leftovers into meal planning

If you’ve ever paid attention to how much the food you throw away is costing you, you know that letting your leftovers go to waste can really add up! Using up your leftovers is part of carefully managing your food budget, and I have a couple of ways that I stay on top of the large amount of food that we buy and prepare to minimize what could easily become a huge amount of waste.  This is another strategy that I use to maximize our food dollars so that we’re able to eat abundantly and healthfully for our family of eleven on $600 monthly.

Firstly, on Saturday night, I inventory whatever is in the fridge, and make a list of that. These leftovers are only from Friday and Saturday, nothing before then.  Often this is a little bit of this, a little bit of that; sometimes it’s enough to serve as a main dish or as several side dishes.  Then I think about ways to integrate these leftovers into whatever dishes I’m planning for the coming week.  While most people make a menu and then go shopping, I do the opposite – I see what I have and then make the menu! Really – I almost never go out to buy a meal ingredient;  if I don’t have an ingredient in the house, then I won’t make a dish that calls for it.

To illustrate this, I’ll give a sample of what this looked like in my home this week.  When I wrote my leftover inventory, I noted that I had about 4 quarts of chicken broth, a couple of cups of jellied lamb broth (very concentrated), about half a cup of lamb fat (skimmed from the top of the broth), 2-3 c. shredded meat, polenta from Friday’s breakfast, fresh cauliflower and zucchini both on the edge of freshness, soaked and sprouted chickpeas, beef stew, two fresh salads, three pints of defrosted heavy cream, a 28 oz can of pumpkin puree, and baked eggplant chunks.  Once I had this list, I sat down to figure out what to do with it all and wrote out my menu plan for the week.

I started the week with a breakfast on Sunday of pumpkin pudding – this used the can that was opened since we thought it was tomato sauce (a toddler had pulled the label off :)).  Mixed into the pudding was one pint of the defrosted cream.  One can of pumpkin isn’t enough for a meal for our family of 11, so we mixed in a triple recipe of coconut pudding with it to increase the quantity.

Next, for Sun. lunch was a cheesy cauliflower soup that used up all the cauliflower in the fridge.  I could have used more cream for this but felt it would be more appreciated served whipped to accompany a couple of breakfasts – coconut mango pancakes (Mon) and date scones (Thurs).

On Monday the polenta was turned it into corn fritter batter and fried for lunch.

Monday dinner was beef stew with a couple of salads.  Nice when there’s enough of leftovers for a full meal!

Tuesday morning we used all the zucchini, shredded into flourless chocolate zucchini muffins.  We made these last week and the only problem was we made less than three dozen – we should have made a lot more!

On Tuesday night was West African stew.  This used the soaked and sprouted chickpeas.  (I bought some dried beans that were labeled in a foreign language, but fortunately one of the packages was in English and so I knew they were ‘chickpeas’.  They are smaller and much darker than regular chick peas, but the price was right and when the price is good I’m willing to experiment. :) At the end of last week I soaked them to see if there was an outer layer that would come off and leave them looking typically light colored underneath, but it didn’t.  So it’s clearly a different kind of chickpea.  Anyway, that’s why I had the equivalent of 1.5 pounds of dried chickpeas that were soaked and nicely sprouted!)  This recipe calls for eggplant, so I used the baked eggplant chunks.  A chopped onion for this was sauteed in lamb fat and the cooking liquid was the chicken broth.

By Wednesday just about all of the leftovers were used (usually they’re finished by Tuesday evening).  For Wednesday’s dinner I made a stir fry that used the shredded meat (that I put into the freezer on Saturday night so it would stay fresh).  Of all the leftovers I mentioned, the only one left is the congealed lamb broth.  It’s not an accident that I left this for last. Because it’s so concentrated, this will stay fresh in the fridge easily for a couple of weeks.  This was the cooking liquid for the stir fry.

There are other things that aren’t leftovers but also need to be used in a timely way, like the fresh fruit and vegetables we have on hand, as well as the perishables, like dairy.  These aren’t leftovers but also have to be managed carefully so that they’re used while they’re fresh; otherwise they end up getting thrown out.

Can you see how planning a menu with my leftovers in mind makes efficient use of what I have on hand?  Most of these things would easily end up getting thrown away without a plan, since they were a bit of this and a bit of that.  But it would have been a substantial amount of food when considered in total.

Then, because leftovers continually accumulate, there’s the second part of managing them.  As you know from my weekly menus, Thursday night is usually CORN – Clean Out the Refrigerator Night.  Lunch is a great time to use any leftovers from the night or two before; by the time Thursday rolls around, the only leftovers we have to work with are generally from about two days prior or less.

This process is very simple.  It repurposes leftovers into something new and delicious,  so no one is left feeling like they’re constantly being served the same food over and over. It keeps food from having to be thrown away, and it saves you money!


14 thoughts on “Integrating leftovers into meal planning

  1. If you’re always integrating leftovers and menu plan based on that, and never go shopping for your menus, how do you decide what to buy when you go shopping? Look for sales and then buy that, and incorporate that AND your leftovers into menus?
    I go shopping tuesdays because that is the day produce is cheapest locally, but i’ve discovered that if i don’t menu plan while i’m in the store, i just buy lots of what is cheap and don’t end up using it all, and have lots of produce left the next tuesday, and then i go shopping again because if i miss the tuesday sale day i’ll end up spending more by going shopping a different day of the week.
    Any suggestions how to deal with this problem and also incorporate leftovers?
    I see you reuse leftovers that are simple, but how do you reuse complex leftovers?
    If you make food and it doesnt come out so good (granted, an experiment fails), do you continue to serve that as leftovers until it gets used up, or do you ever chuck food or leave it until it spoils and then chuck?

    1. To clarify, we menu plan based on what’s in the house – meaning ingredients and leftovers. I’ve written about how I shop – basically, I buy the ingredients that are a great price and then put them together.

      If I know from experience that I won’t use something, then it’s no bargain to buy it just because it’s cheap. So I’d either buy less or not buy it at all.

      I have different ways to deal with produce so that excess doesn’t get wasted – prepping and then freezing, dehydrating, and lacto fermentation. But of course sometimes something isn’t used in time. In that case, I compost it for my garden. Not ideal, but still benefiting us. :)

      Complicated leftovers in large amounts are served as a main dish, in small amounts they become side dishes. Sometimes they are added to stews, if the ingredients are complementary.

  2. That’s one of my favorite things about one pan/pot meals — you can basically stick in any leftovers you have.

    I had a whole lot of sweet potatoes leftover from Shabbos a couple of weeks ago, and that was added to my Sunday night chicken stir fry :)

    I’ll also try to menu plan similar ingredient-containing foods close together so I can chop up the veggies all at once and just split ’em.
    E.g. I’ll make a quiche with mushrooms one night, and a cream of mushroom soup within the next day or 2 (or a mushroom omelette, etc)

    1. Some of my best stews will never be able to be recreated because they were what I call ‘refrigerator stew’ – throwing in whatever I had that seemed compatible!

  3. OK, what do you do if you have literally just a tiny amount of leftovers — maybe enough to feed a under-5yo for lunch… This is my situation many a time — if the leftovers are enough, I send it to work with my DH the next day.

    CORN only works easily if you have a bunch of one type of food (meat/dairy). I refuse to use multiple pots from both meat and dairy at one sitting!!!

    If I make meat/meaty foods only once a week and I have a tiny amount of leftovers, no one wants to be fleishig for that small amount…

    1. 1) Feed it to a five year old?:) Include it in another dish? Serve it as a side dish? Put it into the freezer and serve with something similar another time? Put it in a tortilla/taco?
      2) I don’t use food from meat and dairy pots at the same meal, either. The point is to use leftovers if I have them, not that I have to only eat leftovers! If I don’t have enough for a meal of leftovers, then I cook more food and the leftovers are supplemental to the meal. You don’t have to have a huge amount – sometimes I have a little bit of lots of things, so it’s like a buffet of different choices.
      3) I generally serve dairy meals earlier in the day and meat meals at the end for this reason. If you have a tiny bit of chicken for dinner, you’re not eating anything after that anyway so no one cares if they’re eating meat or dairy.

  4. FYI, the chickpeas you mentioned are probably kala chana. They are a smaller and darker version of chickpeas used a lot in India and the Middle East.

    When I have used them, they took longer to cook (but that may have been because they were old). My Indian cookbook says they are not interchangeable as they taste different and the texture is different as well, but I guess my uneducated palate did not find such a difference…

    1. Thanks for the info on the chickpeas, Yael – very interesting. I found them different but not so much so that I wouldn’t interchange them in recipes. I suppose we both have uneducated palates….:)

  5. For us it’s an unusual day when at least one meal isn’t based on leftovers. There are just the two of us, however, so purposely making ‘too much’ of dishes allows us to use more ingredients, that would otherwise overwhelm the dish or go to waste. Without the freezer I don’t know what we’d do…

    (I started following your blog about a month ago, btw, and read back a couple of years as well. I’ve picked up lots of useful tips already, so thanks!)

    1. Hi, kaet, welcome, and thanks for letting me know you’re finding my tips useful! You make a good point about how a small family can also purposely ‘plan’ for leftovers.

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