If you're like me, most of the time when I decide that it's time to clean out the fridge, and I find all kinds of good-food-gone-bad lurking, hidden in Tupperware and wrapped in foil. Sometimes it's nothing more exciting than a few spoonfuls of leftover vegetables, but sometimes it's something (that was) good, that I could just kick myself for letting go bad.
Some families have a built in defense against leftovers--if you have a large family, you probably don't get leftovers very often, or if you do, they're scavenged from the fridge when you aren't looking! If you have a small family, though, or one that turns up their noses at leftovers, the secret is planning, planning, planning.
Instead of making a large meal and serving the same thing 2 or 3 nights in a row, plan for the leftovers when you plan for the meal.
Use your freezer:
When you making casserole meals--lasagna, taco casserole, etc--split it into two smaller dishes instead of making one large one; cook one now and freeze the other one for later. To help with this, line the freezer pan with foil. Once the contents are frozen, remove it from the pan, wrap in another layer of foil, and put it inside a zipper freezer bag. Write the contents and the date on the bag, then you know what it is and how long it's been there when you're scrambling through your freezer later. If you freeze a whole casserole like this, put it out to thaw the night before or at least several hours before you need to cook it, then slip into the same size pan you froze it in.. This works well for those nights you know you won't have time or would be too tired to cook.
An alternative is to cook the whole casserole, then freeze it in individually sized portions. These can be used for lunch, or again, take out several on those nights you're home alone or someone needs an alternative to the regularly scheduled dinner.
Learn to cook in smaller quantities:
When I was a newlywed, learning how to cook and plan, I happened on this on by accident. Like most frugal cooks, I made beans and rice on occasion. My new husband loved pinto beans; me, not so much. And a pot of beans seemed to last, and last, and last. Finally one day I had a light-bulb moment--I didn't have to cook the whole package! Don't ask me why I had never thought of this--I guess I had just seen my mom open a package of pinto beans and cook the whole thing, so I never really thought about doing it differently. I happily cooked pintos from then on, half a package at a time.
Work those leftovers into your meal plan:
This is another one that I did as a newlywed, inspired, again, by my lack of desire to eat pinto beans over and over. I started off with pinto beans and sausage, cooked in the crock pot, served over rice and with a side of cornbread. The next day, I made a small pot of chili, using pinto beans left from the first night. This was also served over rice, and with cornbread left from the first night. The third night, we had chili dogs, made with the leftover chili. And if there were any more left after that, we had Frito pies. By planning ahead, and working those ingredients into something a little different, I saved time and money.
Other examples are using leftover pot roast to make stew; leftover hamburger steak or meatloaf, combined with mixed vegetables and mashed potatoes to make shepherds pie; and probably the Queen Mother of All Leftover Use---make soup!! Almost any kind of leftover meat, vegetables, rice, pasta, etc, can be combined to make a good pot of homemade soup. At times I keep a plastic container in my freezer, where I put little bits of leftovers that aren't enough to save and too much to throw out. I just open the container and add whatever the current leftover is to the top, then pop back into the freezer. When the container gets full, or when I decide it's soup-making time, I set the container out to thaw while I brown some stew meat or even ground meat and start the fresh ingredients cooking--potatoes, carrots, etc. Then I add the bits of leftover veggies from my freezer container. You never know what you're going to get, but as long you put fresh cooked food into your soup container, it will still be good when you decide to use it.
What tricks and tips do you have to utilize your leftovers?
Good cooking, and good eating!