How To Go From This...
As a food blogger who covers restaurants, I often collect random, totally incohesive foodstuffs in the fridge. A combination of restaurant leftovers and groceries from the previous week usually combine to make an eclectic mix of seemingly disconnected bites that don't make sense for a "meal plan" at first glance.
However, I've committed to eliminating as much food waste as possible at home and especially connected to my work with Feed The Malik. So, taking those random bits and combining them to make fresh, new meals is part of my regular routine.
Luckily, using up leftovers is a skill I've developed over a lifetime, founded during childhood by parents who cooked extensively and made a practice of not wasting food and honed throughout college when my extremely limited budget made every bite of food in the fridge precious.
Through this series, Leftover & Out, I'll take you through my process for gathering up all odds and ends, from the last bit of wilted herbs from last week's grocery run to leftover sauce from a restaurant, and combining them to make delicious, simple meals that work for you.
No matter how much you eat out or cook at home if you're looking to maximize your food budget, reduce food waste, and reduce the environmental impact associated with wasted food, this is the guide for you. I'll be sharing this process with step-by-step examples regularly.
Step 1: Get Visibility
I often hear from friends that they hate wasting food and are trying to reduce their food spending but forget about things in the back of the fridge until it's too late. That's why this first step is so important. It's totally unsexy, boring advice and an essential part of any meal planning routine at home.
Get really clear about what perishable items you have in your fridge and pantry. Before you meal plan, before you ever go shopping, get visibility on what you already have. If you don't know what you have, you can't possibly use it all up.
The How: You might need to use a pen and paper and write down a list of your food from top to bottom. Some folks use a magnetic whiteboard on their fridge. Whenever they notice something has been hanging around for a while, they write it on the board as a reminder that it needs to be used. I prefer to take everything out weekly, typically once a week on Sunday. I spread it all out on the counter, even open up the takeout containers from restaurants, so it's absolutely clear what I have.
Case Study: This week, I had leftover herbs, lots of them, from a previous grocery run and takeout. I also had varied restaurant takeout, including leftover grits, fried chicken, breakfast potatoes, and a waffle. I also found mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and various other odds and ends. Not pictured - a big bag of carrots, a few strips of leftover steak, cheddar cheese, halloumi, some sauces from restaurant takeout, onions and garlic, and a big bag of arugula.
Step 2: Triage
So all the perishable food in the house is plain and clear. Time for triage!
Systematically go through what you have and assess it. Make a note of what's oldest or saddest and will go bad first. Those items should be what you prioritize for meal planning in the next step. In addition, determine what can be eaten without any additional tweaks or changes. Make a physical or mental note about those as well, whatever works for you. Those items are easy wins; they can be grabbed and reheated for quick meals on long days when you just can't or don't want to cook.
After you've categorized your perishable food into those two groups, I highly recommend grouping them together in the fridge as well. Placing them on separate shelves, pulled to the front, will ensure you don't forget about them as the week goes on.
Case Study: On the top shelf are items that should be used ASAP, which I will prioritize for meal planning. The middle shelf is filled with food that's ready to be reheated and used without any tweaks, my emergency meal stash.
Step 3: Meal Plan
The previous steps are essential if you're approaching meal planning through the lens of reducing food waste. Once you know what you have and have made a clear assessment of what needs to be used, you can then plan future meals around those ingredients.
Looking at your list of leftovers that need to be used can be intimidating. But just start. Beginning with those items from the previous step that are likely to go bad first, brainstorm how you can use them. This brainstorming session will be the basis of your upcoming meal plan.
When making your plan, decide what makes sense for you based on how much time you have during the coming week to cook and what you already have in your pantry. Plan out what meals you'll make, with what ingredients, and make a note of what you need to buy to make that happen.
This is what I call the ultimate grocery list. It's typically much shorter than it would be if you didn't go through this process, and yet from it, you can make some really delicious meals. Sometimes I'll go through this process, get to this step, and realize I don't need to grocery shop at all; I just need to reconfigure a few things to make them feel like a complete meal.
The internet is your friend. Every single time I do this, despite having gone through this process weekly for years, I still Google things like "best ways to use up carrots" or "cilantro and mint recipes" to get ideas for the ingredients in my fridge. I'll also often browse my favorite food blogs for inspiration, typing the names of my ingredients into the search function to see what it brings up.
Think about texture when cooking/reheating. For example, fried chicken is probably best pan-fried or put in the oven/toaster oven to keep a bit of the crispness on the outside.
Don't forget your pantry or the freezer. Yes, this process focuses on using perishables often kept in the fridge. But when making a meal plan around those items, don't forget the canned, dried, and shelf-stable goods in your pantry. Check the freezer as well. I keep a few frozen pizza crusts handy always as they are such a versatile base for a leftover meal. Think of this as an opportunity to mix and match to create your own adventure.
Step 4: Shop & Cooking
Though the above seems intensive, it's typically a very short process. Now all that's left is to go to the grocery store (if needed) and cook! Don't forget the list you made in the previous step. Use that meal plan to guide your cooking throughout the week. You got this!
Case Study: I had almost everything I needed when I broke down my meal plan for the coming week using the ingredients from the fridge. I needed tofu for sandwiches, plus eggs, fruit, and vegetables to round out our grocery list for the week. I usually have the pantry well stocked with spices and dry goods like rice, packaged ramen, beans, and more. I relied on those items in addition to what I triaged from our perishable food as the basis for the below meals.
Carrots - I had a large bag of carrots, so I had to get creative to use them all. I made quick pickled carrot ribbons using a vegetable peeler and some pantry ingredients, then combined those with mayo, herbs, tofu, and bread from the pantry to make a sandwich very loosely inspired by Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches. I also used some leftover sauce from a local restaurant on the tofu for extra flavor. I oven-roasted some carrots with herbs on a sheet pan, which made a great base for rice bowls and additions to salads. I also shredded some carrots to use in a vegetable-centric pasta sauce. Find the method for that sauce here.
Herbs - Some of the herbs went into the Bahn Mi-inspired sandwich with the carrots. Others I used with a few leftover bits of cheese to make a quesadilla and the last of the burrata on a dough from the freezer to make a pizza. I also added some herbs to spruce up packaged ramen from the pantry and the pasta sauce I made with the carrots. I used the bulk of the fresh herbs (cilantro and mint) to make a chutney based on this recipe by Rooted In Spice.
Restaurant leftovers - I used the grits as a base for a savory bowl. I sauteed up the sad mushrooms from the back of the fridge, added arugula that also needed to be used, and served that mixture over the grits. I also chopped and pan-fried the leftover fried chicken and breakfast potatoes. I served that with some pickled onion from the back of the fridge and you guessed it, a bit of the herbs.
Brussels Sprouts - I roasted the Brussels in the oven and ended up eating half of them right off of the pan as I was hungry that day. The rest went to rice bowls with the roasted carrots and Halloumi.
Mushrooms - In addition to serving sauteed mushrooms and arugula over grits, I also used some of that mixture to make a quick snack on toast.
Steak - I quickly reheated the last few bits of steak in a pan and added them to packaged ramen with some herbs to make a quick meal.
That's it! If you have any questions drop them below. I hope this gives you some inspiration next time you're looking to use up the last bits of whatever is in your fridge or pantry.