Several of my sisters and I like to share photos of our “used it up” culinary creations on social media. I’m not sure if it’s because we were raised in a big family by two parents who were children during the Depression, but I think that likely has something to do with it. Our mother managed to feed lots of mouths by making wise and creative use of inexpensive, yet healthful, food. Seeing her refashion leftovers or aging ingredients into something new taught us how to stretch our food dollars and avoid wasting food. She wasn’t heavy-handed about teaching it; we just sort of “soaked it up.” We now all pride ourselves on being able to “make something out of nothing.”
I’ve tried to pass that on to my children, and I’m happy to report that the lessons seem to have sunk in. When my college senior son is home on vacations he seems to get a kick out of scavenging through the fridge for random tidbits to make into creative sandwiches and interesting omelets. (“Mom, do you have plans for this piece of leek?”) I guess it’s kind of like a game…and a challenge. There is something very satisfying about not wasting food, and being able to find a fresh way to use up the food that’s on hand.
Here are a few tips that I hope will help you know the joys of being in the “use it up” club:
Those aren’t “leftovers,” they’re “ingredients.”
The word “leftovers” may not bother some people, but I’ve always disliked it—and with a few notable exceptions (lasagna, chili, soup, and certain casseroles), I don’t like eating leftovers at all. Eating the same thing for multiple days just isn’t appealing to me. If that sounds like you, I’d suggest trying to switch your thinking about these foods. Anything left from a previous meal is simply an ingredient you can use in another dish later! It doesn’t matter what it is—a little stir-fry mixture that wasn’t enough for an entire portion, or the cooked rice that was supposed to go with that stir-fry mixture (too much rice is never a bad thing to have on hand—and it freezes, too!), or the couple of tablespoons of tuna salad that didn’t fit on your sandwich. Don’t toss this stuff—it’s useful and still good for something. That said, if something is spoiled—throw it out. But if it’s still good—even if it seems like too small of an amount or you can’t immediately think what to do with it, save it anyway. And I’d recommend keeping these ingredients in containers that allow you to see what is inside. I invested in several sizes of good-quality reusable, sealable silicone baggies and small clear containers with snap-on lids. Being able to see what I’ve got in the fridge makes it more likely that I’ll reuse those ingredients.
Embrace simple, good food.
Not everything I make—especially when I’m focused on using up what I have on hand— is gourmet of course, and that’s just fine with me. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t want to eat “fancy” or fussy food every night. I’d guess most of us just want a tasty, nourishing meal. For me, a simple dish that I like eating and that allows me to use up ingredients I have on hand (and not waste food) makes me feel good in lots of ways. Don’t feel compelled to follow a recipe because that might require that you go to the store to make sure you had all ingredients—and that is counter to the “use it up” effort. The types of dishes that I rely on for using up ingredients are:
- Egg dishes (egg bake, crustless quiche, scrambles)
- Grain-based sautés
These three options are super flexible, filling, and comforting (and also inexpensive—a bonus).
Have a basic “formula” in your mind when using up your ingredients.
In general, putting together a simple dish that will be enjoyable and nutritious just relies on putting together a few things from certain food groups: carbohydrates, proteins, and vegetables. As long as you can categorize your ingredients into these food groups, it isn’t hard to make something out of them. To me, the beauty is in combining these things—not simply reheating them separately—because a new dish/combo/taste is what I’m after (although if you like, you can simply reheat the ingredients—whatever works for you). I’ve made a little table to help you think about how to do this, in case this is a new technique for you. Note that amounts are just suggested—part of the fun is just eyeballing your ingredients and using what you have—no need to measure really.
|Meal Concept||Cooked Grain (rice, bulgur, quinoa, etc)||Meat/Seafood (beef, pork, poultry, shrimp, fish, canned tuna/salmon, sausage, bacon)||Veggies (any cooked vegetables, hardy greens like chard, kale, spinach, raw veggies)||Add Staples (cheese, eggs, milk or cream, broth, soy sauce, seasonings, etc.)|
|Easy Egg Bake or quiche||Crust if you want, otherwise skip it||1 cup cooked meat||1 cup any cooked veggies (a combo is nice); a cup of raw, chopped kale/spinach is nice, too||4-6 eggs, ½ cup of dairy (cottage cheese or cream), a little shredded or grated cheese, seasonings|
|Supper Sauté||2 cups||2 cups cooked meats/poultry (a combo of various types is okay); flaked, cooked fish or cooked shrimp (add seafood at end of heating time so as not to overcook)||2 cups mixed cooked vegetables; if not cooked, sauté raw veggies first then add grain and meat||Olive oil, onions, garlic, a little broth for moisture, seasonings, hot sauce/soy sauce if desired|
|Simple Soup (you can make vegetarian by leaving out meat, can also puree the soup if desired)||1-2 cups (rices work well, or cooked small pasta)||1-2 cups cooked meats/poultry||2 cups cooked veggies or 2 cups hardy greens (if using raw, sauté veggies first then add soup ingredients); mashed potatoes can be used for thickening if desired||Olive oil, onions, garlic, broth, bouillon cube, seasonings|