How to Love Your Leftovers

The story of a dish extends so much further beyond the moment you sit down to enjoy it. There’s everything that comes before: meal planning, shopping, getting familiar with the recipe, prepping, and setting the table. Cooking is when the dish comes to life, as your personal creativity and style transform the ingredients into something special. And often, especially if you’re just cooking for a small group, the dish gets to live another life after the plates have been cleared, the dishwasher loaded, and the digestives poured.

Leftovers are like a little gift you give to your future self: a meal that’s all ready to go without having to do basically anything. Learning how to properly store and save them is important, and helps reduce food waste, too. Here are a few ways to ride the leftovers-train all the way to flavor town.

Storage

If you’ve ever been in a restaurant’s walk-in refrigerator, you’ve likely seen the masterpieces that are chef’s organizational systems. Take a cue from the pros and invest in a set of durable containers ⁠(we like glass, but plastic works, too) — that are clear. This is crucial! Clear containers help you remember what you’ve got. Your eyes can too easily pass right over opaque containers, leading to the unfortunate situation of excavating months-old, moldy leftovers from the dark recesses of the fridge. No judgment ⁠— we’ve all been there!

Another thing that chefs do is label everything. Type-A home cooks will get a lot of joy from using their trusty label maker for this job, but a roll of masking tape and a permanent marker work just as well. Label the container with the name of the dish and the date it was made.

Some dishes, especially those with dressings or sauces, will do best if the components are packed up separately. For dishes like salads and grain bowls, saving the various components in their own containers gives you more flexibility to remix the ingredients in other ways. For instance, grains can be added to stews, roasted veggies can be added to omelets and sandwiches, and leftover pasta can be added to frittatas, salads, and soups.

Safety note: Always let leftovers cool to room temperature before packing them up and putting them in the fridge.

Freezing

Most leftovers are only good for 3 or 4 days in the fridge. Use the “FIFO” (first in, first out) method, a trick we also borrowed from chefs, to rotate the newer leftovers behind older ones. This will help you enjoy leftovers before they expire! This is also why dating leftovers is important.

If you know that you won’t be able to finish leftovers in time, consider freezing them. Divide larger batches of dishes like soups, stews, and pasta bakes into personal-sized servings, so that you spread the leftover-love even further for yourself. Plastic bags with a zip seal and plastic containers work best in the freezer. Be sure to leave some extra room in the container, as food can swell as it freezes. A layer of plastic wrap between the food and the lid of the container can also help to prevent the dreaded freezer burn flavor.

Always label and date your frozen leftovers, as it can be even harder to remember what things are after they’re frozen and a month or two has gone by.

To thaw frozen leftovers, move them to the fridge the night before you want to enjoy them. If you’ve got a few hours to spare, let the frozen bag or container sit in a bowl of room temperature water. If you’re in a rush, you can microwave the leftovers to defrost them. Once thawed, these leftovers should be eaten in 1-3 days. Do not refreeze leftovers once they’ve been thawed.

Reheating

Though it’s tempting to throw all leftovers in the microwave, this often isn’t your best bet. Often, it unevenly heats the food, with larger or denser items remaining cold while sauces or broths are burning hot. The oven and stove top may create better results. Generally, leftovers can be reheated at a more gentle temperature than they were cooked at. Set the oven to between 250 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit, or simmer things over low heat in a saucepan or skillet.


Ready to hit the kitchen? Take a spin through ZENB’s collection of over 150 plant-fueled recipes for plenty of inspiration. For more tips on how to live a balanced life, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. 


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