The things left over

So what was for dinner last night?

Leftovers.   I made a pot of basmati rice. While it was cooking I sautéed a pepper and some garlic, threw in a can of diced tomatoes and the other half the black beans I cooked Sunday for tacos. That simmered while the rice steamed and I stirred them together and let them cook a bit.     I warmed up the rest of the carnitas from Sunday and served it with the beans and rice, and the  rest of the broccoli slaw on the side.

It was fast, delicious, and didn’t feel like the same meal. Low work, great taste, what’s not to love about leftovers?

Leftovers are one of the more contentious topics I’ve come across in talking with friends and in online communities about meal planning.   In grad school we had a friend who would proudly announce “I don’t eat leftovers!” He didn’t cook his own food, either, and so his wife – whose full-time job was paying for his grad school housing – also cooked a full meat-and-two-veg every night.

I’ve had people tell me that “its boring to eat the same thing again.” This, from someone who ate at Taco Bell three days a week.   I also heard it from someone who had peanut butter toast for breakfast every single morning.

“It just doesn’t taste the same the second time.”   Well, yeah, some things don’t. Some things don’t reheat well. Some things taste better the next day.

“I don’t think old food is healthy.   I prefer it packaged.” And the dinners you buy at the grocery store to reheat, those were made minutes before you picked them up? No, they were certainly made that morning and possibly the day (or more) before.

I totally agree that not everything reheats well. That’s why in our house, leftovers are rarely served as the identical meal the next day. Exception: Many leftovers are eaten as lunch, and if the food reheats well they’re often a direct repeat.   But since the alternative to “leftovers for lunch again?” is “A sandwich and chips for lunch again?”   I don’t see this as a downside.

And I like variety in my dinners too!   So if we’re eating the exact same thing twice in a week, its almost never on adjacent days.   Remember – the “use by” date on those handy precooked meals from the grocery is usually one or more days after you buy it.   If you can follow a few basic food hygiene rules, you can assume your food is safe in the fridge for several days as well.

A few years back, I picked up the concept of “Plannedovers.”   When I draw up the meal plan, I try to make time-consuming cooking pay off by saving me time later in the week. So a bigger chunk of meat becomes several different meals.   A vat of beans becomes refritos, veggie burgers and soup.   I grill extra servings of meat and they’re used to fill tacos or stirred into pasta or tossed with salad.   Plannedovers let me enjoy some of the more expensive treats I’d otherwise miss on our budget, and they allow me to put dinner on the table on busy nights without resorting to takeout that we can no longer justify within our tighter budget.

Leftovers, in all their forms, are a key part of how I can keep feeding us good food without breaking into our IRAs.

It’s especially interesting to me that people “don’t eat leftovers” but love the many dishes that were invented to deal with leftovers.   What is shepherd’s pie, after all, but a way to use up the leftovers of a Roast Beast Dinner?   Chicken salad, enchiladas, pot pies, bibimbap, fried rice …. all are dishes of leftovers.  

Eating leftovers has always been the norm, not the exception.   Around the world, traditional foods reflect the cyclical nature of cooking — cook big, eat long.   Complicated preparations alternate with simpler re-uses.   Large cuts of meat are prepared and then trickle down through multiple meals.  Ovens are fired up and fueled at intervals and cold foods are eaten in between.   There’s some kind of Lion King Circle of Life metaphor in there somewhere, trying to break free, but essentially, we cannot live only on Festival Foods, and its not good for our budgets, our waistlines, or the Earth to keep trying.

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