The Art of Making Leftovers Edible

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How much food is bought and brought into your home, only to wind up in the trash rather than your belly? One estimate says that about 25% of food purchased by Americans is wasted, adding up to $100 billion annually. Another estimate has it that a family of four throws away between $500 and $2,000 worth of food annually. Do we all really hate leftovers that much?

The Wall Street Journal offers the latest investigation into the high cost of leftovers, noting that the average four-person family spends $500 to $2,000 on food that ultimately ends up in the garbage. All that wasted food (and wasted money) brings with it enormous guilt.

There are ways to waste less, of course. One of the issues tackled in the piece regards expiration dates. “Sell by,” “use by” and other labels often leave consumers confused, and as a result, many wind up tossing foods before it’s necessary. According to a survey conducted last year, 76% of consumers mistakenly believe certain foods are unsafe past dates printed on the packaging. Eggs, for example, can be safely eaten for several weeks after their sell-by date, so long as they are properly refrigerated.

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Leftovers, on the other hand, tend to be pitched or left ignored in the fridge because they look unappetizing, not because they’ll make you sick. Considering the high cost of food and the shaky state of the economy, though, the idea of throwing away perfectly good food can be sickening. As a result, a mini–advice industry has arisen to help home cooks waste less and use up every last spec of food. The Journal notes that chefs, food authors and bloggers are “championing leftovers and elevating scraps like cauliflower stems, chicken livers and ginger peel to ingredient status.” One example is Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet who writes a series about cooking with scraps like corn silk entitled Eat Shoots & Leaves for Gilt Taste.

Recipe suggestions for Thanksgiving leftovers have been popping up every November for years. But now cooking websites are filled with leftover-based ideas for all sorts of ingredients. BBC’s Good Food has an entire page devoted to dishes that can be made with leftovers, including ham-cheese-and-mushroom turnovers and honey-mustard chicken salad. Riffing off of the Journal story, a Mother Nature Network post rounds up a dozen posts loaded with leftover ideas like “7 Tasty Uses for Leftover Meatloaf.”

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The smartest approach is probably to start thinking about leftovers as you’re planning meals, not after the fact. The Cheap Healthy Good blog offers the simple three-rule acronym MSR: make more than enough when you’re cooking; save the extra; and repurpose it later, by eating it as a lunch or incorporating the odds and ends into other dinners you have in mind when cooking the first meal.

The Journal story says that vegetables are the most commonly thrown away food, accounting for 25% of what winds up in the trash. But vegetables are also probably the easiest foods to add to soups, stir-fries and other dishes to give them a little something extra. Few people want to eat raw fruits and veggies that are past ripe. But if mushy green peppers or carrots are placed in a soup, incorporated in a frittata, or chopped up and cooked alongside chicken and rice, who’s going to notice?

(MORE: The Joy and Wisdom of Eating Food Past the Expiration Date)

Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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