My family has always eaten leftovers. I grew up on them, and have eaten them as an adult since I moved out of my parents house. Before becoming a dietitian and making food pretty much my life, it would never have occurred to me that everyone else doesn’t do this, too!
But once I started seeing clients and answering nutrition questions, I realized that leftovers get such a bad rap! Sometimes to the point of people thinking they should never have them, or that they’re nutritionally inferior.
So from both a personal and professional place, here are my recommendations on the best ways to use leftovers and how to incorporate them into your diet.
One of the best things you can do for your diet is to eat a variety of foods. Eating only one thing consistently for a meal can leave you missing out on a lot of important nutrients, no matter how healthy it is. And this is coming from someone who ate oatmeal every single morning for years.
When you have kids, eating the same thing, the same way, every day can get them into an eating rut. So it is definitely important to vary your diet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have the same thing two or three times! And it definitely doesn’t mean that you can’t rotate a few meals in weekly.
One of my favorite ways to use leftovers is as lunch the next day. The cook once, eat twice philosophy is definitely prominent in my house. It is easy to make something that we can use for my husband’s lunch as well as mine and my daughter’s. Having a main food already made also makes packing lunches in general easier.
The same pasta dish, with different parts removed and served for two different baby meals.
If you have children, try switching up things that accompany the main entree so that it feels like there is some variety to them. For this, think serving a different veggie side, or using a different grain or bread.
If you have a young baby who doesn’t really recognize the concept of variety yet, there’s no harm in serving the same exact meal in close succession. As long as their diet is generally varied, serving the same exact meal two days in a row can help you to use food before it goes bad and saves money in the long run. Just don’t be surprised if as your child gets older you need to start intentionally varying your meals a bit more.
While I don’t necessarily look at batch cooking as leftovers, per se, it falls in the same category. Batch cooking things like grains and veggies is a way to save time and effort while keeping nutritious foods in plentiful supply.
Think taking one day to roast an entire butternut squash, or roasting a full chicken. You could use it all for one meal, or you could split it up and use it for many different meals throughout the week. It can reduce the prep time and general effort needed for fresh foods.
If you batch cook, it can definitely take a little bit of planning. A lot of people like to use it as a part of meal planning. But you don’t have to be that intentional about it if that’s not your style. You can cook a meal for dinner, and instead of making just enough of something for that meal, double it and keep the rest for another meal. Just make sure you have a plan to use that food before it goes bad, or plan to put it directly into the freezer for quick access another day. This last part is always the part that I need to be better about, and it can lead to more food waste than I’d like if I’m not on top of using that food in another meal.
For newly eating babies, batch cooking can be incredibly handy! When you first start feeding, your baby is going to need fairly soft foods. The microwave can be your friend, but so can batch cooking. Steam up something like carrots or sweet potato wedges at the beginning of the week, and then use them in meals for several days. Batch cooking makes always having a fruit or veggie in your baby’s meals much easier! (If you’re wondering how to incorporate these fruits or veggies you’re making into a balanced meal for your baby, be sure to check out my first foods handout that breaks it down for you!)
Part of batch cooking, and leftovers in general, is repurposing foods. If it’s just you eating something, you may be able to handle it multiple times in a row. Many kids, however, get bored with the same things and can burn out on them. This is where repurposing comes in!
Make a dinner one night, let’s say tomato soup. (If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that this is a real life example from this week.) Have a regular balanced meal around the soup (so think a grilled cheese sandwich or something along those lines.) Then, the next day, you can use the soup itself with something else. I was looking for a way to repurpose my leftover soup this week, and ended up making “pizza” using the soup as a sauce on top of frozen naan with some spinach and cheese. I used the soup so it didn’t go to waste, but it was a completely different meal!
Many kids are willing to try random combinations of foods, especially when they are really young. So don’t let normal food conventions constrain what you serve! Soup as pizza isn’t something most people would be open to, but young kids don’t know the difference. Weird flavor combinations? Yep, they still don’t know the difference. So take advantage of that to use up some of your food that you’ve got in your fridge before it goes bad!
The one thing I want to make sure to cover here is food safety. When we’re talking young kids, especially, it’s important to know what’s safe as their immune systems are weaker than an adults.
The main thing to remember is that foods generally don’t last more than 3-5 days in the fridge. Different foods will have slightly different times they are safe. If in doubt, check out this chart from USDA that lays out fridge and freezer times.
You also want to keep in mind that food should not be left out for more than 2 hours. If it is, it needs to be tossed. You also should toss any food that has been touched with someone’s utensils. So no saving leftovers from your, or your baby’s plate. It can lead to cross contamination and unsafe bacterial growth. Another reason why giving your baby small portions is a great idea!