Leftovers: Tasty or Trash?

From The Wall Street Journal:
Want to turn leftovers into crowd pleasing meals? Sarah Nassauer gets a few tips from Tamar Adler, author of 'An Everlasting Meal,' on how to make the most out of every ingredient.
In Ondria Witt's kitchen, last night's roast chicken is tonight's enchiladas. Stale bread becomes bread pudding.
Just don't tell her husband. "I fear if I do he'll be like, 'No. I'll go get a pizza,' " says Ms. Witt, 29, a stay-at-home mother in Salisbury, N.C.
[LEFTOVERS] Photo illustration by Stephen Webster
An average U.S. family of four spends $500 to $2,000 each year on food that ends up in the garbage.
"I'd rather eat a spoonful of peanut butter than eat leftovers," says Sacha Witt, a 26-year-old classical bass trombone player who also does home repair work. Even so, Mr. Witt hates to think about all the leftovers that end up in the trash. "You're like, 'Oh man, how much money have I wasted?' "

The food we throw away is getting more attention, as prices continue to rise. Still, it's a challenge for home cooks to resist the temptation to eat out or order in. It's hard work using up all the food we have languishing in our refrigerators, freezers and pantries. And it takes creativity to prepare leftovers that will appeal to picky eaters.
But there is a reward for those who learn how. The average U.S. family of four spends from $500 to $2,000 a year on food they never eat, according to researchers' estimates.
Food is the second-largest component in the U.S. solid waste stream, after paper and paperboard. Once paper and paperboard are removed for recycling, food ends up as the largest component in U.S. landfills and incinerators, weighing in at 33 million tons in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"People have started equating throwing food away with throwing away cash," says Steve Pawl, vice president of marketing for Rubbermaid, which along with Ziploc and Pyrex are introducing food-storage products aimed at concerns about food waste and leftovers.
Rubbermaid's Produce Saver container has a "fresh vent," which allows air to circulate, and a "crisp tray," which lifts produce away from moisture—features the company says extend the refrigerator life of produce.
Chefs and container makers are trying to get Americans to throw out less food by touting innovative ways to dress up leftovers, Sarah Nassauer reports on Lunch Break. Photo: Jeff Bush.

Life With Leftovers

Some experts' tips for dealing with leftovers are simple, while others are more challenging.

Store smarter. Immediately storing washed herbs and greens in an airtight container with damp paper towels in the refrigerator makes them last much longer.
Separate foods. Bananas, apples and pears give off ethylene, which ripens other fruits and vegetables stored near them.
Dress them up. Put leftovers in attractive glass jars to make them look more appetizing and visible, says Tamar Adler, author of "An Everlasting Meal."

Make soup. Meat bones or vegetables can make a stock and other leftovers (vegetables, meat, grains, pasta, etc.) can be added, with seasoning, to make soup.
Add eggs. Soft boil them as a topper for leftover sautéed greens, rice, soup or pasta, says Ms. Adler.
Cook more at once. Cook enough beans to have as a side dish one night, and then sauté with broccoli and parsnips for a stir fry the next night, says Michael Anthony, executive chef at Gramercy Tavern.

Go pesto. Sauté broccoli and cauliflower stalks, then blend in a food processor with a hard cheese like Parmesan, along with garlic and olive oil and perhaps any about-to-go-bad herbs and nuts to make pesto for pasta, a toast spread or a soup garnish, says Ms. Adler.

Why We Buy Too Much

It's counterintuitive: People tend to overestimate what they need at the store when they are well-stocked at home, research shows.

How Much We Throw Out

Vegetables are the most commonly wasted food in the average American home. Each home throws out $92 of fruits and vegetables a year.
Vegetables are the most commonly wasted food in U.S. homes, making up some 25% of avoidable waste, according to CleanMetrics Corp., a software firm that analyzes the environmental impact of products and businesses.
Without a well-researched shopping list, most grocery shoppers will naturally create food waste by overbuying, says Brian Wansink, professor of marketing at Cornell University's Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who studies eating and shopping behavior.
People tend to overestimate what they need at the store when they are well-stocked at home, and to underestimate what they need when they don't have enough, he says.
"You have it in your mind that you have barbecue sauce," says Dr. Wansink. "But since you've been thinking about it, it must be because you need it," when in fact you have several bottles. In addition to the tendency to overbuy, people tend to stockpile. According to Dr. Wansink, about 93% of people say they have something in their kitchen three years or older, and when asked, they said they intend to hold on to the item.
A popular recipe on the Betty Crocker website is "Bottom of the Cereal Box Cookie," which uses the uneaten flakes and crumbs found in the boxes gathering dust in our cupboards.
People respond to recipes that transform leftovers so they "suddenly become something that people want," says Jennifer Kalinowski, assistant manager of the food content strategy group at Betty Crocker, which is owned by General Mills.
"Consumers have a tremendous guilt about wasting food," says Kelly M. Semrau, chief sustainability officer at S.C. Johnson & Son, which makes Ziploc products. In a Ziploc ad campaign, people buying food at the grocery store specifically to throw it away.
Ziploc research indicates that more people are buying meat in bulk to take advantage of discounts and club-store prices, yet the meat often goes to waste, Ms. Semrau says. Earlier this year, Ziploc introduced portion-size plastic bags to be inserted inside its freezer bags, to make freezing and storing large quantities of raw meat easier and more effective. Leftovers make up about 12% of the contents of refrigerator-freezers, Ziploc says.
In the U.K., food waste is a public concern and a rallying point for politicians and corporations, similar to the issue of childhood obesity in the U.S. In recent years, U.K. grocery stores have tested ways to discourage overbuying, including "buy one, get one later" promotions at chains like Sainsbury's  and Tesco.

Photo illustration by Stephen Webster; Getty Images (4)
Just over half of avoidable food and drink waste comes about because products weren't used in time, according to a 2009 report from the Waste & Resources Action Programme in the U.K. About 40% of this waste is made up of leftovers, categorized as "cooked, prepared or served too much."
In the U.S., fears about food-borne illness and confusion about product "sell-by" dates are to blame for some food waste. "I refuse to eat anything if it's on or past the expiration date," says Alexis Carscadden, a 27-year-old librarian at a Chicago culinary school. She buys only what she and her husband, a leftover hater, plan to eat within about 48 hours; she shops for groceries four or five times a week.
Busy Americans' love of eating out was sending the home-cooked meal into decline for years. The number of meals consumed in the home was declining in the U.S. until 2002 and then began to increase, according to NPD Group, a market research firm. Spending on restaurant and takeout meals, meanwhile, still makes up about half of food expenditures, the firm's data indicate.
Eating at home doesn't always mean cooking, says Harry Balzer, vice president at NPD. Some foods that are becoming more popular in home meals don't require cooking, such as yogurt and cheese "as a base dish" along with nuts, chips, and bars. "There is not a recession in the world that is going to make you want to cook more," Mr. Balzer says.
Leftovers have been a contentious issue for a long time. "A judicious use of leftover food is commendable provided the housewife knows how far her economical impulses may carry her without a family protest," cautioned the 1951 edition of "The Joy of Cooking." Later editions warned, "You have to watch leftovers for color. Sometimes they need freshening up." They recommend adding color-contrasting sauce, greens or pimento to dull green beans to make them look more appealing.
What does it take to be a great chef? Is it as simple as the number of taste buds on your tongue? Gail Monaghan weighs in on the mentality that makes good cooks into great chefs.
Chefs and authors are championing leftovers and elevating scraps like cauliflower stems, chicken livers and ginger peel to ingredient status. Last year, Ruth Reichl, editorial adviser to Gilt Taste, Gilt Groupe's food writing and sales website, and former editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine, helped develop a column called "Eats Shoots and Leaves," about cooking with things like corn silk and carrot greens.
The microwave oven, for all its convenience, may actually limit leftovers' horizons. "Before the microwave it wasn't so easy to reheat leftovers," says Ms. Reichl. "I think people used to think more creatively."
Eggs are useful for transforming leftovers, says Tamar Adler, author of "An Everlasting Meal, Cooking with Economy and Grace." A poached or soft-boiled egg on top of rice, soup, or tomato sauce makes a meal.
What Food Dates Really Mean

Expiration dates and "sell by" dates on food are often set by manufacturers and intended to guide grocers and shoppers about peak freshness—not as a safety gauge. The dates are generally not set by the federal government, with the exception of infant formula.

"After the date passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below for the recommended storage times," says the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. Dating foods like eggs is required by some states.

The issue is getting more attention in the U.K., where reducing food waste has become a political flash point. The government there advised grocery stores last year to stop using "sell by" and "display until" dates to reduce avoidable food waste, saying the dates aren't an indicator of food safety.

"Give it a smell, look at it, maybe even taste it," before tossing food, suggests Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, a book about food waste. "We have fairly well-developed instincts as a species for knowing if something is good or not."
Write to Sarah Nassauer at sarah.nassauer@wsj.com


RyanSarahN said...

Today I channeled my inner Tenley and made muffins with the crumbs from the bottom of the shredded mini-wheats. Turned out good and healthy too! There was nearly a cup of crumbs that I would've thrown away if I didn't think of the muffins. :) Thanks for this article.

Tarnation said...

Woot! That is a lot of cereal. Post your recipe in the comment section?

RyanSarahN said...

This was the original recipe I based mine on:

Whole Wheat Honey Muffins


2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup vegetable oil*
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce*
1/2 cup honey
1 cup water

*(NOTE: I now replace the 1/4 cup vegetable oil and 1/4 cup applesauce with 1/2 cup coconut oil. Coconut oil is a healthier oil than vegetable oil, and I like the light coconut flavor it adds to the muffins. The muffins are also more fluffy without the applesauce.)


Mix all dry ingredients in large bowl.
Combine wet ingredients in a separate bowl and then mix well with dry ingredients.
Pour into prepared muffin pan.
Bake at 375 for 20 to 24 minutes.

Yields: 12 muffins


I changed it based on what I had and to add more fiber for my girly with potty training troubles. Also, just oil and sugar are cheaper than applesauce and honey. This was a weird recipe - it didn't call for any eggs, but a full cup of water. Then I thought it was too wet so I had to add more flour. Here is what I did:

Fiber Muffins


1 cups whole wheat flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup leftover shredded mini-wheat crumbs
1/2 cup ground flax seed and wheat germ combination
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup water


Mix all dry ingredients in large bowl.
Combine wet ingredients in a separate bowl and then mix well with dry ingredients.
Pour into prepared (sprayed with non-stick spray) mini muffin pan.
Bake at 375 for 15 minutes.

Yields: 24 mini-muffins

Next time we have a ton of crumbs from the bottom of a Costco cereal bag I might try a different recipe, but these were good and the mini-wheat crumbs added a nice very light crunch.

Tarnation said...

Thank you!

Tarnation said...

P.S. We use coconut oil as well.