Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 10: Eat your leftovers

The Bankrate Weekly Savings Challenge for May 5 is "Learn to love leftovers," yet another of those challenges that doesn't really work for me. I'm sure the Natural Resources Defense Council is right when it claims, as quoted in the intro to the article, that "the average American throws out between $28 and $43 of food per month"; all I can say is that we're not personally contributing any significant amount to that average. At our house, leftovers turn into lunches, and vegetable scraps go into the stock bag for soup. Maybe once a year we'll fish a jar of something unidentifiable out of the back of the fridge and dump it into the compost, but that's about it.

Yet the statistic becomes a little more understandable when you read the rest of the article. Jessica Patel, the reporter covering the challenge, leads off by saying, "There are lots of people out there who don't 'do' leftovers," including her husband. If your attitude toward leftovers is that they are no longer food, but simply waste, then it's hardly surprising if you end up dumping $28 to $43 worth of food straight into the rubbish bin each month.

Of course I'm aware that there are people who just don't know what to "do with" leftovers, because the various frugal-living sites I read are always running articles about how to deal with this "problem." But frankly, it's an attitude I've simply never understood. The way I was raised, what you do with leftovers is eat them—for lunch if you have a small portion left, and for a second dinner if they're a larger portion. If anything, I would say I have the opposite problem: I don't know what to do without leftovers. When there are none in the fridge, I don't know what to eat for lunch.

I suppose normal people—the kind who throw their dinner leftovers in the trash—simply assume that lunch is a meal that's always eaten out. If they're even aware that there is such a thing as a brown-bag lunch, they probably assume that it's the same sandwich, apple, and two cookies they got as kids in elementary school, and they decide that the prospect of eating the same old sorry sandwich day after day is more than they can face. The concept of lunching, as we did last week, on veggie frittata, spinach pasta, and roasted eggplant, simply by taking last night's leftovers to work in a little Rubbermaid container, probably never crosses their minds. And certainly the idea of planning a large dinner specifically for the purpose of creating lunch leftovers would be completely foreign to them.

Now, Jessica Patel, to do her justice, does not fall into this category. She says she'll "often try to make something hearty on a Sunday, then space it out over the next few days." She proudly trots out her baked ziti as an example of how much she saves this way: for $20 worth of ingredients (plus another $2 to $3 for garlic bread), she can make a dinner that feeds her husband, her son, and herself, and have enough left over to make lunch for herself and her son the next day. This, according to her calculations, is a savings of $16, since she would have had to pay that same $22 to buy the ziti dinner for three as take-out, plus $8 apiece for the two lunches at work. That sounds like an impressive savings until you realize that what she's measuring it against is the cost of ordering both dinner and lunch from a restaurant. If you assume that she would have cooked dinner at home on Sunday anyway, then her savings from eating the leftovers is only $7.20—the $16 she would have spent on work lunches minus the $4.40 per serving she actually spent on the ziti. Eating this way wouldn't get her very far on the Reverse SNAP Challenge. But at least she's doing better than her husband, who is presumably shelling out $40 per week at the cafeteria rather than eat the same meal two days running.

Seeking an alternative her husband might be willing to consider, Patel turns for advice to Tawra Kellam of Living on a Dime. Kellam's approach to leftovers is to plan three meals at a time: for instance, making a roast chicken on Monday that she plans to turn into chicken and dumplings on Tuesday and chicken salad on Wednesday. She scoffs at Patel's (and our) method of dealing with leftovers: "With a casserole like that, no one wants to eat it for days at a time." What she recommends instead is to divide the leftover ziti up into individual portions and put them in divided freezer trays, along with individual portions of cooked veggies and dessert, to make "your own homemade TV dinners."

Kellam thinks this sounds like a brilliant idea, but personally, I can't see the point. In the first place, Kellam's family isn't eating ziti for "days at a time": three people have it for dinner on Sunday, and then two people have it for lunch on Monday or Tuesday. I've certainly had the experience of getting sick of a particular meal after eating it for several days in a row, but if I liked it when I first had it for dinner, I'm not going to be too tired of it to eat it one more time for lunch. And popping one container of leftovers into the microwave at lunchtime is a lot less work than portioning everything out into those little TV dinner trays. (Besides, if you're not actually planning to eat your meal in front of the TV, why would you want to eat it out of a tray?)

So at our house, we deal with meal leftovers the easy way: just eat them. The only leftovers that actually pose a challenge are leftover ingredients, such as the 1/3 cup of celery I had left after experimenting with tuna-avocado salad, or the five mushrooms we had left after the rest of the package went into a batch of pasta primavera. But fortunately, we have a few standard recipes for dealing with these. A stir-fry can accommodate just about any vegetable, and all you need to round it out is some fish cake or tofu and a batch of rice. The "Fast Frittata" recipe from The Clueless Vegetarian is also a good dumping ground for leftover veggies of any sort. And if neither of these seems appropriate, that's when Brian gets creative and devises a new recipe, like his Hearty Bluefish Chowder, to use up the odds and ends.

So, basically, I don't think Brian and I need any lessons in loving leftovers. But if the folks at Bankrate do, we could probably teach them a trick or two.

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