In praise of leftover food

One of the first things that struck me when I came to the US is the massive wastage of food. The most obvious signs of this can be found in the dumpsters behind grocery stores and restaurants where plenty of perfectly good food is thrown away because it is easier to do so than it is to make arrangements to divert it to people who might be able to use it, or because of dates stamped on the product that suggest that it is unsafe to eat when it is not, or because they are afraid of being held liable if someone falls ill. There are poor and homeless people who depend upon finding edible food in dumpsters in order to survive but surely there must be a better way of getting that food to them?

What is even harder to understand is food that is prepared in the home and yet thrown away, apparently because people don’t eat leftovers.

What researchers found was staggering: The average person wasted 3.5 pounds of food per week. Of that, only a third consisted of inedible parts, such as chicken bones or banana peels. And of the remaining, edible trashed food, bin digs found that 23 percent consisted of prepared leftovers, from any source — followed by fruits and vegetables, baked goods, and liquids and oils.

Gunders said that many consumers appear to stash Tupperware containers in their fridge and then forget to excavate them before the food goes bad. Other times, consumers grow bored of eating the same food on multiple occasions.

“There were two big reasons people threw out edible food,” Gunders said. “They thought it had spoiled, or they just didn’t like leftovers.”

Disdain for leftovers seems to have started in the 1960s with rising prosperity that enabled people who were too lazy or tired to cook to see eating out as a better option than eating leftovers. Food is still comparatively cheap in the US, so throwing food away is not equated with throwing money away, at least not much.

Maybe because I grew up in a developing country, the thought of throwing away any edible food at all is abhorrent to me, though I know other people who also grew up in Sri Lanka and now live in the US and they have acquired the attitude that they need fresh cooked meals each day and disdain leftovers. I will make sure that all the leftovers in the fridge end up being used in some form, quite often in an omelet and these turn out to be pretty tasty. If part of a fruit has gone bad, I will cut it out and eat the rest, even if it does not taste that great. In fact, leftovers are an essential part of our home food system. We deliberately make more food than one meal requires, refrigerate part of it, and freeze the rest. As a result of this system, we spend much less time on cooking, always have good, home-cooked food to eat, and waste almost nothing. What’s not to like about that system?

To me it is a sign of moral failure to waste food and people who worry about wasted food in the US think that it will require wholesale overhaul in values to get people to change their habits, and will require a return to the way of thinking during World War I and II when it was considered morally wrong to waste food.


  1. Kreator says

    Today, my lunch was actually leftover spaghetti from yesterday’s dinner. I just put it in the microwave, and presto! A serviceable meal in a very short time; another advantage of leftovers right there. In my family we’ve always saved them, and watching other people throwing away theirs is always a shock to me.

  2. flex says

    I don’t understand it either, but I was raised to use all the food that came into the house. Or, if the food did go bad, it was fed it to the chickens and returned as eggs.

    My wife wasn’t, and she’ll eat only one meal of leftovers from a previously prepared dish. Even if it’s a dish she loves, like pasta with sauteed scallops. I end up eating a lot of leftovers, and she ends up eating a lot of junk food (I do the cooking in the house).

    She feels guilty about wasting food, but she doesn’t know how to cook (and doesn’t want to learn). Because of her inability to cook she doesn’t think of making sandwiches or omelets out of leftovers. I’m not a great cook myself, but I do use a much as I can, and freeze a lot (including things like juices from a pot roast, or the pot liquor from greens).

    I think it has a lot to do with how you were raised. If you were not taught that food should be saved, you don’t save food.

    I’m not certain I would call it a moral issue. Mainly because I hesitate to always call saving food a good thing and wasting food a bad thing. It is a problem in many senses; throwing away edible food is a waste of resources, inefficient, and fills the dumps with rotting material. But I think I would have a hard time calling someone who throws away 30% of the food they purchase immoral. I’d think they are wasteful, impulsive, and lazy; but not immoral. I probably need to continue to ponder this.

    Finally, to your first point about commercial food waste, there are a lot of good organizations trying to do something about it. The one in my area is Food Gatherers, . Check their ‘about’ page to see where they get their food. It comes from supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, and wholesalers. They distribute about 100,000 meals a year, most of it free. It looks like the Greater Cleveland Food Bank collects and distributes food in your area. The Greater Cleveland Food Bank appears to be a much larger organization and they claim over 13 million meals were distributed in 2016.

    Most urban areas have some program like this. One of the hardest things today is getting the word out that they exist.

  3. says

    I grew up with leftovers, and that was in the ’60s and 70s, and I love leftovers. What’s not to love, ready meals right at hand. My partner has started cooking double portions specifically so I have leftovers in the fridge for the 4 days he’s gone. I wouldn’t eat nearly as well if I didn’t have leftovers.

  4. says

    Also, pets are good for food you’re tired of, or a little doubtful about. Rats will eat just about anything, although they can be surprisingly fussy. They can even safely eat chicken bones. Dogs take care of the rest.

  5. mnb0 says

    “To me it is a sign of moral failure to waste food”
    Totally agreed. My parents were born during WW-2, so I was raised with the memory of the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. Also I have had hungry children in my classes.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    I think that most mult-ingredient dishes like soup, stew, chili, curry, etc. taste better the next day.

  7. says

    I’m with Chigau @7 — a lot of multi-ingredient dishes taste better after a night in the fridge.

    When I eat out, I plan on having leftovers. I can usually get two to three meals out of your average restaurant meal.

  8. says

    The family Junior eats almost nothing but leftovers, his hungry times don’t seem to coincide with ours so he’s often seen from the corner of the eye raiding the fridge for small containers of meal to nuke in the macro blaster. Jut call it home prepared ready meals and you’re hip.

  9. tecolata says

    As a single person, I learned many years ago to cook and freeze. Rather than let something go bad, or eat it every day until I’m sick of it, wrap/put in container, label, freeze, and keep inventory. When I take something out of freezer, cross it off inventory.

  10. jazzlet says

    My parents were brought up during the thirties depression then started their married life during WWII and my mother never threw food away. What couldn’t be fed to one of us coming in hungry (and with six of us there were pretty good odds of that happening) she had for lunch. Having said that my mother didn’t over-cater, we never went hungry but there were not often leftovers unless she intended there to be, as in Saturday roast turned into shepherd’s pie for Monday. There was always bread to have with preserves as well as at least one kind of cake or biscuit (cookies) -- homemade of course -- in the tins. She was also very careful about things like peeling vegetables thinly (even though we composted all the veg waste), scraping out the last gloop of egg white and using butter papers for greasing baking trays.

    I usually cook enough for more than one meal, though I often overlap dishes, for instance tonight we had lentils cooked previously with a fresh squash dish and fresh rice, so we don’t eat too many identical meals in a row. If I’m doing well I also pot up tubs for Mr Jazz to take for lunch. Theoretically the dogs take care of anything that doesn’t go in the compost, but that doesn’t happen very often to their disgust, because like my mother I know how much we will eat and there won’t be leftovers unless I plan for them. I don’t use all my butter papers for greasing as I just don’t make that many cakes or biscuits, but I do peel the vegetables I peel -- rather fewer than my mother would have done -- thinly and scrape every last bit of egg white out of the shells.

    I do think wasting food is morally wrong, quite apart from any other consideration food production takes energy and that means it produces CO2 contributing to climate change. While that is unavoidable it is possible to avoid making it worse by throwing away perfectly good food.

  11. John Morales says

    Yeah, my perceptions were also developed in childhood as the people who brought me up were survivors of the Spanish Civil War in the early 20th.

    That said, my attitude is that “leftover” food is a misnomer — what it is, is uneaten food.

    (Were it inedible, it would not be food!)

    The distinction is between food for pleasure and food for survival. But food is food.

  12. John Morales says

    PS I was astonished when I arrived in Australia in 1972 and discovered that tinned pet food was a thing.


  13. John Morales says

    PPS the major problem of starvation is lack of calories, not lack of nutrients. Malnutrition is not synonymous with starvation.

    (Again: food is food. Fuel for metabolism)

  14. deepak shetty says

    they have acquired the attitude that they need fresh cooked meals each day and disdain leftovers.

    I do have the attitude of preferring fresh cooked foods , but its mainly because growing up , there was no refrigerator and so my parents made just enough and there was rarely any leftovers or at the most something for the next day.
    I think some people (from India atleast ) are suspicious of cooked food that is frozen and then reheated , believing it to be unhealthy.

  15. chigau (違う) says

    I don’t think that I know how to make a meal for two at which every scrap will be consumed.
    How are there not “leftovers”?

  16. Heidi Nemeth says

    What makes food taste good -- besides the 5 flavors our tongues can taste -- are the volatile compounds our noses can smell. Being volatile, these scents are released upon heating. Heat up a food, cool it down and reheat it -- and there just aren’t as many volatile compounds left to excite our palate. Heat it up a third time and the food is just plain insipid. Yeah, add enough salt, fat, sugar, and/or umami and it can still taste OK and deliver the calories.

    Most restaurant food is pre-prepared. It has already been heated and cooled before it is heated to serve to you. You are heating it the third time when you heat and eat it at home, making restaurant leftovers rather tasteless. Of course, restaurants are on to the this. Hence the large amounts of fat, salt, sugar and/or umami in restaurant and prepared food fare.

    Those of us who are lucky enough to have food prepared for us at home don’t always appreciate the amount of effort which goes into procuring, preparing and serving meals. And we don’t necessarily have the skills to prepare meals ourselves or refresh tasteless leftovers.

    A hundred years ago, the men made shoes for the family. They had the tools and the knowledge. Throwing away shoes which didn’t fit or needed minor repairs would have been seen as wasteful or even amoral. Nowadays it is hard to find a cobbler to repair shoes. Shoes are cheaper and easier to buy new than to repair. The same change is happening now with cooking.

    And the same change happened in the last generation with regard to sewing. I sew. I repair my clothes when they need minor repairs. My daughters do not sew. They replace their worn clothing. It is cheaper and easier than getting it repaired.

    Mano, like you, I don’t like wasting food. I gain weight every time a person leaves my household until I adjust to making smaller quantities. Maybe I could learn something from those who throw food away. Better to waste than to waist!

  17. jazzlet says

    chigau (違う)

    How are there not “leftovers”?

    Because I know how much we eat, rice=4oz, potatoes=7oz, a 15oz can of chopped tomatoes will make enough sauce to cover 6.5oz pasta. If I were you and I wanted to reduce left overs I would start by looking at the meals I was cooking and working out exactly how much gets left over so you can reduce by that amount the next time you cook that meal, when you buy if it’s using perishables. This does need adjustig from time to time, I eat less than I used to because of the drugs I’m on so eg the amount of potatoes have reduced by 1oz; there was a period when we were adjustig to this where we ended up with leftover potato which I froze, over several meals that built up to enough to make a meal of sesame fird potatoes (YUM).

  18. chigau (違う) says

    jazzlet #19
    I do not want to reduce left overs because I consider the concept of “left over” to be ridiculous. If it is not eaten within the 38.56 minutes proscribed for the Meal™, it will quite likely be eaten sometime during the cleanup or at the 2AM wake-up or at next breakfast or lunch.
    or put a couple of litres in the freezer for later.
    I have never, ever, ever, experienced a meal wherein everyone consumed precisely 6.5cc of rice and precisely14.3oz of fish.
    Because that is demented.

  19. jazzlet says

    I’m glad you don’t need to reduce leftovers, but I don’t see why it’s demented to produce meals that don’t result in leftovers, it’s just knowing how much we eat between us, and we don’t each eat the same amount or the same amount all the time. But we know how much pasta we’ll want if we are normally hungry or if we’ve been doing a lot of physical work. We’ve been cooking together for over thirty years, I think it would be more odd not to have noticed how much we eat in that time, if you don’t notice how do you know what amount of everything will be enough? The times we do end up with leftovers is when we have other people round for food as I’ll always try to over cater, doesn’t always work like the time four of us (well mostly two of the four) ate 8lbs of pork loin between us, a baby’s worth of solid meat.

  20. EigenSprocketUK says

    I don’t think that WW2-generation people are automatically inclined to making food from leftovers. My parents were brought up as “waste-nots” and brought up their own family the same. Now, bizarrely, they waste huge amounts through over-stocking. The larder is full of 5-10yr old preserves (many are opened and are niche ingredients that seldom get used). The fridge is very large (by UK standards) and full of ingredients which are usually expired (minimum 2-3x normal lifespan). The fruit bowl is always full, but the tasteless, mushy,and wrinkly stuff needs eating first. The enormous freezers (plural) are used for (a) making ice monsters, (b) applying freezer-burn to perfectly good meat, (c) ensuring that there is always some 11-month old venison/goose in case of a special occasion.
    It’s Frustrating. But thanks for reading my cathartic reply.
    PS: they mostly eat ready meals.

  21. Mano Singham says


    What you say in interesting. I have noticed that our fridge is relatively ‘bare’ in that the shelves are not crammed with food. This makes it easier to see what is in it and eat it up before taking stuff out of the freezer or cooking anew. When I see other people’s fridges full of food, I wonder how they manage to eat all of it. Maybe they don’t, as you suggest, but end up throwing it away.

  22. Timothy says

    American corporations have a long tradition of wasting food for profit.

    This from Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”:

    “The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. A million people hungry, needing the fruit- and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains. And the smell of rot fills the country. Burn coffee for fuel in the ships. Burn corn to keep warm, it makes a hot fire. Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out. Slaughter the pigs and bury them, and let the putrescence drip down into the earth.

    There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate- died of malnutrition- because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quick-lime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

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