Ask CK: The Double-Batch/Too Many Leftovers Problem

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I have a question about the recipes you have here at Casual Kitchen, specifically the ones that you always say are "scalable" that you can easily double.

I love your recipes, and they are way cheaper than ordering takeout, so I've been cooking more, ordering takeout less, and saving money. But here's the thing: I live alone. I don't want to have a huge pot of soup or whatever sitting in my fridge to eat every night for a week straight. I'll get bored eating the same thing every day. What do you suggest for the single people out there?

You're asking the wrong question.

Instead of thinking of leftovers as a problem, view them as a solution. The thing is, you actually do want that huge pot of soup or whatever sitting in your fridge. Why? Because it gives you options.

On any night this week, you can choose to eat those leftovers--or not. If you're sick of a recipe and don't want to eat it three nights in a row, great. On that third night, go right ahead and order takeout. You'll still be money and time ahead, and you can always alternate back to leftovers on days four and five. But the bottom line is this: reheating something you've already made is by far the fastest, most efficient and least expensive way to get a healthy meal on the table.

One other scenario: Let's say you're a single person just returning home after a long workday, and you don't have any leftovers in your fridge. Just a jar of mustard and a bottle of beer. Your easiest and most affordable solution for getting dinner on the table, then, is..... nothing. You're either stuck cooking something from scratch until late at night, stuck ordering takeout again, or stuck paying an enormous premium in both time and money to have dinner served to you in a restaurant. There's absolutely nothing wrong with eating out or ordering takeout, but if you do it habitually, you'll end up spending far more money than you need to on food.

One other point: there are tons of recipes, including Chili, most stews, lasagna, my Chicken Mole, Groundnut Stew, Lentil Soup and many, many others that taste even better the next day. Focus your cooking on recipes like this, and rather than dreading that pot of leftovers, you can instead look forward to a meal that improves with age. Uh, only up to a point, of course.

A final suggestion, one that works wonders for anyone who works long hours and simply can't face the idea of cooking after a grueling day at work: Start with my collection of the 25 Best Laughably Cheap Meals at Casual Kitchen, invest an hour or so of your time on a Sunday afternoon, and make two laughably cheap meals. Then, alternate them over the course of the following week. You'll eat healthy food all week long for a hilariously small amount of time, effort and money. I promise you won't get bored.

And if you've made it this far through this post and you're still bothered by a big pot (or even better, two big pots) of delicious leftovers sitting in your fridge, I'm afraid you need more help than I can give you.

Related Posts:
On the True Value of a Forgotten Restaurant Meal
Seven Rules On the Value of a Food Experience
The Top Lame-Ass Excuses Between You and Better Health
Spreading the New Frugality: A Manifesto

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KitschenBitsch said...

I've been there, and have a few suggestions.

1. Save small bits of leftovers to turn into casserole later in the week.

2. Add to leftovers to totally change up the meal. Tuesday's rice and beans can become Wednesdays tacos or soup. Thursday's leftover broccoli soup can be poured over a baked potato. Monday's wee bit of leftover pasta can sit atop your salad greens.

3. Encourage goodwill. Take the leftovers to your neighbor who walks your dog/gets the paper while you're out of town/working a 12 hour shift.

Thanks... you just gave me inspiration for a post! :)

The Calico Cat said...

The freezer is your friend. I make meat sauce from scratch, we eat it fresh & I freeze 2 portions that are enough for another single meal for us. Ditto pea soup, ditto brisket, etc.

Also we cook chicken thights (9 minimum) on Sunday, plain & reheat them through the week. (The thighs don't dry out.)
1. eat it as a thigh with starch & veg
2. shred it add some BBQ sauce, make a sandwich
3. chop it & make fried rice
4. chop it & add it to soup
5. quesadillas
6. add it to a green salad
7. make a mayo based chicken salad

Be like me & do number 1 over & over

Unknown said...

I agree with The Calico Cat - the freezer is the answer, especially with soups/stews/chilis/moles. I freeze them in 2 cup containers. Leftovers don't seem like leftovers when you're eating them a month later.

Elizabeth said...

I think the other personal "limit" you need to identify is how often you want to cook. If you truly don't mind coming home at the end of each day and cooking a meal from scratch, then maybe some of the benefits of scaling recipes aren't as compelling for you, compared to someone who is exhausted from their day and just needs to get some food in pronto. Personally, I don't have time to cook every night, nor the mental energy. It's great to have something in the fridge that I can pull out, reheat, and be done with it.

I think as single people, we end up in a unique situation, in that many recipes are naturally scaled for e.g. 4 people, so we can cook once and eat 4 times (rather than cooking once for 4 people and having to cook again the next day). We can take advantage of that, but it does imply that we'll be having leftovers a lot.

Identifying your personal "limits" (leftover tolerance and cooking tolerance) is key, and will maximize the benefits of scaling recipes while keeping your sanity (two very noble goals).

Phew! Having said all that - I still veer toward the "I'm too lazy to cook" side of things (I think cooking for one also does that to you - why put in all the effort when it's just me?). I've found some ways to help minimize boredom while maximizing the advantages of scalability. I think they may have been mentioned already, but here goes:

1. Freeze portions for later. I can't tell you how many times having a lunch in the freezer has saved me on morning when I wake up late and don't have time to make a lunch. I avoid resorting to take-out and have a healthy meal that I can just grab and go.

2. Alternate days - you may have 5 days' worth of soup left in the fridge, but that doesn't mean that you have to eat soup for the next 5 days.

3. Use recipes that can be changed a little each time. For example, I have a ratatouille recipe that is delicious as in the first day, but leftovers can be thickened and served over rice, or used as pizza toppings, or in a wrap, etc. It's a small amount of extra effort, but feels like a different meal.

4. Make the meal special. This means... just because I have the leftovers stored in my fridge in a plastic container, doesn't mean I have to eat it out of that same container (even if this DOES save on dishes ;) ). When I take the time to make it feel like a real meal - with proper plates, setting, etc., it helps life feel less like a culinary Groundhog Day.

Hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

Back when I was a single gal cooking for one sharing a fridge/freezer with 2 other single gals (we all cooked for ourselves, trust me it was easier) I rarely doubled a recipe because I got sick of eating the same thing for a week before it went bad.

A standard recipe would get me 4 servings, so if I cooked twice a week, I had enough for dinners and a lunch or two and by alternating things I didn't get as tired of them quite so quickly.

Elizabeth said...

Well, this is embarrassing - it looks as though the first portion of my comment above was cut off, thus making the rest of the post look like it was written by someone coming out of left field.

To recap, it went along the lines of:

I'm in the same situation - and I feel your pain!

I think everyone has a different tolerance level for "repeats" - some people can happily eat the same thing every day for a month, while others are brought to tears by the mere mention of the word "leftover". Most people fall somewhere in between the two. For me, I know that I feel a little crazy if I eat the same thing 3 days in a row (even if it's a favourite), and feel so tired of it that I can't even think of making it again anytime in the next 2 months. Obviously, this is a situation I prefer to avoid, so I plan my number of repeats while keeping my "boredom" limit in mind. I'll do 2 in a row, then take a break before eating the same thing again. Be honest and realistic about your personal limit, and then find ways to work with it.

Jen said...

Yes, the freezer is the number one solution, I think! After a few meals you can eat something new every day by pulling something out of the freezer. And use leftovers for lunches too. I find I have much more tolerance for leftovers at lunch than at dinner. Otherwise, just cut recipes down if you find you're getting too many leftovers. Other than baked items (and those can be done it just might take fiddling with proportions), there's really not much that can't be scaled *down*. It would be better to cook 2 portions and eat both than to cook 4 portions and throw half away.

Little Les said...

that's easy! invite some friends over to share the pot of soup!

Mikeinksnsascity said...

I agree with all of the comments above: use extra portions as 'straight' leftovers, reinvent the dish in some way or freeze it. It took me a while to get to know what dishes freeze well for reheating - stews and lasagna are fine, pasta in cream sauces, not so great. However, I adopt the if-in-doubt- freeze approach. Also, as has been mentioned, after a while, you'll get to know what is your threshold for leftovers; 3 iterations of the same dish per week is my upper limit, usually dinner and 2 lunches. That said, some things like a roast chicken lend themselves to many, many variations during the week, whereas, a pan of lasagna is always just several (more) portions of lasagna.
Cooking for one in my kitchen at least is something of a tradeoff between the ease of being able to heat up something when I get home from work and have an effortless meal in minutes versus the need for variety.
A last comment: mark and date portions that go into the freezer - after a few months, leftover canned tomato sauce, homemade spaghetti sauce and tomato-based soups appear as virtually indistinguishable blocks of reddish ice!

Janet C. said...

Agree with the freezer suggestions. Every few weeks my husband will make a big batch of dal (a laughably cheap meal if ever there was one, btw!). We eat our fill, but somehow there's always enough leftovers to feed the entire Indian Army (well, not quite that much..:-) So I freeze small portions (enough for one or two servings) in tupperwear. Instant meal when DH is traveling for work, AND it lets me enjoy his cooking even when he's not home! If I know I'll want some I stick in the fridge in the am to thaw while I'm at work...but even if I forget if I just twist the tupperwear and plop the frozen block into a pot. All I have to do then is turn on the heat and the laws of physics take over: first it melts and then it boils. And then all I have to do is add a small salad, perhaps a flour tortilla (good substitute for chapati), or maybe some fruit for a nice meal for one!

Daniel said...

Once again, these are exceptional comments, and I'm grateful to have such creative readers collaborating with me here.

And there's an implication buried in all of our comments (including mine) that there's a bit of a learning curve involved with optimizing leftovers. Learning which dishes freeze well, learning which dishes taste better the next day, learning your personal "optimum" number of times a week you'd like to cook, etc. Iterate, learn, adjust.

But the first step is to reframe how you view leftovers in the first place. Leftovers are not a problem, they are the solution.


Barbara | VinoLuciStyle said...

I hate that leftovers have such a bad rap; I think they should be renamed to 'magical meals in minutes' or something that more clearly identifies with how I feel about them!

Already mentioned is that the freezer is your friend but I think my freezer's best friend is my unit for packaging and vacuum sealing foods. My freezer has my own selection of microwave meals!

I have a food blog and will often make everything on the weekend so some is kept in the fridge, some is frozen and yes...some is eaten with the help of my friends/testers (they all say it's a really tough job!).

Carol said...

I was always taught to toss leftovers after two days, three at the very most. Making huge pots of things means that I'm filling the freezer with single portions of food at a tremendous rate, especially if I want any sort of variety.

I do have a flatmate, who really doesn't consider most of what I eat to be food - she lives on caffeine, sugar and takeout. The freezer is also hers, and is filled with purchased, heavily processed food. I made the suggestion once, that she could make her own chicken nuggets from real chicken, and was told that it was much too much work - even though I estimated that a batch that would feed her for four meals could be prepared in less than ten minutes.

I do what I can, with stews and pot roasts, which she'll eat (sometimes) but there's a world of food out there that I'd love to be eating.

Any ideas for getting around this?

chacha1 said...

Yes, freezer; yes, transform; yes, invite friends!

Recipes, per se, routinely produce "too much" food for just me and the DH. Fortunately neither of us minds eating leftovers. I tend to add fresh ingredients when re-heating so that it becomes something a little different.

If I have just one word of advice for cooking big and re-using the results, it's this: Don't make it overly low in fat. Animal fat, unless you have disastrously high, uncontrolled blood lipid counts, is not bad for you (given that you are not eating it by the spoonful). Don't skim off all the grease when you cook your meats, and don't pick off the risen fat when you take something out of the freezer. (If you are cooking vegetarian, I can't help you.)

I'd hate dry or watery leftovers, too.

Marcia said...

I agree with the freezer contingent. Half the time I make a bit pot of something (there are only 3 of us), I directly freeze half.

The big pot makes 16 servings, which is 5 meals. I put 2 directly in the freezer, we eat the other 3 servings over the next 3 days.

Two weeks later, I pull out those 2 servings. When I'm REALLY good, I do this once per week, so I have a constant supply of something "new" (aka 3 weeks old) mid-week.

Marcia said...

Carol, first of all, conventional wisdom says leftovers (most) are good 4 days. I generally go 5 or 6.

As for your flatmate...just try to squeeze out some freezer space for you. It's impossible to get someone else to change their eating habits if they don't want to even try.

Brittany said...

If you're overly concerned about your roommate's eating habits, feed her. I've turned my carnivore-hates-most-veggies roomie into a ~75% vegetarian who eats almost any vegetable if it's at least in something (and she enjoys raw tomatoes now!) simply by feeding her. (We have a deal where I go most of the cooking and she does most of the dishes.) She can cook, but her dislike of cooking just for herself was much higher than her dislike of vegetables. If you care that deeply about her eating habits, make the chicken strips for her to show her how tasty and delicious in return for another roommate favor.

Also, I second the freezer and make-two-and-rotate advice bits. They make my life so much easier.

Another option is to find meal buddies. Purchase two big containers. You make a big pot of something; he makes a big pot of something; you each give the other a big container of what you made. Volia--one bit of effort, lots of tasty meals.

Anna said...

Leftovers are the best! I pretty much will only make a meal that doesn't result in leftovers if it's something really easy to make or if it's a special dinner. Other than that, leftovers all the way, especially for things like soups, stews and tomato sauces that improve with age. I usually don't get home until 9 pm and cooking dinner that late after a long day is a pain. I have a small freezer, but it's filled with things like spaghetti sauce, soup, chili, stew and other things I made previously and then tossed in the freezer. I used to buy a lot of canned chili because I love chili for lunch, but now I can just grab a single serving container out of the freezer. I find myself making a giant batch of it in my crock pot about once a month to replenish my freezer stock.

Katie Mack said...

I'm a little late to the freezer party...but I'll take it one step further! I will always freeze leftovers of great food that I make, but...

I also freeze takeout food that I crave. When I order Pad Thai from my local restaurant, I get a HUGE portion. So I freeze two servings and eat one right away. It's great portion control AND will save me money the next time I start craving Pad Thai. It's already in my freezer!

Things that do not work well with this method...take out sushi. :)

Daniel said...

Spectacular idea Katie. Thanks for sharing.

And thanks for that caveat on sushi. You never know who you might have saved from ruining a perfectly good sushi meal. :)