No Leftovers Left Behind: Saving Money in Your Fridge


Note: This is a post from Joan Concilio, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan.

On a recent Sunday, Chris and I sat in church and listened to an appeal to help stock the food pantry. The needs were simple: canned goods, boxed goods, peanut butter and jelly, and rice and beans.

The same afternoon, I headed with Chris into the office where he works (and where I worked full-time for more than a decade).

Our mission: Clean out the office refrigerators.

Wow. That was definitely a two-person, lots-of-elbow-grease undertaking, punctuated by statements like, “What do you think this WAS originally?” and “If it’s dripping, do we just toss it?”

And I started thinking about the value of what we were throwing away.

Money down the drain

Its current value was less than nothing – we’re talking stuff that had long since left edibility behind. But altogether, it must have been several hundred dollars’ worth of food, and the words of the food pantry coordinator rang in my ears.

We’re incredibly blessed to have plenty to eat in our family. But no one should be so blessed that they’re intentionally wasteful.

And our office compatriots aren’t the only ones guilty.

Although we’re quite careful about planning our menus every two weeks, generally cooking reasonable portions and using leftovers for lunches, we still have the occasional week where, at fridge-emptying time, we’re flinging our grocery money straight in the trash can. That’s food – money – the equivalent of which could have met the food pantry’s needs several times over.

And I felt incredibly guilty. I committed to stretching our grocery budget a bit farther so that we can add in some more donation items in each grocery trip – and that means I need to make the food-throwing-out an even more infrequent occurrence.

So I shared the situation with the Man Vs. Debt Facebook community, hoping to get some ideas that would help me – and anyone in a similar situation – waste less and use more. Some I’d heard before, and some were new to me!

Storage suggestions

  • From Heather: Freeze them and then reheat for lunch or dinner on a day you don’t feel like cooking.
  • From Lara: Freeze! Right after I get done cooking, sometimes before eating, I pack it up and freeze the extra.
  • From Brooklyn: A Food Saver could be a worthy investment.
  • From Carl: I use a vacuum sealer and then freeze it.
  • From Danielle: I cook, and freeze in small portions for reheating on a day I don’t feel like cooking. It works for me and keeps it healthy because I’m always prepared!
  • From Sylvie: Keep items containered separately… veggies, meat, sauces etc. Somethings go bad faster than others and if they are mixed together the whole things needs to be tossed. Also it is easier to freeze and/or repurpose if things are separated.

Use-it-up ideas

  • From Jessica: Soups and casseroles of leftovers.
  • From Kriston: Throw them into a frittata or soup!
  • From Lisa: Juice them all.
  • From Barbara: I repurpose EVERYTHING! … Leftover chicken? Add to uncooked rice and cook together. Other meats become soups, etc. I hardly ever throw anything away.
  • From Tiffany: We almost always have a “leftover” night once a week. It keeps us from throwing out food, and my kids like that it’s almost like a buffet line. Bonus? I don’t have to cook!
  • From Jim: Keep lots of tortillas on hand. The burrito started as a way to conveniently package leftovers for lunch, and nearly anything can be recontextualized as a gourmet wrap!
  • From Tara: We do the burritos, we toss extra things into soups, add it to salads, make fried rice with leftovers and ALWAYS eat leftovers for lunch. I had a friend who had what she called a YoYo night. It meant You’re On Your Own… strictly to use up leftovers and give Mom a break from cooking. It worked great with teens!

Sharing-the-wealth strategies

  • From Heather: Give them to someone who lives alone, is sick or recovering from surgery.
  • From Nina: Asking some friends to dinner!
  • From Misty: Giving them to us people who live alone! We love your leftovers!
  • From Becky: There is no shame in asking singletons (or others you know who may benefit) about sharing food. I know a woman who had to change her diet and she called friends over for her Pantry Cleaning Party. Everyone wins.
  • From Carol: Good to find a neighbor who is up there in years and not able to cook. When you have leftovers take them over so they can enjoy.
  • From Nolan: Trick is to not “Need so much,” and to make just enough to be perfect. If you have people over to share a meal, send leftovers with them. You already have an abundance!
  • From Gita: Share meals with your neighbours. Leave the leftovers outside for vagrants. Go and find some hungry people at traffic lights. Perhaps you spend the same, but you sow a LOT of good karma.

Planning pointers

  • From Glenna: Always check the fridge for leftovers before cooking something “new”.
  • From Nina: Keeping the fridge organized and planning ahead what to buyand what to cook, not going grocery shopping while hungry as a wolf.
  • From Vernon: Buy the staple items to use with other items – bread, flour, milk, pasta, veggies, eggs, butter, cornmeal, broth and soups – you can make casseroles, quiche, stews, soups, shepherd’s pies and bakes with the leftovers.
  • From Tim: I have a dry erase board on the top of my fridge. It is right there in my face when I go in there looking for food.
  • From Heidi: All jars in refrigerator should be labelled with the date that they were opened. Sharpies work best.
  • From Kara: When I’m going to cook a roast, I’ll plan for the roast one night, Shepherd’s pie the next night, and then shredded beef tacos after that. Then we have a free night. That’s when we all get to know Mr. Microwave.

More great ideas

  • From Mae: We give our to the chickens who will in turn give us eggs – or compost it and then it will turn into food for the garden that feeds us.
  • From Mary Meghan: For a while I was participating in “food waste Friday” where every Friday I had to post on my blog what all food I had wasted (including a picture). Being accountable, even just to the nameless internet, really made me think a lot harder about how not to waste food.
  • From Michelle: I like Mary’s accountability option too… add up the monetary value of chucked leftovers for a month and post it. If I have any leftover veggies, I grind them up into my dog’s homemade food.
  • From Becky: Get over the “I don’t feel like leftovers.” That’s cultural training that is such a garbage mentality… Best way to deal with leftovers is to PLAN when you are going to eat them. … It is a mindset. Even if you don’t love leftovers, you can change your mindset and embrace that you have them.
  • From Kara: If all else fails, and you have rice with both green and red mold on it, pull out the microscope. If it’s educational, then it’s not waste…

Bloggers in the same boat


I’m tired of taking my food blessings for granted. More than ever, I’m committed to using up what’s in our fridge, freezer and pantry, drawing in large part from the tips above!

I’ll be taking any extra money that frees in the grocery budget and using it to buy food for several food drives in our area.

Are you willing to take “the leftover challenge” too? And do you have any other tips or fun leftover stories or recipes to share?

Comment and let us know!

56 thoughts on “No Leftovers Left Behind: Saving Money in Your Fridge”

  1. My wife and I were JUST talking about this, lol! This is great advice, “Get over the “I don’t feel like leftovers.”” My wife doesn’t allow our girls to even say this. Also, before she goes grocery shopping, she goes through teh fridge and pantry to see what we really have; and often puts off shopping for anohter day or two with the words, “We’ve got rice and beans in here, we’ve got pasta sauce and some noodles…we still have food here to eat!”

    1. TB, that’s definitely one of my favorites. We go every two weeks for budgeting reasons, but since we shop with menus planned out already, the goal is to buy as little “new stuff” as possible! (And once every since months, we skip a trip and go FOUR weeks if we can!)

  2. Shop in bulk especially meat. When you buy bigger pkgs of meat it it is cheeper than the smaller size. What I do then is weigh and cut down the meat to single portion size, I invested in a food scale. This way you take out the portion of meat needed for your meal or more if you want to have leftovers. And I label all my leftovers, masking tape and a sharpie work well on containers headed to the fridge or to the office fridge too.

    1. Kathy, we do that a lot! It makes so much more sense. Our grocery-store butcher will take a whole pork loin and cut it for you at your request, so when those are buy-one-get-one-free, I get several roasts, several packages of chops, several sections for cubing for spaghetti gravy, etc.! It’s awesome!

  3. The data suggests we waste at least 30% of our food (mostly tossed in the garbage). This is a needless waste our food resources!

    I keep all leftovers on a shelf in the fridge so I can quickly grab them to create something delicious. I now intentionally make extra food so I have ingredients for dinner the following night (a menu plan helps with this). Some extra fennel, squash and chevre will be incorporated into a baked pasta dish tonight.

    The other suggestion: keeping a well-stocked pantry makes it so much easier to use leftovers in creative and yummy ways.

    1. Natalie, we find that with our menu planning too! And it’s a huge, huge help! The well-stocked pantry part we’re still working on. We purposely don’t keep a lot of “extras” – for instance, we normally only have tortillas if we’re having tacos for a planned dinner – to avoid waste in the pantry!

      But I’m seriously considering where I can adapt in that area!

  4. I admit it, I’m a leftover junkie. I make leftovers on purpose with workday lunches in mind. We hardly ever throw away leftovers……although occasionally we’ll have expired bottles of salad dressing or tartar sauce and stuff like that. I hate doing that too. I agree that I feel terrible throwing away food – I remember coming back from a weekend away from home to find our bananas pretty brown and our salad droopy. I ate the crap out of those veggies and fruit for three days even though it didn’t look all that good just because I hate throwing food away. 🙂

    1. I am definitely the queen of eating browner-than-usual bananas, but droopy salad is a no-go! 🙂

      I know what you mean, though. It feels awful. I’m glad I’m not alone in that!

    2. Travis Just wanted to let you know that you can freeze bananas for future banana nut bread, or banana smoothie’s, Kids love them.

  5. oh my gosh, I am so glad I landed her today. I have a fridge full of food, and potential leftover goodness. Such guilt of how I’ve handled food sometimes.
    Wow, thank you. Always a winner I find here. Just tons of ideas to help.

    1. Oh Jacki, I’m glad you’re here too! I hope you make something awesome with those leftovers – and then you can “throw out” the guilt instead! 🙂

  6. One thing that I’ve learned is that if you can’t see it, you’ll end up forgetting about it and letting it go to waste. Thus, store your leftovers in glass or see-through plastic containers so that when you look around, you’ll be more apt to see what’s in the fridge versus just seeing a bowl, which you’ll end up overlooking until whatever is in there has long gone rotten.

    1. Very much true!! (Also, you win the “amazingly most adorable avatar” picture.)

      But in all seriousness, that’s my fridge in the picture above, and that’s exactly why we have clear containers!

  7. Before I read my e-mail this morning I looked in our frig and was disappointed about how many leftovers were in there. My weekly goal is always to have it be near empty on grocery day, which is today. We eat leftovers for lunch and sometimes for dinner too, so this means that we really overbought last week. I think there’s only one thing that needs to be thrown away, so it’s not that bad I suppose.

    One thing I do here when the frig is over-leftovered is I play a round of Iron Chef Refrigerator. Have you ever seen that Food Network show? Two chefs compete, making dishes out of a Secret Ingredient. In our game, the Secret Ingredient is the refrigerator and I have to come up with a dish using only what’s in there that’s ready to go bad. It has made for some “interesting” meals! Frame of mind in using up leftovers makes the difference some days, and if it can be a game, more power to me.

  8. Some people advocate against frequent shopping, but I’m all for it. When you shop more frequently, not only do you reduce the amount of food in the fridge that goes to trash, you can also find fresher food. If you have the benefit of being next to a farmer’s market, that’s a huge benefit to shop weekly. Our ancestors had to scavenge for food every day, why are we so lazy to shop weekly? In many other countries people shop daily at their local markets for the meal they make THAT DAY, which translates into zero waste. Stop the processed foods, stop the laziness, shop frequently, save money = that’s my moto. 🙂 Sorry if I come of aggressive, that’s just how passionate I get about waste.

    1. Veronica, that’s an interesting point! In my case, when I was shopping frequently, I was buying MORE processed foods and wasting MORE – because I would go for what I “felt like” having rather than using the most economical or on-hand items! But that’s just my experience. I think it’s all about mindfulness and what personally motivates you and keeps you mindful. In our case, that’s infrequency. For others, just the opposite – and as long as the end result is conscious choice and positive results, I’m all for it!

  9. Christy E. Bell

    I accept the challenge and from now on I’ll be following y’all on Facebook so even though I’m opting out of e=mails, I’ll still be keeping in touch.

  10. I love leftovers — even when I don’t love them, I LOVE not having to buy lunch or cook dinner. Since I live alone, leftovers are a force to be reckoned with. I will cook things like chili and soup ONLY when I have friends coming. If I have too much, I freeze it. I haven’t let leftovers go to waste in a long time. The last thing I did was let beef expire before using it. So dumb. Better to have beef in the freezer than rotting over a long weekend away.

    1. Kathleen, I’m loving your system – and I have to say, I applaud you especially for making it work while living alone. I hear from a lot of my on-their-own friends that it’s kind of an excuse… “Well, I get TIRED of it… there’s no one else to have it….” I like that you take that as a challenge!

  11. I’m single, live a few hours from the family, and love my mom’s cooking, So one year for my birthday, I only wanted her cooking as a gift. We created a frozen birthday basket with all of the stuff my mom makes that I love. It definitely helps with grocery bills, and I had food for at least two weeks (lunch and dinner). She even put it in individual containers which we use everytime we do this. It really was the perfect gift!

      1. Hi Anne! Of course! Feel free to share. I made a list of all the stuff I liked (things like chili, roast-n-rice-n-gravy, split pea soup, meatloaf muffins, spaghetti) we basically had a rotating list. Gives you that home-style feeling!

  12. I have long been frustrated by food waste. For example, I might buy a bottle of Hoisin sauce for a recipe I wanted to make and then discover that I’d only used a tablespoon or two and the bottle had sat in the refrig for a year. Then I found a subscription meal planning service at The service provides 5 meal plans a week that use just 20 fresh items supported by a list of 20 staples that most of us have around anyway. Subscribers can choose from a classic, vegan/vegetarian and non gluten plan. I have been fairly happy with the plan and my refrig is always fairly empty by the end of the week because we really do eat everything up. Of course, this won’t suit everyone but I do think it is worth checking out as you can try a sample of 3 meals before you subscribe. I purchased a year subscription which I think was $49 total.

  13. I live alone, so buying in a freezer that stands out in the garage was a fabulous investment. There are things that just can’t be cooked for one – so I eat them for a day or two, then freeze the rest in individual portions for lunches or days that I don’t feel like cooking. I also buy fruit and fresh veggies in season at the Farmer’s Market, cut them up and freeze them in small bags, so I save money and always have delicious fresh produce, without have to pay grocery store prices.

    Back when I was a kid, my father was in charge of Sunday dinners. He could barely cook, but he was the King of cleaning out the fridge. His 2 favorites were “Crazy Sandwiches” – you would not believe the things that we put between 2 slices of bread! and his Special Spaghetti – mustard, ketchup & some leftover tomato sauce make a great spaghetti sauce. We usually enjoyed these nutty meals, but I do remember getting laughed at once when I took a spaghetti and peanut butter sandwich to school!!

    1. Martha, I was 100% with you – until spaghetti and peanut butter! (Though I bet my husband would at least try it; of the things pictured in the photo with today’s post, he took the taco meat, some salsa, some onions and some mashed potatoes and made a taco-like sandwich!)

      1. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it, Joan — we have a saying in my family, “Everything goes better with Peanut Butter!!!” lol

        1. I’m with you Martha – our technique is “burrito-ing.” I have yet to find leftovers that are not at least palatable in a tortilla with some salsa and black beans. We try to do it a lot because freezing just doesn’t work for us – we’ve tried and things sit for ages and ages and ages.

          Peanut butter makes blah stir-frys and stews delicious – especially on day two or three. We keep a bottle of biryani spice for the same purpose.

  14. Here is some great advice, when it comes to veggies, if you know you’ll use it in the future and it’s on sale buy it! Freeze it in a freezer bag, portion it if you usually eat it in small portions, and you’ll be able to keep them tasking fresh for quite some time. When yellow, red, and orange peppers go on sale I always buy them because I can chop them up into small pieces and freeze them, every time I cook rice or meat I take out a little and toss some in. Sausages, chicken, and ground beef are also great to portion and freeze, if you defrost them you usually have to eat them same day, so portioning your frozen goodies will save you from having to toss out half of a 5 lbs bag of chicken later. Another great idea is SOUPS!!! Get everything you have in the fridge: potato, rice, chicken or meat, and toss it into a broth (based on your meat product -chicken with chicken broth, meat with beef broth), toss in some frozen veggies like carrots, peas, and corn and let it cook. It’s delicious and makes sure you don’t waste all of those goodies in the fridge.

      1. When peppers are on sale, I buy a bunch and throw them out on the backyard grill on the lowest flame for about 15 minutes on each of their 4 sides; turn the grill off, close it and leave it until it’s cold. That makes the most delicious grilled roasted peppers – much better than the ones that come in jars. I put them in a container with a little olive oil, and I add them to salads. Which reminds me that lots of odd leftover items can be thrown into a big salad, which makes it into a full meal.

    1. Thanks, Jenna! You guys have an interesting situation, with the many roommates sharing… and I’m just glad you compost, as do we, which I feel like mitigates some of the damage (and grew me some darn nice pumpkins this year, btw.)

  15. Great topic! We go without meat a lot to save on groceries. And we always eat the leftovers too. I always have leftovers for lunch. We freeze extras of rice and beans and quinoa. The kids usually have the leftovers from their lunches as their after school snacks. And when fruits and veggies are starting to go bad, I’ll make a green smoothie if it’s just greens and fruit, or a soup, burritos, stir-fry, or a frittata with other stuff. I’ve had to get really good with staying on top of the veggies because we’ve been ordering a CSA farm box for the last 3 summers. We have more healthy meals, the food is cheaper in the long run, and it’s local and organic. But I have to chop and cook everything, so, it’s a tradeoff, but totally worth it.

    1. Leah, we are definitely low-meat users too! (Or we make meals that are heavy in something else and use just a little meat for flavor!)

      I’m glad the CSA is working well for you too… we just have too many unusual food “things” in our house to go for ours so far (like my random allergy to most melons!) We’ve been real close, with the idea of simply giving the stuff we can’t keep in the house to friends, but haven’t quite got there yet. Maybe next summer; until then, we are thrilled to buy produce locally anyway, through our market!

      Good idea on the smoothies, too!

      1. Great ideas, Joan. My favorite is the suggestion from a reader to feed it to the chickens! Now that’s the circle of life. I definitely could use some chickens… I’m definitely going to reference and link this in my next blog post about New Years Resolutions, and saving money and time by cooking what you already have in the refrigerator or pantry.

        Although I have to say if you’re REALLY careful about planning the meals in your CSA, you won’t need to have leftovers at all! I truly hesitate to self-promote here, but I can’t help saying that making it easier to use all the unusual food in your CSA is one of the problems we’re aiming to solve at Design My Meals — by automatically uploading all of your items to your online pantry (your CSA gives us the list of items in your next delivery) , and orders suggested recipes for your meal calendarby what you’re getting delivered.

        Agan, great blog! I’m a new follower!

  16. Now that all 4 of my children are move out. I only cook one large meal a week. if it is chicken ( roasted from Sams club 4.99) I have 2 slices of breast and Kirk has a leg/thigh(1 day),Then I remove the rest of the chicken for future meal and cook the meat off the bone for soup(meal2),chicken tacos(meal3),Chicken/rice casarole (meal 4)chicken stir fry(meal5)chicken ala king over toast.(meal 6) ALL THIS FROM ONE LITTE CHICKEN,I ALMOST FEEL SORRY FOR THE CHICKEN! I freeze the meat in 1 cup portions to make these quick meals. I do the same with beef, pork, and hamburger. Challenge a friend to compete with you on who can come up with the best meal for the least money:) Then brag about it to evey one you know, people will get on board quick. Have fun with it.

    1. HA! Dawn, I literally laughed out loud. That poor chicken never knew what hit him/her!

      You’ve also got that key mindset down – make it fun! I love it.

  17. This is not for everybody, but I find I throw leftovers away a lot less since moving abroad.
    That said, my food lifestyle is a lot different since I’m abroad, of course.

    Most refrigerators in Thailand are half the size of US fridges – therefore, I have to make food choices much more carefully, and based on whether they will fit in the fridge at all. Often I fill the thing living by myself – when a friend visited for a month we were struggling. Also – dry goods go in the fridge, because, ants. Sometimes I just eat the ants along with my food, I give up. I know that sounds crazy to most everyone else that might read this; but after awhile it’s like, well blast it they get in everything. They eat the foil!

    Next – I only have a single hot plate, next to my sink on my balcony – therefore I cannot cook multiple dishes at once. If I want to cook a multi-step meal, it takes real planning. Today, I cooked some Italian sausages (a splurge from an expat grocery) and then immediately cooked the pasta to go with – conservation of energy (burner already hot) and planned meal. Remembering what I paid for the sausages is good motivation not to waste them, too.

    Generally I eat street food or splurge on a restaurant (not all are total splurges). Even with my ‘kitchen’ set up, since October is the worst month of monsoon season (and blows onto the balcony), sometimes I just skipped dinner all together or go for microwaved canned soup. Ok so that last part is probably not the best approach even if the miniaturize your fridge and have less ‘kitchen’ part is an idea. I would really like two ‘hot plates’ or stove top burners; that would be a good number to have. Or one of those induction cooker plates. Ah, financial priorities, how you taunt me. But I have found a downsized kitchen is really just fine – before when I inherited grandparents kitchen supplies it was like – when will I ever use this many plates as a single woman? Which only encouraged not washing dishes and storing more leftovers in tupperware in the fridge. Those kitchen supplies have since gone to my sister; who lives with three college room mates and it suits the quartet quite nicely.

    That’s another one – rationed glass tupperware – if you’ve only got so many you can only put food in so many.

    1. Ahhh, you’re so right. I definitely think my issue qualifies for the “first-world problems” disclaimer! Though space is at a premium even here in some ways; I have a friend who lives in New York City, no car, no space, who can only buy a VERY limited number of things at once. But, she has a (tiny) oven! Your hot plate setup would certainly make things interesting!!

    1. Jason, that’s my contention too! We DO plan, and we probably have less of this than some people, but I still feel like it’s costing us!

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  19. Unfortunately thank God we don’t have to throw out anything here. we live on a farm we have 6 cattle 3 goats 30 Chickens 21cats and four dogs 1 ferret an a dwarf rabbit. so we have plenty of things to eat leftovers. and believe me the goat will eat about anything

    1. Leslie, we LOVE goats…we used to have them and you’re right, not a lot of leftover problems!! 😉 Wish our suburban neighborhood now would allow for them!

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