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Make Good Use of Leftover Food

November 23, 2016

“This is a good use of leftovers,” I commented to my husband and daughter.

We were having potato and ham soup made from the leftover baked ham and mashed potatoes I had made the previous night.

The next evening, my husband was on cooking duty again. He pulled a casserole out of the oven. The aroma was familiar. You guessed it: The casserole was made with ham and potatoes, with the addition of cheese.

“OK, how much ham and potatoes are left?” I asked as I looked at the creation. He laughed at my reaction.

“We have some ham left,” he replied.

“Let’s freeze the ham,” I replied. Under my breath, I added, “And have ham again three months from now.”

Even though I like ham and potatoes, I can handle only so much of a good thing.

We really need to figure out how to cook for a smaller family. Our household dropped from five to three people in the last few months as our older children moved out of our house for life in an apartment and dorm. We still are buying and preparing too much food.

With holidays on the horizon, you might have some leftover turkey, ham or roast beef. Freezing in recipe-sized amounts is always a good plan, especially if you cannot use the food within four days.

Unfortunately, the word “leftovers” often has a bad connotation. Think of your extra food as “planned-overs” that you can use in a new way.

However, if you forget your planned-overs in the back of the refrigerator, the food might end up getting tossed when it is discovered.

Worldwide, about one-third of food is lost or wasted through losses in the production system and at the point of the consumer. That adds up to about $1 trillion in wasted food worldwide. In fact, one in four calories never is eaten.

On average, about 20 pounds of food per person per month is wasted by people living in the U.S.

Especially around the holidays, we may become “quantity cooks” when we have relatives and friends over to enjoy meals. We may have planned-over foods as a result. Let’s not waste it.

Keep food safety in mind with extra food. Improper temperature is the worst enemy of perishable food, so cool foods quickly by dividing large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers. Slice meat into smaller pieces. Thick foods, such as stew, should be no more than 2 inches deep in a shallow container.

Freeze planned-overs in recipe-sized portions. Label the container with the date and type of food. Otherwise, you could have a surprise when you thaw and open the food.

Be sure to use refrigerated planned-over foods within three to four days. Reheat gravy and meat to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Instead of letting planned-over food go to waste, be creative. Consider these ideas for making good use of extra food:

Planned-over Roast Turkey or Chicken

  • Make soup, casseroles, quesadillas, white chili, stir-fry or enchiladas.
  • Shred it, add some mayonnaise and chopped celery, and use it to make sandwiches.
  • Add some salsa and use it for chicken tacos.
  • Simmer it with barbecue sauce and make sandwiches.

Planned-over Roast Beef

  • Use it to make soup, stew or stir-fry.
  • Shred it, add some barbecue sauce, heat it and serve it on buns.

If you happen to have any leftover roasted turkey, here’s a tasty way to enjoy it. Visit and click on “Recipes” for lots of options when you search for “turkey recipe.”

Slow Cooker Chicken or Turkey Tortilla Soup

1 pound chicken or turkey breast, boneless and skinless (or 3 c. chopped roasted turkey)

1 (16-ounce) jar salsa

3 c. chicken broth, reduced-sodium

2 Tbsp. “Mexican blend” seasoning or low-sodium taco seasoning (see recipe provided)

1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 (16-ounce) package frozen corn

Optional toppings (shredded cheese, plain Greek yogurt, tortilla chips)

Place chicken in slow cooker. Top with remaining ingredients. Cook on low for six to seven hours or high for four hours. Remove chicken, shred and add back to slow cooker. If desired, serve topped with shredded cheese, a dollop of yogurt and tortilla chips.

Makes 10 servings. Each 1-cup serving has 210 calories, 2.5 grams (g) fat, 19 g protein, 30 g carbohydrate, 8 g fiber and 530 milligrams sodium.

Mexican Blend: yields 3 Tbsp. plus 1/2 tsp.

1 1/2 tsp. dried parsley

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. black pepper

1 Tbsp. chili powder

1 tsp. paprika

1 1/2 tsp. cumin

Mix together and store in an air-tight container or zip-top bag. Use the seasoning in the recipe provided, or add to cooked chicken or ground beef to make tacos.

Source: Julie Garden-Robinson, North Dakota State University