Updated March 21, 2012, 8:23 p.m. ET
Leftovers: Tasty or Trash?
With Food Prices High, There's Guilt About Waste But Dread of the Reheated Dinner
In Ondria Witt's kitchen, last night's roast chicken is tonight's enchiladas. Stale bread becomes bread pudding.
Just don't tell her husband. "I fear if I do he'll be like, 'No. I'll go get a pizza,' " says Ms. Witt, 29, a stay-at-home mother in Salisbury, N.C.
An average U.S. family of four spends $500 to $2,000 each year on food that ends up in the garbage.
"I'd rather eat a spoonful of peanut butter than eat leftovers," says Sacha Witt, a 26-year-old classical bass trombone player who also does home repair work. Even so, Mr. Witt hates to think about all the leftovers that end up in the trash. "You're like, 'Oh man, how much money have I wasted?' "
The food we throw away is getting more attention, as prices continue to rise. Still, it's a challenge for home cooks to resist the temptation to eat out or order in. It's hard work using up all the food we have languishing in our refrigerators, freezers and pantries. And it takes creativity to prepare leftovers that will appeal to picky eaters.
But there is a reward for those who learn how. The average U.S. family of four spends from $500 to $2,000 a year on food they never eat, according to researchers' estimates.
Food is the second-largest component in the U.S. solid waste stream, after paper and paperboard. Once paper and paperboard are removed for recycling, food ends up as the largest component in U.S. landfills and incinerators, weighing in at 33 million tons in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"People have started equating throwing food away with throwing away cash," says Steve Pawl, vice president of marketing for Rubbermaid, which along with Ziploc and Pyrex are introducing food-storage products aimed at concerns about food waste and leftovers.
Rubbermaid's Produce Saver container has a "fresh vent," which allows air to circulate, and a "crisp tray," which lifts produce away from moisture—features the company says extend the refrigerator life of produce.
Life With Leftovers
Some experts' tips for dealing with leftovers are simple, while others are more challenging.
Store smarter. Immediately storing washed herbs and greens in an airtight container with damp paper towels in the refrigerator makes them last much longer.
Separate foods. Bananas, apples and pears give off ethylene, which ripens other fruits and vegetables stored near them.
Dress them up. Put leftovers in attractive glass jars to make them look more appetizing and visible, says Tamar Adler, author of "An Everlasting Meal."
Make soup. Meat bones or vegetables can make a stock and other leftovers (vegetables, meat, grains, pasta, etc.) can be added, with seasoning, to make soup.
Add eggs. Soft boil them as a topper for leftover sautéed greens, rice, soup or pasta, says Ms. Adler.
Cook more at once. Cook enough beans to have as a side dish one night, and then sauté with broccoli and parsnips for a stir fry the next night, says Michael Anthony, executive chef at Gramercy Tavern.
Go pesto. Sauté broccoli and cauliflower stalks, then blend in a food processor with a hard cheese like Parmesan, along with garlic and olive oil and perhaps any about-to-go-bad herbs and nuts to make pesto for pasta, a toast spread or a soup garnish, says Ms. Adler.
Why We Buy Too Much
It's counterintuitive: People tend to overestimate what they need at the store when they are well-stocked at home, research shows.
How Much We Throw Out
Vegetables are the most commonly wasted food in the average American home. Each home throws out $92 of fruits and vegetables a year.
Vegetables are the most commonly wasted food in U.S. homes, making up some 25% of avoidable waste, according to CleanMetrics Corp., a software firm that analyzes the environmental impact of products and businesses.
Without a well-researched shopping list, most grocery shoppers will naturally create food waste by overbuying, says Brian Wansink, professor of marketing at Cornell University's Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who studies eating and shopping behavior.
People tend to overestimate what they need at the store when they are well-stocked at home, and to underestimate what they need when they don't have enough, he says.
"You have it in your mind that you have barbecue sauce," says Dr. Wansink. "But since you've been thinking about it, it must be because you need it," when in fact you have several bottles. In addition to the tendency to overbuy, people tend to stockpile. According to Dr. Wansink, about 93% of people say they have something in their kitchen three years or older, and when asked, they said they intend to hold on to the item.
A popular recipe on the Betty Crocker website is "Bottom of the Cereal Box Cookie," which uses the uneaten flakes and crumbs found in the boxes gathering dust in our cupboards.
People respond to recipes that transform leftovers so they "suddenly become something that people want," says Jennifer Kalinowski, assistant manager of the food content strategy group at Betty Crocker, which is owned by General Mills .
"Consumers have a tremendous guilt about wasting food," says Kelly M. Semrau, chief sustainability officer at S.C. Johnson & Son, which makes Ziploc products. In a Ziploc ad campaign, people buying food at the grocery store specifically to throw it away.
Ziploc research indicates that more people are buying meat in bulk to take advantage of discounts and club-store prices, yet the meat often goes to waste, Ms. Semrau says. Earlier this year, Ziploc introduced portion-size plastic bags to be inserted inside its freezer bags, to make freezing and storing large quantities of raw meat easier and more effective. Leftovers make up about 12% of the contents of refrigerator-freezers, Ziploc says.
In the U.K., food waste is a public concern and a rallying point for politicians and corporations, similar to the issue of childhood obesity in the U.S. In recent years, U.K. grocery stores have tested ways to discourage overbuying, including "buy one, get one later" promotions at chains likeSainsbury's and Tesco .
Just over half of avoidable food and drink waste comes about because products weren't used in time, according to a 2009 report from the Waste & Resources Action Programme in the U.K. About 40% of this waste is made up of leftovers, categorized as "cooked, prepared or served too much."
In the U.S., fears about food-borne illness and confusion about product "sell-by" dates are to blame for some food waste. "I refuse to eat anything if it's on or past the expiration date," says Alexis Carscadden, a 27-year-old librarian at a Chicago culinary school. She buys only what she and her husband, a leftover hater, plan to eat within about 48 hours; she shops for groceries four or five times a week.
Busy Americans' love of eating out was sending the home-cooked meal into decline for years. The number of meals consumed in the home was declining in the U.S. until 2002 and then began to increase, according to NPD Group, a market research firm. Spending on restaurant and takeout meals, meanwhile, still makes up about half of food expenditures, the firm's data indicate.
Eating at home doesn't always mean cooking, says Harry Balzer, vice president at NPD. Some foods that are becoming more popular in home meals don't require cooking, such as yogurt and cheese "as a base dish" along with nuts, chips, and bars. "There is not a recession in the world that is going to make you want to cook more," Mr. Balzer says.
Leftovers have been a contentious issue for a long time. "A judicious use of leftover food is commendable provided the housewife knows how far her economical impulses may carry her without a family protest," cautioned the 1951 edition of "The Joy of Cooking." Later editions warned, "You have to watch leftovers for color. Sometimes they need freshening up." They recommend adding color-contrasting sauce, greens or pimento to dull green beans to make them look more appealing.
Chefs and authors are championing leftovers and elevating scraps like cauliflower stems, chicken livers and ginger peel to ingredient status. Last year, Ruth Reichl, editorial adviser to Gilt Taste, Gilt Groupe's food writing and sales website, and former editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine, helped develop a column called "Eats Shoots and Leaves," about cooking with things like corn silk and carrot greens.
The microwave oven, for all its convenience, may actually limit leftovers' horizons. "Before the microwave it wasn't so easy to reheat leftovers," says Ms. Reichl. "I think people used to think more creatively."
Eggs are useful for transforming leftovers, says Tamar Adler, author of "An Everlasting Meal, Cooking with Economy and Grace." A poached or soft-boiled egg on top of rice, soup, or tomato sauce makes a meal.
What Food Dates Really Mean
Expiration dates and "sell by" dates on food are often set by manufacturers and intended to guide grocers and shoppers about peak freshness—not as a safety gauge. The dates are generally not set by the federal government, with the exception of infant formula.
"After the date passes, while not of best quality, the product should still be safe if handled properly and kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below for the recommended storage times," says the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. Dating foods like eggs is required by some states.
The issue is getting more attention in the U.K., where reducing food waste has become a political flash point. The government there advised grocery stores last year to stop using "sell by" and "display until" dates to reduce avoidable food waste, saying the dates aren't an indicator of food safety.
"Give it a smell, look at it, maybe even taste it," before tossing food, suggests Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, a book about food waste. "We have fairly well-developed instincts as a species for knowing if something is good or not."
Write to Sarah Nassauer at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared March 21, 2012, on page D1 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Leftovers: Tasty or Trash?.
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