Think You Hate Leftovers? Think Again.

A friend of mine was laid off from her job three months ago. Not surprising, given the current economy. Anyway, like many people, she’s in over her head financially. Without her salary her family is having trouble making ends meet. Since it looks like she might be out of work for awhile, she came to me for help on stretching their budget.

One of the first areas we tackled was food. With three kids, food is a big money drain in their house. As part of the plan, I introduced her to “once a month cooking.” (For those who don’t know, once a month cooking is when you spend one or two days cooking all of your main meals for the month. Then you freeze it all and bring out what you need each day as the month progresses. You save time and money doing this. If you make things in bulk, it takes less time to make a big batch of something and freeze it than it does to make the same thing three separate times during the month. You save money because with meals already prepared, there is no need to hit a restaurant because you’re in a hurry or because you have nothing to cook.)

After I explained the method to her, she was really excited. She could see that the time and money savings were going to be substantial and helpful for her. After the first month, I asked her how it went.

“Well, it didn’t go so well,” she admitted.

“What went wrong?” I asked.

“No one liked the food. They felt like they were eating leftovers all month. All I heard was complaints about how everything tasted bad reheated and they wanted ‘fresh’ food. I ended up throwing most of it out because no one would eat it and we went to restaurants instead. We wasted all that money,” she said sadly.

I was puzzled by this. The recipes she used were ones that freeze very well. Once they were reheated they shouldn’t have tasted any different from “fresh” food. I’d coached her on the best storage methods and I knew she hadn’t left anything in the freezer long enough to get freezer burn, so I wasn’t sure what the problem was.

“Maybe you could come over and talk to them,” she asked.

“Sure,” I agreed.

On the appointed day, I showed up at her house for “the lecture.” I showed them how much money they were saving and how much time mom was saving by cooking this way. I explained to them that the food was okay if it was frozen. No one was in danger of getting food poisoning. I told them that if they partnered with friends in the once a month cooking game they could get a lot of variety. I explained that, once heated, the food tasted exactly the same as if it had been made that day. I told them that things like garnishes, condiments, etc. were added “fresh” after the reheating to keep those items from soaking into the food and tainting the taste. I used every argument in the book. None of it made a difference.

“It’s leftovers,” dad and the kids said. “And we hate leftovers. We want food that’s prepared fresh. It’s gross to eat stuff reheated. What’s the point in her cooking this way when we don’t want to eat it?”

Okay, fine. I know when I’m beaten. I could see, though, that my friend really wanted this to work. She could see the potential. So I thought some more. Then inspiration hit. The next month when it came time for my friend to shop for her once a month cooking session I invited her whole family along. We loaded up the husband and kids in the car and headed for the store. As we walked the aisles, I told them to pick the things that they liked and would eat.

Dad and the kids made a beeline for the frozen food section. They picked out pizzas, burritos, stuffed chicken, Bubba Burgers, Uncrustable sandwiches, Hot Pockets, stuffed potatoes, frozen bagged meals, and frozen dinners like Lean Cuisine and Hungry Man. I’m sure they thought I was insane when I burst out laughing.

“What’s so funny?” the father asked.

“You won’t eat the things your wife makes and freezes but you’ll eat things that someone else makes and freezes?” I was laughing so hard I could hardly breathe by that point.

“It’s not the same,” the fifteen year old challenged.

“Isn’t it?” I asked. “Your mom made enchiladas last month and froze them. How is that any different from that frozen burrito you’re holding in your hand that someone else made and froze? It’s the same with that Lean Cuisine chicken parmigiana. Your wife made chicken parmigiana last month and froze it but you wouldn’t eat it. But you’ll eat that chicken parmigiana that someone else made and froze in a cardboard box? If she bought all of this stuff right now you’d eat it?” I asked.

“Well, yeah,” said the father.

“I’ve got news for you,” I said. “The only difference between this frozen stuff and the stuff your wife made are the ingredients and the cost. She made things with healthier ingredients than you’ll find in any of this stuff. Fewer preservatives, less fat and calories, and less sodium. And the price for her to make this stuff is incredibly cheap versus the price to buy it pre-made. That pizza you’re holding that’s six dollars? She made the exact same thing for under two dollars.

“You call her food leftovers and refuse to eat it. But when you get right down to it, how is it any different from this?” I asked, waving a hand over the cart loaded with frozen food. “This stuff is all cooked at the plant and then frozen. These are really the leftovers from a one-thousand serving dinner, cut up into individual sizes and packaged.”

Silence on aisle three as they pondered this. I could see them looking for an objection, any objection to my words. My friend clutched my arm as she could sense victory looming. I waited. Finally the husband spoke.

“I guess I see your point. It does seem silly when you put it like this,” he said. He looked at his kids. “We’ll try again, won’t we?” he asked them.

“Yeah, sure,” said the oldest, unenthusiastic, but at least willing.

We went back to the front of the store and began shopping again, this time for ingredients instead of pre-made meals. The next month was far more successful. The family put aside their objections to “reheated” food and reminded themselves that it was really the same as the frozen food in the grocery store. My friend and I have paired up and we each make several meals and trade so that there is more variety for them to choose from.

I hear all the time how much people hate leftovers and how much they hate food that has been prepared ahead of time and frozen. I hear every objection. How reheated food tastes gross. How freezing ruins the taste of the food. How fresh is so much better. And on and on. But many of these same people are more than happy to eat frozen food from the grocery store.

The moral of this story is this: What you think of as “leftovers,” is often nothing more than “frozen food.” They are the same thing: Food that someone has prepared, cooked, and then frozen so that it may be preserved for consumption at a later date. Only the “leftovers” you won’t eat are much healthier and prepared for a fraction of the cost as the stuff in the store. The next time you’re tempted to turn up your nose at leftovers, think about it.

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24 Responses to Think You Hate Leftovers? Think Again.

  1. David G. Mitchell says:

    Jennifer — Excellent article and message! I very much enjoyed reading it.


  2. Annie Jones says:

    I would add that almost any time one eats in a buffet line, full service restaurant or catered dinner, they are eating at least some food that was prepared hours or even days ahead of time and reheated.

    Perhaps the steak was cooked fresh to order, but those cheesy smashed potatoes that go with it are probably made from leftover baked potatoes from the night before.

    No different than leftovers at home.

  3. kerry says:

    AWESOME. Thanks for this, Jennifer! This is a terrific article, and such a beautifully simple response to a really common perception problem. Great job!

  4. kerry says:

    @ Annie Jones:
    well… one small (or not so small!) difference — @ home leftovers are free :) good point, tho’!

  5. catmom says:

    Wow! Never thought of it that way. What a great story…. and thank you!

  6. Marissa says:

    LOL!…loved it!
    my family loves leftovers… but I cannot do the cook once a month thing because my freezer is super small…

  7. justme says:

    my family appreciates my cooking and it makes it easy for me to enjoy cooking for them,

    if anyone said that stuff was gross and needed to be prepared fresh that person would be in charge of cooking dinner

  8. Hilary says:

    Perhaps you’ve already posted on this, but I would love to see a post with the recipes and strategies that you described to your friend! I am struggling with cooking and could use some good advice for once-a-month cooking.

  9. Count me as a lucky one that doesn’t hear family complaints about ‘left overs’ or frozen dinner.

    I like to cook, am creative and make meals with several SMALL portioned items so there is always a choice for the kids.

    My BEST tip: Serve a fresh fruit or vegetable with EVERY meal. Even if it is just sliced apples with peanut butter dip. Or thinly sliced oranges rolled on toothpicks.

    Really, the shape and appearance make the difference.

    We also grow vegetables in the yard which are indispensible in freshening up any meal.

  10. M E 2 says:

    I myself don’t mind leftovers. BUT, if she is unemployed, I don’t get why your friend can’t cook dinner most, if not, every night? Plenty of people who DO have a job and/or work full-time do it. Plus, it doesn’t sound like her children are all that young si that they need all her time and/or attention.

  11. Aya @ Thrive says:

    Is it the fact that they knew the food was frozen that turned them off? If mom kept it a secret, would it not make a difference? Frozen food IS so expensive, I remember Smuckers had their PB&J uncrustable sandwiches that were about $5 for 3 sandwiches or so. If you bought a jar each of PB&J and bread, imagine how many sandwiches you could make!

  12. Caoineag says:

    I have to admit, my big objection to leftovers is eating something more than 3 times in a month (really just can’t do it). So I go the opposite way and am learning to cook smaller portions so we can have more variety and not waste food.

  13. catmom says:

    If this is okay to post…I don’t cook but I just found this great website the other day called
    she mostly seems to cook with the crock pot, generally very few ingredients and very easy stuff to make. If it wasn’t that I’m a household of one I’d be even more tempted to try her recipes. They all sound awesome. Caution: sometimes her language would be a little offensive to some.

  14. Analise says:

    Great post. I am thankful my DH loves leftovers, and I try to be creative with them. For example, tonight I made a stir fry with leftover pork roast and steamed broccoli but added fresh bok choy, onions and mushrooms. It was as good as anything made completely “fresh.” I was raised that it is a sin to throw away food when so many in the world are dying of starvation, so I am sure guilt is a factor with us. Nonetheless, we strive to never throw away food.

  15. shahrul azwad says:

    Excellent post! A fresh take!

  16. Jo says:

    An excellent article Jennifer. Buy meat and vegetables in bulk when on sale and then prepare and freeze By doing this, we save a fortune and can afford the odd meal out.

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  18. baselle says:

    I loved this post. It really tells you the power of branding – the frozen items the family picked up were all advertised on TV as something other than frozen food. Healthy, quick, good, tasty, not something nameless that your mom pulled out of the freezer. It might help leftover acceptance even more to note the food ads and to cut back on the TV a bit.

  19. Sammy says:

    How true! Cooking in advance certainly does help. Even if one cannot cook for the whole month, cooking for the next week will also make a difference.

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  21. ThiNg says:

    I hope my kids never read this, but we put homemade or no-name versions of the same items into name brand boxes in the freezer and the kids don’t know!!

    I buy the giant bulk box of something, let’s say POGOs (corn dogs) then when it gets about half way empty, we start ‘refilling’ it with our own homemade versions (much healthier) or no-name brands (which the kids won’t eat). So when I send the eldest down to get POGOs from the freezer, he can assure the youngest that were the real thing…

    We only run into trouble when items are individual sealed in the box, but we get pretty creative. We open 4-5 items and then reseal them in a vacuum sealed bag (family sized portions). We mix them up so some are brand name some are ‘alternatives’.

    Now, if only I could find away to individually seal cheese to substitute for cheese strings!!!

  22. CMS says:

    I enjoyed the article but this would not be a problem in my Family. Growing up i was expected to eat all of what was in front of me whether i liked it or not. Now i am a parent and it’s the same. There is no way any of my kids would show disrespect for any effort someone else made on behalf of the family.

  23. Ann says:

    Just can’t do leftover meals. I’m single, no boyfriend, no kids, no dog. I love to cook but then I end up with all this extra food. I’m not a big eater. With good intentions, I freeze some of the leftovers only to throw them out 6 months later when my freezer is too full. This sounds so wasteful, but I’m getting ready to clean out the fridge which means bye-bye meatloaf, bye-bye marinara sauce, bye-bye sauteed greens, etc. One of the reasons I don’t like leftovers is that on the day I made that particular meal, that was what I wanted that day. Later, it’s not appetizing. I try to prepare smaller amounts but some things just don’t work well like trying to make just 2 cups of beef stew. Oh well. I applaud those of you enjoying your leftovers. Want some of mine?

  24. kalex says:

    After reading that and seeing the whole “its the same as frozen at home leftovers” argument, I really gotta say its a crock. The author said it him/herself the difference between frozen store food and the stuff at home is the ingredients. All the crap at the store is made with stuff to make them taste good when reheated, at home stuff is made with ingredients to taste the best when it is originally made.

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