Leftovers: The holiday blessings that keep giving

With the fall and winter holiday season already upon us, we are planning menus and stocking up on ingredients to make family favorites. You may already intentionally plan for leftovers, using "cook once, eat all week" strategies, or you may just know that there will be more potatoes, peas or pie than your nutritionist recommends consuming at one meal. In either case, storing and creatively using the excess may daunt a weary cook.

Studies on food waste in America suggest that most households waste approximately 32% of the food brought into the home, with the most conservative households tossing around 9%. Part of this waste appears to be due to concerns and misapprehensions about safety and "use by" dates. Other reasons may be lack of knowledge about the best way to store individual foods and a lack of planning for tasty ways to use leftovers. The following ideas will help you know what is safe and what is not.

Check the refrigerator temperature. Your first consideration should always be food safety. If you haven't invested in thermometers, get a low cost, rapid read, food thermometer and a couple of refrigerator/freezer thermometers on your next trip to the grocery store. Adjust your refrigerator settings so that the temperatures throughout the refrigerator are below 40° F.

Clean the refrigerator before loading up with ingredients or leftovers. Ideally, you clean your refrigerator once a week to get rid of spills or any deteriorated foods. This will help to minimize germs in the refrigerator and odors that can be absorbed and reduce the quality of stored food. These are important factors, especially for foods like produce that are eaten fresh.

Store in refrigerator- or freezer-safe containers. The best containers will be clear so that the contents are easy to identify and airtight to prevent drying out and absorbing odors. If you are buying new food storage containers, check the label for a little "snowflake" or "freezer safe" statement. Old, recycled plastic containers are not a good choice because they are likely to crack with low, freezer temperatures and they are unlikely to provide an airtight seal.

Position leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer where you won't forget them and label with the date prepared. Refrigerated leftovers should be safe to eat for three to four days in your refrigerator while many frozen leftovers will be safe for several months. Properly refrigerated leftovers can be moved to the freezer after three or four days.

Reheat hot leftovers to an internal temperature of 165° F (use your food thermometer). Even though refrigeration and freezing slow/stop the growth of bacteria, the bacteria are often not killed and will revive when food is heated. Slow cookers are not a good way to reheat leftovers because food is often at bacteria-friendly temperatures for an extended period during reheating. Use the stove top or microwave and bring the foods to at least 140° F before transferring to a hot slow cooker.

Use heat-safe containers for reheating. Most of us use the microwave for reheating. Keep in mind that many plastic food storage bags, brown paper bags, plastic grocery bags, newspaper, aluminum foil, or plastic containers are not safe in the microwave. Some of these may leach toxic compounds into the food.

Many precooked or uncooked foods can be safely frozen and stored. Not everything, but more foods than you might have imagined can be frozen. Instead of wasting small quantities, save them for another meal. Packaging for longer storage in the freezer is especially important, as previously noted. Freezing causes food cells to break, causing liquid loss, dehydration and texture changes. To minimize quality loss, make sure that packaging has no holes in it and that lids are snug. Leave room at the top of containers with liquids for expansion, but plastic wrap or bags or freezer paper should have all the air removed.

A few foods that you may have as leftovers that can be frozen include:

• Whole eggs, egg whites, out of the shell

• Scambled egg or frittatas

• Casseroles with meat, fish, poultry

• Soups and stews

• Butter, hard cheese, milk, heavy cream, yogurt

• Cooked rice

• Vegetables from fresh at home

• Cookie dough

Ideas for using leftovers

While I usually use recipes, leftovers call for more adventuresome cooks and eaters, but there is no shortage of ideas. One friend mentioned that she was able to get her kids to eat anything leftover by wrapping it in a tortilla and deep frying it. Casseroles may have had their heyday in American cooking in the 1950s but remain "comfort foods" for many of us. One such casserole, Turkey Tetrazzini, uses leftover turkey, combined with peas, mushrooms, celery, onions and spaghetti, all cooked in a rich, cheesy cream sauce using up many of the potential leftovers from your Thanksgiving dinner.

Plan ahead with some of the following ideas from the University of Iowa Extension. Use familiar techniques and spices, substituting a different meat, vegetable, grain or fruit, and your family will love it.

Ham: Cut leftovers into cubes and add to scrambled eggs, potatoes, pasta salads, lettuce salads or rice dishes.

Taco meat: Add to chili, top baked potatoes, or make homemade nachos.

Beef/pork roast: Add to vegetable beef stew, use in beef and noodles, or make barbeque sandwiches.

Chicken: Use in soups like chicken noodle or tortilla, make tacos or fajitas, add to salads, wraps, pasta dishes, quesadillas and dips.

Steak: Use for steak and eggs, in a quesadilla, or as a salad topper.

Fish: Use for fish tacos or fish cakes. Mix with sour cream and chives for a fish dip. Make fish chowder with leftover vegetables.

Rice: Make rice pudding or fried rice. Add leftover rice to vegetable soup or chicken broth.

Pasta: Add leftover pasta to soups, pasta salad or stir-fry. 

Bread: Make croutons, French toast or breadcrumbs. 

Grapes/berries: Wash and freeze, add to yogurt, smoothies or ice cream.

Apples: Sauté sliced apples with margarine and cinnamon for a dessert. Use older apples for baking into a pie, cobbler or muffins.

Over-ripe fruit: Add over-ripe fruit like pineapple or banana to smoothies.

Vegetables: Pickle extra vegetables using pickle juice or apple cider vinegar. Add leftover cooked vegetables to soups or stir-fries.

Coffee/iced tea: Freeze extra coffee or iced tea in ice cube trays and add to cold drinks. 

Wine: Freeze wine in 1 tablespoon measurements in an ice cube tray to be used for cooking.

For questions about storing and using leftovers, refer to the USDA at https://bit.ly/3z8v7ko.

Or, call the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension.