Zero-Waste Cooking – The Art of Eliminating Leftover Food

by Texas Homesteader ~ 

Reducing waste in the grocery budget is a hot topic right now. Rushed parents and over-scheduled folks are doing the best they can to keep their grocery budget low in these days of high-priced groceries.

But the USDA estimates that between 30% and 40% of our food is ending up in landfills. 


The USDA estimates that between 30% and 40% of our food ends up in landfills. See our easy tips on eliminating wasted and leftover food. #TexasHomesteader

I’ve written before about various methods we use to keep our grocery bill low. Links to those posts & more are located at the bottom of this article.

But today I’m talking about making sure you’re fully using the food you’ve already purchased. How can you eliminate wasted or leftover food? Below I’m sharing several tips & additional resources including:

      • Only buy what you need.
      • Stick to the shopping list.
      • Portion-control supper plates.
      • Don’t throw away less-than-perfect food.
      • Make new dishes with leftovers. 
      • Proper food storage. 
      • Keep track of food needing to be used. 

Only Buy What You Need To Avoid Food Waste

It’s true that large bag of potatoes is cheaper by the pound, but is it really cheaper if you have to throw many of the potatoes away?

Consider your meal plan and your family’s appetites when buying food to avoid too much being purchased/cooked/leftover/wasted.

Stick To Your Shopping List To Avoid Buying Too Much Food

Do you find yourself picking up impulse items when shopping?

Handmade wicker shopping basket for zero-waste shopping. #TexasHomesteader

Although it’s sometimes helpful to pick up items on a good sale that you know you’ll be using soon, impulse items are more often a waste of your grocery budget money as well as resulting in food waste.

Inventory Your Refrigerator For Tonight’s Meal

One of the most important grocery budget tips is to use the food you have already purchased.

See what I mean?  Use leftovers out of the fridge before they get the chance to go bad.

You can see all my ‘Cooking With Leftovers’ ideas by pressing this button:

Portion Controlled Meal Portions

It’s hard to tell what appetites will be on any given night.

Home-cooked meal of meatloaf, green beans and fried potato cake. #TexasHomesteader

So serve portion-appropriate amounts of food & have other appetite fillers on the table such as pickled okra, cottage cheese, bread or cheese slices to round out the meal.

There are helpful resource links at the bottom of this post to help you know more about food waste. 

Graphic on how to reduce food waste.  #TexasHomesteader

Courtesy of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Remake Less-Than-Perfect Food To Reduce Waste

Take a fresh look at produce going past its prime.

French Toast or even Homemade Breadcrumbs using stale bread.

Roasted Tomatoes from softer tomatoes can be made into flavorful sauce.

Potato Cakes or mashed potatoes from potatoes starting to wrinkle.

It's easy to make your own breadcrumbs using stale bread. #TexasHomesteader

Remake Leftovers Into A Completely Different Meal

Remake leftovers into a completely different meal.

Leftover Chili Cheese Fries into a delicious frittata

Cold leftover rice into Chicken Fried Rice

Grilled chicken leftovers into Chicken Fajitas

Roasted Vegetables using all those fresh veggies from the veggie tray you had leftover from last night’s dinner party.

Roasted fresh vegetables in an easy, healthy dish. #TexasHomesteader

Look at leftovers in a new way for a new meal.

Proper Food Storage To Reduce Food Waste

Proper leftover food storage is important to reducing food waste. I store leftovers in the refrigerator in repurposed see-through glass jars.

The USDA estimates that between 30% and 40% of our food ends up in landfills. See our easy tips on eliminating wasted and leftover food. #TexasHomesteader

Storing items in see-through jars means items needing to be used are easily seen on my refrigerator shelves.

      • Use half an onion for a recipe? The other half goes in a large-mouth jar in the fridge.
      • Need egg yolks for pudding? The egg whites are placed in a jar for incorporation into a future meal.

Eliminate wasted food by storing it in the refrigerator in see-through glass jars. #TexasHomesteader

Because leftovers occupying the fridge are always used quickly there’s not enough overcrowding to have something get shoved to the back and forgotten until it’s too late.

It’s a sure-fire way to help make sure the food you paid for actually gets eaten.

Your Freezer Is Your Friend

And of course if you use the cook-once-eat-twice method of cooking you’re already cooking with the intent of freezing the extra food right away. This eliminates leftovers being placed in the refrigerator in the first place.

Cook-Once, Eat-Twice method of cooking is where you cook lots of a main entree & freeze the excess. #TexasHomesteader

Purposely large amounts of food are cooked & sectioned into proper serving sizes, labeled and stored in the freezer. A homemade meal is heat-n-eat easy.

When I found myself with an Abundance Of Fresh Onions, I went ahead and chopped & sautéed them. Then I stored them in a freezer bag in the freezer.

That means when a recipe starts with ‘Chop & sauté onions until translucent’ – I can use these pre-sautéed onions to speed up the recipe. PLUS I’ve eliminated all those fresh onions from going bad.

Win/win, no?

Kitchen shortcut: Store chopped, sauteed onions in a freezer bag in the freezer.

Just be sure you label your foods & rotate through them quickly so they’re not forgotten or damaged by freezer-burn and wasted anyway!

Keep Track of Food Needing To Be Used

I have a spreadsheet I glance at each morning that shows leftovers to be used, pre-cooked food in the freezer and raw food to be cooked.

Then I use this quick glance for planning tonight’s supper with priority given to refrigerated fresh food first. 

Don’t Throw Food In The Trash – Compost It!

We don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes despite our best efforts, food waste happens.

BUT when food does occasionally get wasted, don’t throw it in the trash. Food in the landfills causes environmental harm.

Instead put it in the compost pile where it can actually still do some good.

Building healthy soil, compost, mulch for garden planting. #TexasHomesteader

Even if you don’t have a garden yourself, your gardening friends (and Mother Nature) will LOVE you for it!

How Do You Eliminate Food Waste?

I’m just sharing a few thoughts on how we keep our wasted food occurrences to a minimum. Your methods may be different.

How do you incorporate leftover items into your food plan to eliminate waste?


Tagged in        A list of recipes made fast by using purposely planned leftovers for some of the ingredients. #TexasHomesteader         A complete list of all our zero-waste living articles. #TexasHomesteader

Links In This Post:





42 thoughts on “Zero-Waste Cooking – The Art of Eliminating Leftover Food

  1. Kathryn

    I love using glass jars. I’ve actually started storing my produce from our CSA in them. They look super pretty, and I remember to use them a lot better than if they were shoved in a drawer in a plastic bag.

  2. bhaun

    We are empty nesters, with my husband retired and me still working. I’ve slowly geared bulk frozen meat, poultry, and pork storage and my recipes to three serving sizes, with the third serving, if not eaten at mealtime, saved for my brown bag lunch. These main dish leftovers usually go into one side of a two compartment Rubbermaid container after dinner, and are fleshed out with a side from dinner, or a fruit or salad from the produce drawer the next morning before work. If I get too many of these to eat up, I freeze just the entree part, and it works just as well. Even downsized, our freezer isn’t as full as when our two boys were at home, and these recycled entrees help keep it fuller so we don’t waste as much energy.
    I do reuse salsa jars, big and little, for planned “this week lunches” such as homemade soups, or “cook at work” jasmine rice or noodles to flesh out entrees. Add dry seasonings directly to the jar, or if wet ingredients are needed, add them in a mini plastic container. At work, just add seasonings, water, and microwave. All of these efforts mean my lunches are free, given that I might have thrown out the leftovers otherwise. At 20+ lunches a month for 10 months a year (I’m a teacher), that’s a considerable savings, provides me with a healthier lunch, and isn’t really hard to do.
    I have three gallon bags in the freezer labeled “beef”, “pork”, and “poultry”, and add veggie and meat scraps to them as I get them. Whenever one is full, it is time to make stock which I then reduce and can in pint jars. Having my own salt free stock sure saves money, time, is healthier for me, and makes homemade meals more possible when I am working as I use it a lot in cooking.
    I also grocery shop using a word processed inventory of what I commonly buy. I made the list several years ago, and modify it as my shopping habits change. It saves time, gas, and money as it limits impulse buying. I just highlight items I’m low on and cross them off my list at the store. This helps me not to overbuy or forget to restock when I need to. I also do a refrigerator clean out every Saturday morning and a good cleaning of my kitchen. That informs my grocery list making, and makes the kitchen a nicer place to work in the following week, encouraging me to cook more from scratch.

  3. Katie

    Great post! I am quite often (unfortunately) throwing food away – I have two young picky eaters and I can’t save baby carrots that have all been licked and nibbled upon :/ HOWEVER I do try to be aware of freezing leftovers before they go bad, reusing things like stale bread for croutons and such. Your idea of cook once eat twice is a great way to think about it – thanks for making us more aware of our waste!!!

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      LOL Katie! It’s rare indeed to have a home with 100% success in food waste, we’re all in different places in our lives with different circumstances. I have a garden cucumber in my fridge right now that may be too far gone – too many refrigerator pickles in the fridge to squeeze in one more cucumber and no other viable way to preserve (freezing or dehydrating). RancherMan’s not a big cucumber fan so I’ve been trying to chill/slice/enjoy with my meals but there’s only so many cucumbers a girl can eat! I’m pretty pleased with my low rate of food waste but when waste does happen at least there’s a composting save! ~TxH~

  4. Maria Brittis

    I am a big believer of left overs! ts probabIy from my upbringing and it has taught me that I need to not take life for granted and I do not like waste. Great post

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      Me too Maria. Seems in today’s fast-paced world that small amount of leftover food often seems not worth our time, but it’s often just as easy to plan to use them instead. ~TxH~

  5. Stephanie Jane

    Planning our weekly meals in advance and shopping armed with a list made a huge impact on reducing our food waste. We only have a tiny freezer in our caravan (love this travelling life!) so need to be extra aware because there’s just no spare space!

    I love your idea of using clear glass jars for leftovers. I have lock-lid plastic tubs, but they’re uniform and opaque so it can be hassle checking through a few when I forget what I’ve stored.

  6. Nina Stoddard

    I don’t like when I have to throw a food in the garbage. I think that this is wrong. What I do to reduce the food waste is to make a checklist before I go to the supermarket. Another thing is to transform one meal into another. When on the one day I cook roast potatoes and vegetables on the other day I use the potatoes to make delicious mash potatoes. So, there is always a way to reduce the food waste.

  7. A

    Love using glass containers because if I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist for me. Have often used leftovers in a dish akin to fried rice although I frequently use other cooked whole grains in place of rice. Many tidbits can be tastily stretched thusly.

  8. Tracy @ Our Simple Life

    I was just telling someone the other day that our grocery bill was about $300 a month and they were shocked and couldn’t believe we could have such a low bill. I was just as shocked when she told me her bill was $800+! My husband calls me the “Leftover Queen”…nothing ever goes to waste and if it does it is given to the chickens or pigs. My favorite leftover tip is to keep a gallon sized container in the freezer and anytime I have leftover vegetables, that can be used for soup, they go in that container. When I have enough I make soup. I have even been known to throw cooked chicken or beef in the mix. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      Although I know the cost of living is different in different regions, by using ALL of what you’ve purchased anyone can save grocery money. Grow a little of those veggies yourself and have a stream of fresh vegetables at your fingertips. ~TxH~

  9. Kathy

    One of the things I love to do is to combine left over bits of meat, starches and vegies into a soup or stew. Wonderful ideas. I do apprecate you sharing with Home and Garden Thursday,

  10. Anne-Marie Bilella

    I love this post!! I save veggie ends as I am cutting up raw veggies and stick them in a freezer bag for soup stocks along with any leftover chicken that hasn’t been repurposed for the next day lunches. Mashed potatoes get made into fried potato patties and now I just saw an amazing recipe for leftover mac and cheese – make a pattie with the cold mac and cheese and dip in panko bread crumbs then fry in oil. Sinful but sounds good!

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      Oh my – breaded & fried mac-n-cheese?? I may just have to try that – sounds amazing! ~TxH~

  11. kate steeper

    Wasting food drives me mad , i was raised by my grandma who had raised 5 kids on her own in the 1930s , she had some really weird and wonderful ideas on the food front . Because she had chickens, everything and anything ended up in scrambled eggs and omelettes didnt matter if it was sweet or savoury , if it was a leftover youd be getting it for breakfast with added egg . Now im just as bad with yogurts going into whatever im cooking

  12. Elisabeth

    I have been going rounds with the hubby about my glass jar collection. He totally does not get why I prefer to store the leftovers that way! We have got to start getting control of waste… I’ve been sick so the kids have been manning the kitchen (which is great… BUT… you know?) Thanks for the inspiration!

  13. CTY

    Wasting things bothers the heck out of me. The three wastes that make me crazy are wasting food, letting a car run idle & running a washer/dishwasher without a full load.
    For the food solution: I make a little less than a serving for each person (unless I am “investment” freezer cooking). I’d rather have them lick their plates at dinner & make them a snack later, then have leftovers. On the rare occasion when there are scraps left (no matter what they are), they become breakfast- either as is or into scrambled eggs.

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      Yes, when we had our four children living at home there was never a clue as to what appetites would be on any given day. Each night I made a main entree and two side-dish veggies and then filled the table with plenty of what I called “filler” – fresh bread, pickled okra, raw carrots, etc. Our kids never left the table hungry and although there were occasionally still leftovers they were usually utilized the next day as lunch for me at work. ~TxH~

  14. Julie@teachinggoodeaters

    One thing that I have found that really cuts down on waste is not being overly ambitious with my meal plans. I tend to get excited about making new things, but it generally takes more time and commitment to actually make something new to me than I anticipate. In the past, I would buy a bunch of ingredients to make all of the great things I saw on Pinterest. However, it was too much, and everything didn’t get made and all of a sudden, I would realize that the meat was past its prime or the vegetables were rotting. Now, I try to stick to tried and true recipes with maybe one new thing tossed in each week (or each month depending on how crazy life is!) I’ve found that I now use up everything that I’ve bought and don’t have the heartbreak of throwing out food that went bad.

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      Julie, you’re absolutely right – keeping the meal plan simple is key to reducing food waste. I like the way you throw in a new & exciting recipe occasionally but for the most part keep it to proven menus your family loves. ~TxH~

  15. Anna@stuffedveggies

    I LOVE your French Toast story! How great is that to make a meal of something that most people would throw to the ducks? : )

    Last night I made Baba Ganoush from a languishing eggplant that would not have lasted another day – it was a great addition to tonight’s dinner.

    I put most of our leftovers in those multi-spot Ziploc or Rubbermaid containers – the ones where you can put the rice & beans in the same container without them touching – and keep them in the freezer. Then, packing a lunch just involves pulling one from the freezer & adding fresh fruit & veggies.

    I used to love it when nut-butters came in straight sided glass freezer jars with the INTENT they’d be reused- wish they’d bring those days back!

    Once in a while, we have a “Dickensian” dinner – you know – where the “Ghost of Dinner Past” stops by to visit ; )

  16. Kate

    Always good to be reminded to eat leftovers! I was buying wide mouth canning jars to store fridge foods….then realized that the jar of salsa was a wide mouth jar I had already paid for! Duh! Now I save the mason jars for canning and use “leftover” jars for fridge foods.

    This may seem a bit too much, but I paint the pickle/salsa/etc jar lids with chalkboard paint, then use a white chalk pen to write what’s in them…”I” know which is mac and cheese, or potatoes au gratin, but the teen seems to unable to identify anything by sight…gotta open and smell each and everything! Plus, my OCD is happy because everything matches…

    I also run my dehydrator every few days, drying fresh veggies and fruits that are just about to be too far gone.
    For some reason, nobody wants to eat the last 6 grapes, and I am always finding half a tomato or an onion in the fridge, leftover from making a sandwich. If I find it quickly, I use it cooking…if it’s been in there longer (but still edible) I slice or chop and dry it. I do this for the chopped veggie toppings left from make your own salad night, too…celery bits, chopped peppers, spinach, carrots, etc. Pretty much anything that is raw or steamed, so long as it hasn’t been buttered.
    Once dry, I can store them in a glass jar for later, but I often grind the veggies into powder and use the mix to flavor soups, stews, omelets, etc.
    I also make huge batches of homemade broths, gravies and spaghetti sauce when there’s a sale or the produce is in season, then I dehydrate them. Once dry, I break them up into chunks/flakes. They store easily in a jar and rehydrate in 15 minutes with hot water. I use them to thicken similar foods, (for example, spag. sauce flakes into chili) are very portable (camping) and I have precious freezer space open for homemade popsicles!

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      MYGoodness Kate, running the dehydrator every few days – brilliant! I also love the thought of dehydrating broth but have never tried it. Do you need the roll-up sheets for your dehydrator? Please share your methods – I’d LOVE to make lower-sodium dehydrated broths! ~TxH~

      1. Kate

        I do have the fruit roll up solid sheets for my dehydrator, but you can also use wax paper or parchment paper to line the racks. I cook my liquids down in the pot ’til they are fairly thick, then spread them on the sheet. It works SO well!

        Also, just another thing I do, (if I’m not hijacking your site..feel free to edit this!) You know those bags and boxes of black beans and rice, or yellow rice, or whatever, that are pre seasoned and you just boil them? They are convenient, but freaky high in sodium, and often with bizarre ingredients that I don’t want my family to ingest. Well, I make my own.
        I cook large batches of beans and rice, seasonings and all (but not salt). Then I dehydrate them, and pop them into jars with tight lids. Voila! “instant” beans, and or rice, pre-seasoned. Ready to pop into boiling water, and ready to eat in about 15 minutes or so…just add salt to taste.

        I measure out the beans prior to drying them…say I have 2 cups. Then I measure them again after drying…now I might have 3/4 cup. I know I’ve lost 1 and 1/4 cup of water, so that’s what I boil them in, when I want a quick dinner. I just use a chalk marker and write it on the jar…”Brown rice- add 1/2 C rice to each C of water.”

        Seriously..when you want dinner in less than 30 minutes, and you need to spend 20 of those minutes getting ready for the kid’s soccer game….those “instant” meals are a life saver!


  17. sue@thet2women

    Lots of great ideas here! One of my neighbors used to have “must-go “night. I loved that name! 🙂 The evening consisted of everything being pulled out of the frig and reheated or fix and set out buffet style to sample all you wished. Made eating left-overs fun!

    Thanks for sharing once more at One Sharendipity Pl this weekend!
    sue @ T2

  18. Heidi

    I often freeze leftover meat cut up to be used later – chicken goes into pasta, curries, on pizza, etc, pork gets used for fried rice, steak gets used for rogan josh, pasta, etc. Same with vegetables – they can get added to soups and curries or pasta later. Freezing takes the urgency out of using it up right away.

  19. May

    You have me thinking about how the economic downturn was eye opening. How many jars like that have I tossed into recycle only to run to Target to pick up some rubbermaid containers for left-overs?! Ridiculous!

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      May, like you I started to think about things I threw away (or recycled) then in turn had to buy a product to do what the recycled items would have done in the first place! Mindful consumption has been groundbreaking for me! LOL ~TxH~

  20. Eunice

    I love all the previous suggestions! What I am trying to do is to clean the fridge every Friday before our grocery shopping trip. That way we take inventory before adding to the fridge. Of course, a weekly meal plan would be the cherry on top! Baby steps, baby steps.

  21. Jacqueline @

    I make a lot of soups the old way they did/still do in rural southern France,based in broth. I add most leftover vegetables and things coming in from the garden, then I add various herbs and sometimes spices from India. The resulting soups are nutritious and very tasty, but always different. Our family has grown to love the warming and satisfying soups. I also use up leftover oatmeal to our grass-fed ground beef and some chopped onion for a amazing steak burger patty.
    This is such a helpful post for all of us who cook a lot!!

  22. Jennifer

    Wow, thanks for sharing! We use the “cook-once-eat-twice” method, but we only make enough for lunches the next day. My fiance used to eat out for lunch every day, but putting leftovers straight into lunch containers is really helping.

  23. LydiaF

    Great idea for using glass jars for storing leftover bits! Anything to reduce the amount of plastic we use.

  24. Alison at NOVA Frugal Family

    The other night my husband put stuffing away in the fridge (which was super nice) but I was planning on freezing. Because I didn’t do it right away, it didn’t get eaten (or frozen) and I had to throw it away last night. I am trying to be better about not wasting food and planning to use all leftovers or freeze them in a timely fashion. I just had a few leftover meals that were re-inventing the leftovers into new meals last weekend. I usually save the weekends for my leftover meals to work my creativity making paninis, fried rice or other creative dishes. I am going to try to be a little better about not letting anything go to waste going forward. Thanks for the reminder!!!

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      Alison, I know what you mean. You hate to complain since your man *is* in the kitchen helping, but frustrating things like that happen sometimes. I always chalk it up to ‘Things Happen Sometimes’ and don’t fret too much about that every-now-and-then occurrence. I love your determination to keep from wasting food – way to go! ~TxH~

  25. Allie | Baking A Moment

    This is a great topic! I’m also always looking for ways to reduce our waste, and we plan our meals in much the same way. I HATE throwing food away. It’s tough with two small children, they almost never seem to finish their plates. Some great tips here, though! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      Thanks Allie – I think we’re all in the same boat these days trying to fully utilize the groceries we buy (or grow in our gardens) It’s always hard with little ones not knowing how much they’ll eat on any given day. My babies are grown now but when they were little I used to give them ridiculously small portions of each of our supper items with the understanding when it was eaten they could have a little more – as much as they wanted. I still miscalculated some nights. LOL ~TxH~

  26. happy momma

    we make alot of soups for lunch around here. We pull whatever is leftover and make a soup out of it. My son brags about how good his soups are. He loves to help cook and he is only seven. Sometimes leftovers also go on top of a salad for lunch.
    Making a point to use leftovers is the key. Leaving it until it goes bad is not an option at our house. I try to keep things rotated so that we do not end up with “science experiments” growing in the back of the fridge. Sometimes what’s for dinner starts with “what’s in the fridge” I look and find inspiration there. We buy tons of fruits and veg and eat them, so often it is which of the veg need used first.

  27. Redd

    When our kids were home we used the planned left-overs method. Which went something like: Sunday dinner roast, Monday leftover roast in to spaghetti sauce over noodles/garlic bread from Sunday’s bread, Tuesday, mini pizzas on garlic bread, Wednesday, chilli from spaghetti sauce, Thursday, left over noodles became mac and cheese or cassrole. Friday/Saturday, breakfast for dinner or fend for your self nights.

    Anything that didn’t get eaten at that point went to the dogs or the hogs…

    Now, without the kids (and fewer dogs and no hogs) I freeze mini meals from the leftovers where possible – some things don’t freeze well. I do make it a habit of chopping up the whole onion, and putting the ‘extra’ in a freezer bag for the next time. I do the same thing with peppers, saves prep time too.

    Anyway, that’s what I do, thanks for listening.

  28. Bee Girl

    We enjoy “fend for yourself” dinners during which we each get to eat whatever we want to. Usually this evening involves eating any leftovers that are hanging around 🙂

    1. Texas Homesteader Post author

      “Fend For Yourself’ meals are a great way of making sure food is consumed in a timely manner, plus it gives the cook a night off! ~TxH~

    2. Kristi Stone

      Too funny—we actually use the term “FFY” for those days that I can’t cook due to busyness, illness, or whatever. Otherwise we have a leftover night, which works out awesome for us. We don’t usually pull many science projects out of the fridge, thankfully, but Tammy has got me thinking about how full the homemade condiments and leftovers shelf in the fridge is.


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