Linking Meals, Using Up & Making Do

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These are not my teacups. They’re my sister-in-law’s, because she is classier than I am.

“Now the aim of the good woman is to use the by-products, or, in other words, to rummage in the dustbin.” –G. K. Chesterton, “The Romance of Thrift”

First, let me say, there is nothing wrong with just having a meal plan rotation. I have recipes I use over and over and even a homemade cookbook of favorites. But I often find I have things to use up, and wanted to share my strategies for avoiding waste in the kitchen.

The first method is to embrace the Internet as your friend in finding a way to combine what’s on hand. I’ll offer two recent examples:

The other day, having spent its daylight hours outdoors in unseasonably warm weather, I settled for a taco kit kicking around the pantry since early postpartum days. In rooting around the fridge I found only some drying-out baby carrots. From there, I could have gone in two directions off the top of my head — some sort of lime carrot slaw for on top of the carrots or roasted carrots seasoned for Mexican food, since we love roasted vegetables so unreasonably. Going with the latter, I found this recipe and was able to use up things I already had. If you’re an intuitive cook, of course, you can cobble something together without a recipe.

Another time, I returned home from a potluck with all my bread eaten up but two partial jars of my parents’ excellent satsuma marmalade left. Since J has an abiding love of pot roast and we have a freezer full of a quarter cow, I browsed “slow cooker marmalade pot roast” recipes until I found one I could manage. This time I had to buy Chinese five spice powder, but at this point in my cooking skills and budget, I’m comfortable buying one exotic ingredient for a recipe, tolerably confident that if we don’t like this dish, we will find another use for it.

The second approach, though, is to have several template dishes for using things up. My favorite is frittata, but my parents favor fried rice, and you might like a fridge-clearing soup, chili, or pasta casserole best. (A friend who can’t eat dairy pointed out that frittatas are pathetic without cheese, so you may have to experiment.) The important thing is a flexible dish whose variations on a theme are usually home runs for your family. So, for example, I’ve been fiddling with breakfast casseroles recently, using maple sausage or breakfast sausage, goat cheese or cheddar, hash browns or the end of a bag of French fries, maybe a bit of vegetables — whatever’s kicking around that day.

These sorts of meals are the glue between more carefully scripted dinners in our house. Most of our leftovers from previous dinners are demolished as grownup lunches, but inevitably, leftover ingredients remain languishing in the kitchen. I find these sorts of meals to also be an opportunity for creativity and a source of direction in an all-year-round grocery store world when one can make anything anytime. It can be fun, like a challenge, like hopping from rock to rock across a stream:

But many a good housekeeper plays the same game every day with ends of cheese and scraps of silk, not because she is mean, but on the contrary, because she is magnanimous; because she wishes her creative mercy to be over all her works, that not one sardine should be destroyed, or cast as rubbish to the void, when she has made the pile complete.

What strategies do you have for keeping momentum rolling in your meal planning?

17 thoughts on “Linking Meals, Using Up & Making Do

  1. My mom has a talent for delicious simple pastry crusts, and her go to was a big pastry loaf with leftover meat, veggies, and sometimes gravy. I was just thinking yesterday as I put away the remnants of a pot roast that I need to have her teach me how to make that crust.

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  2. I am terrible at this! I hate leftovers and can hardly make scrambled eggs without a recipe. Putting leftover meat on a salad or quesadilla is about as creative as I get!

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  3. Blah, I’m so bad at using random ingredients that would otherwise be wasted. Logan, however, is better at it, thankfully. So he usually jumps in with an idea of how to use something (like make a pizza and throw that extra shredded pork on top!) which is extremely helpful. But mostly I just buy exactly what we need and/or make recipes that don’t have any leftover ingredients. I also make sure to chop up all produce and freeze whatever I don’t use. Because I know I will forget about those extra carrots – but hey, now they’re chopped in the freezer to be used for a soup whenever I want!

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  4. ME too on that recipe book please! Sourdough adventuring has forced me to figure out what to do with the discard. Are you still sourdoughing?

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    • I am! It’s going ok. I make a ton of bread (4-6 loaves a week?) and give some away, as well as trying to give away starter to anyone who is even vaguely interested 🙂
      And I’ll make you a photocopy, too, if you promise not to judge all the typos and mistakes—I hated the site I used and just wanted to be done!

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  5. I make stuffed biscuits with odds and ends sometime. They’re a little like hot pockets, I guess, made with Bisquick biscuit dough. I’ll throw in bits of ham, cheese and broccoli, or leftover shawarma chicken and barbeque sauce and carrots. My go-to is pasta. We’ll make my kids’ favorite whole grain penne pasta and toss in all our leftover vegetables and some parmesan cheese. Sometimes I’ll toss in some olive oil with minced garlic.

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    • Those sound delicious. Do you stuff them before you bake them? Also I could live off Parmesan and nothing else till the end of my days. It’s my go-to for jazzing up leftovers I’m eating, but not everyone in my family feels the same.

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  6. I do stuff them first. I’ll make biscuit dough and roll it fairly thin, then put my stuffing in little piles and put another thin sheet of dough on top and cut them apart and pinch the edges. Then I just cook them like regular biscuits and brush butter on top when I take them out of the oven. One thing I learned is that they are best if you include some sauce–barbeque, ranch, even a little milk with cheese. Otherwise they end up really dry.

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  7. I don’t know if this really counts but when we make a chicken or pulled pork or something that there will be a lot of leftovers, we try to make sure that the seasonings we use will lend themselves well to other things. We don’t dump BBQ sauce in with the meat while cooking for example and just keep the spices simple, usually so we can use the meat for tacos or taco bowls at some point which are a big hit in our house. Also pasta with an easy bolognese is a way I like to use up random vegetables.

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  8. I have been meaning to write a post just like this! I find it more wasteful for me to meal plan for every (or nearly every) day of the week, so I usually plan 3 meals for the week and figure that inspiration will strike for the rest. Also, I’ve made a rule to buy in-season produce as much as possible lately and that’s been really good for forcing me to get creative (SO many beets and heads of cauliflower). My favorite flexible clear-the-fridge meals:

    Curry (since all you need to get started is curry paste and coconut milk)
    Quiche/frittata
    Pizza
    Shakshuka (or any thick saucy stewy thing I can poach eggs in)
    Vaguely ethnic grain bowls
    Grain gratin (https://food52.com/blog/20693-farro-grain-salad-brussels-sprouts-gratin)
    Fritters with yogurt sauce and homemade flatbreads
    Boil/roast and blend vegetable soups with fun toppings
    Cold blended soups in the summer

    Some of these end up real weird. I recently made a quiche way overloaded with brussels sprouts because they NEEDED to go and then there was the a ricotta-and-spicy-honey-roasted-carrot-pizza. But sometimes they end up being amazing. I find it super helpful to have special staples on hand like pickled things, miso paste, curry paste, heads of roasted garlic, soba noodles, weird grains, seeds and nuts. Also, I freeze all bones for broth (Joe referred to our freezer as a chicken graveyard once), parmesan cheese rinds for soups, and stale bread for breadcrumbs. And fresh herbs go a LONG way.

    But I’m sure you know all these things. I just love to talk about kitchen thrift. Also, I really need to figure out what I’m going to do with the bunch of in-season radishes I have and don’t love but must use for dinner.

    Oh and I have to add this: “Cooking is the only part of housekeeping I manage with any grace; it’s something like writing a book: you look in the refrigerator and see what’s there, choose all the ingredients you need, and a few your husband thinks you don’t need, and put them all together and concoct a dish.” -Madeleine L’Engle.

    Okay, bye!

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    • Ooh, do write your post! And yeah, I leave gaps in my meal plan for tossing good things together — and so John has some freedom to cook occasionally! I love the Madeleine L’Engle bit you found! What an encouraging way to think about feeding a family!

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