The Essential Mealtime Skill I Learned as a New Parent During the Pandemic

published May 12, 2021
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potato leek soup garnished with chives
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

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When I was growing up, every week started out with Monday Leftover Night. My parents called it “King’s Table Night,” named after a long-defunct buffet in their native Seattle. The fridge emptied of all Tupperware, and my siblings and me would fight over the primo options (any surviving pizza slices or tubs of macaroni and cheese). When I grew up and met my husband, I failed to bring him onto the leftovers train. He doesn’t like eating one meal more than once, and would rather order a pizza than go scavenging through a maze of remnants.

As first-time parents in the midst of a pandemic, leftovers quickly became an essential part of our meal routine.

But as first-time parents in the midst of a pandemic, leftovers quickly became an essential part of our meal routine. Popping into the grocery store for a few spontaneous dinner ingredients, as I’d done for over a decade on my office lunch breaks, was a distant memory replaced by the plan-heavy, curbside pick-up routine. Our home, in a rural suburb south of Portland, is in a zip code no delivery services want to trek out to. This tectonic shift in both the time and resources available to us meant that it was time to revive that tradition from the past, and reconsider the humble leftover.

Credit: Tabitha Blankenbiller

What I quickly learned was that leftover night doesn’t have to be a night of repeats, and it certainly doesn’t have to play second fiddle to the first round of dinner. With just a hint of care and creativity, Monday Leftover Night has given the rest of the week a run for its money.

1. Give those leftovers a fighting chance.

It all starts with how you store your leftover food. Remove elements that cause excess moisture and don’t age well, like lettuce from burgers, and sauces from any bread or breading. I keep an extra bag of coleslaw mix in my fridge at all times to refresh tacos, gyros, and sandwiches. It keeps longer than lettuce and adds even more crunch. 

Don’t leave takeout in their to-go containers, which are not airtight and will allow the food to become stale much faster. Instead, transfer food into an air-tight container. Our household loves Snapware, which is glass and much easier to clean than plastics.

2. Reheat with care (the microwave is not the only option!).

Not everything should be shoved into the microwave for 55 seconds! In fact, most things shouldn’t. When it comes to reviving chilled food, the oven and stovetop are your best friends. 

For fried foods, spray a baking sheet or stone with oil, and bake at 350 degrees for 10-20 minutes (depending on the quantity and size of your items). Pizza slices can be reheated using the same method at 300 degrees for 20 minutes. Cover casseroles, like lasagna and enchiladas, in foil before baking in oven-safe Pyrex for 30-60 minutes, until bubbling once more. 

Dealing with a delicate and creamy dish, like fettuccine Alfredo or clam chowder? Place it in a saucepan on low heat, cover and stir frequently until heated through. This is also my favorite method for reheating spaghetti and meatballs, since it doesn’t create that tough tomato “crust” on the noodles. Stir fries and fried rice spring back to life when tossed in a pan on medium-high for a few minutes, until just heated through.

Take a little extra time to bring some old-fashioned, semi-cooked goodness back to your leftovers. Trust me: it’s well worth it and still comes together in way less time than a traditional home-cooked meal from scratch.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

3. Keep a few catch-all recipes on hand.

Here’s where the magic happens. You’ve probably heard the old cafeteria adage about today’s special being tomorrow’s soup (my college dining hall took this to some uneasy extremes), but how much mystery soup can anyone handle? As an alternative, I keep a half-dozen or so “catch-all” recipes that can be populated with just about anything lurking in the fridge. These allow me to stretch leftovers, while giving tired ingredients a new spin. Just think of your fridge and pantry as a playground; anything goes!

Jambalaya is a great example, as the traditional recipe calls for chicken, pork, seafood, and sausage. Mine is full of lingering rotisserie chicken and excess barbecue. Red or yellow curry is another delicious option that can feature sliced pork tenderloin or simply a medley of whatever vegetables are currently on hand. Quesadillas, risotto, pizza, and frittatas are all canvases for your Chopped-kitchen creations. And never be afraid to get weird. You’re one leftover night away from discovering your family’s new favorite dish.

Here are some starter recipes to use for your leftovers: