Save the World with Leftovers

I am certain that fresh, whole foods are essential for health. You literally are what you eat. Processed foods have a surplus of calories but are deplete in nutrition — the result is lots of energy to burn, but little ability to heal. Fresh produce is literally the cure for the obesity epidemic looming over our society.

I also believe that sourcing our foods locally is even better for our health and is beneficial to our environment and local economy. A ‘relocalization’ of our food will be part of the shift to a healthy future and will be a central feature of the Green Economy. Farmers’ markets increase food security while distributing wealth back through the local community.

In my utopia, there would be a market in every community and a garden in every yard. But who has time to garden? Never mind the washing, cutting, cooking and cleaning required to deal with fresh produce.

Time can be a significant barrier to healthy cooking. Processed foods are generally quicker to prepare – it takes more time to cook a wholesome meal than it does to ‘nuke’ the latest preparation.

But there is a way to save time — to eat healthy without spending hours at the stove every night. The solution is simple: get used to leftovers. As the primary cook of my house, I like to cook in large batches that will last us for several meals.

There is a cultural taboo against leftovers in western society. We have been spoiled with an infinite variety of food to choose from, much of it tastier than the leftovers I would have you eat. At first, you will probably face resistance from your family to a regular pattern of leftovers. However, I promise you that over time your tastes and appetite will adapt, as they will with the rest of your family. In the meantime, if someone complains about having to eat leftovers, let them know they are welcome to cook — leftovers will be just as good tomorrow night.

Soup is an excellent way to clean out the fridge of leftovers and vegetables that are past their prime. Once a week or so I make a soup to use up the last week’s leftovers. I am likely to throw literally any meal remnant into a soup. Providing it has not already spoiled, cooking it thoroughly will “reset the clock” on spoilage. Weekly soup night is an excellent way of minimizing food waste due to spoilage.

It’s a good idea to date leftovers, although I am guilty of not following this practice. How long leftovers are good in your fridge is dependent on how cold your fridge is, how fast you get your food cooled and how clean you were when putting the food away. Cooling food slows bacterial growth and the closer to sterile your food is, the longer it will last. In the winter months, I will frequently stick the pot outside to cool faster (I set the timer on my stove to remind me to bring it in).

You can check your fridge and freezer temperature with your outdoor thermometer. My fridge is just a couple of degrees above zero (checked with my outdoor thermometer), and I am meticulous about having clean hands when cooking and putting away food.

If I have a particularly large batch, I will generally freeze a large portion to be reconstituted as a later meal. I fill several ‘tupperware’ containers for lunches, ensuring I eat healthy at lunchtime as well. I also save a lot of money by not eating in the cafeteria.

I feel comfortable eating leftovers inside of a week old, and up to two weeks if I’m going to cook it well. As I said, cooking resets the clock and so a fresh batch of soup is good for another week or two in the fridge. I will often use an old batch of soup as the base for a new pot and the flavours are always original — this also works for stews, chillis and curries. In the Middle Ages, it was common to always have a pot of soup (known as pottage) boiling on the stove which was constantly remade and replenished with new ingredients.

While working on this article, I stopped writing to go warm up some dinner. My wife said to me she wanted “No more of that soup — I’m sick of it”, to which I gave her the option of cooking something else…

The truth is, I’m sick of it too. It still tastes good, but my mind tells me I don’t want to eat it any more. My mind wants something new, something different, something sweet, fat or salty.

However, even if I did have something sweet, fat or salty, I would probably mindlessly shovel it into my mouth without really savoring the flavor. Besides, my body never thanks me for such indulgences.

I don’t often get such indigestion from my leftovers. In fact, I rarely get heartburn any more. My colds don’t seem as severe or frequent, and I’m feeling greater energy levels even in the dead of winter. My diet is good for my health and my community.

Are you convinced? You can save time, improve your health, preserve our environment, mitigate global warming, increase food security, strengthen the economy and pretty much help save the world by eating leftovers.

Chris Semrick, B.Sc, RRT, CRE is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Certified Respiratory Educator and a Smoking Cessation Counselor.