I Don’t Want to Eat My Leftovers
Food boredom, cooking failures, and privilege in the time of COVID-19.
Why is it that once-velvety mac and cheese (which has now dried out magically in its container overnight) loses all its appeal once it’s staring back at me two days later from a corner of the fridge?
I try really hard to put a positive spin on leftovers. They’re available! Already cooked! I know what’s in them! They’re better for me than takeout! All I have to do is heat them up!
But a lot of these good arguments sail right past my moral consciousness when I’m thinking about just pulling out a frozen pizza.
I’ve heard all the benefits of in-advance meal prep. Making out a menu and a corresponding grocery list at the beginning of the week, and sticking to it, is a money-and-time-saver. Experts probably have something to say about this, but my mother, who fed a family of seven on a shoestring budget, is the expert whose advice I’ve always taken. Planning what you are going to make and ensuring that you won’t have to cook something brand-new every single night isn’t just helpful — it’s ideal.
Plus, eating leftovers helps to reduce food waste. Admittedly, growing up I never knew that people sometimes just threw out the remainders of meals instead of putting them in washed-out Cool Whip containers. (But then again, leftovers weren’t usually too plentiful with four hungry siblings — maybe one or two lunches, at most. Nothing stuck around long enough to become bland and boring.) As an adult, I’ve come face to face with the uncomfortable opportunity of throwing food away much too often.
We’re all more or less aware that food is wasted at astronomical levels in the United States (one-third of all available food in the country, in fact). In many parts of the world, people are quite literally starving. The food Americans throw away could feed 1.6 billion people. That’s staggering. No, the soggy beans you scrape off your plate and into the trash won’t literally go to feed malnourished children around the globe. But during a pandemic where food deserts are becoming larger, accessible food is falling victim to hoarders, and supply chains are breaking down, we face a bigger responsibility than ever before to reduce waste. If we are restricted to one gallon of milk per shopping trip, we need to make that gallon last and use it wisely. Scoring extra cartons of eggs or hard-to-come-by flour will not serve us well if we’re throwing out the meals we cook with them.
I’m also becoming increasingly aware that eating undesirable leftovers can be a form of self-discipline. Admittedly, on a global scale, leftover food that doesn’t tempt your palate is hardly a noble self-sacrifice. But training myself away from the siren call of instant gratification is still a good thing. Eating what is put before me, whether I like it or not, is one way to do that.
But none of this really helps my selfish frame of mind in the moment when the cold dish I’m reluctantly microwaving wasn’t very good in the first place.
I’m a mediocre cook.
I like to try new things, within my budget and what I consider to be my culinary limits, but my success rate is only a little over 50%. I know a lot of this is my own fault — I’m easily distracted, I often have to make a substitution at the last minute for that ingredient I thought I had but didn’t, and I have to make accommodations for taste. Though I might enjoy a dish that involves entire cloves of garlic, my husband won’t touch it. And I happen to know that means I will be eating leftovers every day for lunch for the next week.
I also grew up cooking for six other family members. Though I’m now married to a man who does manual labor and eats like two horses, I still struggle sometimes with figuring out proportions for intimate duo dinners: how much to make for one meal, how much for two, will we have leftovers if he doesn’t like this as much as I do.
So it happens pretty often that I get ready to make dinner — a more thoughtful proceeding these days when my evenings are cleared of bygone social obligations — and find that yesterday’s dinner is still ample enough to provide tonight’s. Sometimes this is welcome, but plenty of other times it makes me cringe a little. Oddly enough, the food that ends up turning out really delicious never lasts very long — rarely enough to make another whole meal. Funny how that works. Leftovers in our house seem to be inherently skewed toward the things we didn’t really enjoy the first time around.
And there I am, looking into the depths of a cold saucepan with limp broccoli and rubbery pork bits.
I don’t really want this, I think. I shouldn’t have to eat this. Everything is rough right now and I deserve better. Insert whine of choice.
But I’m not going to stop eating leftovers. Instead, I’m going to try harder to just deal with them.
I’m no ascetic. I enjoy a good chocolate-y dose of self-indulgence. I like splurging on dinners out and pickup pizza. But these cease to be treats when I regard them as my everyday due. Not every meal is going to be special. Not every meal has to be special. Sometimes, food is just sustenance, and that’s okay.
Living in the world of advantage and opportunity that I enjoy as a white middle-class American is not a crime. It isn’t inherently bad to have a varied smorgasbord of culinary choices within my reach. I’m not here to make anyone feel guilty about their food. Rather, I’m trying to remind myself (and maybe you, too) that the indisputable fact of my privilege and food security does not authorize me to be prissy about the provender on my table.
I don’t need every one of my senses tantalized and dazzled every night by the meal that’s set before me. I’m not entitled to that. It’s enough just to have a dinner to eat.
At the very least, eating leftovers is teaching me more about what I like and don’t like. It gives me a benchmark by which to plan future menus. That teriyaki pineapple chicken with homemade teriyaki sauce didn’t age well. Or, maybe it was just my bad teriyaki sauce. Whatever the reason, I won’t be making it again. And, in the interest of full disclosure … I dumped what was left after three days. I shouldn’t have done that. I regret it.
I’m going to be proactive about not doing that again.
After all, it’s a meal in my stomach, and I have a fridge full of sauces and mustards and vinegars and seasonings to help fan some life into the feeble flavor. When in doubt, salsa.
And even if I can’t really salvage it, it’s food, for Pete’s sake. I’m glad I have it. I need to stop taking it for granted.
In conclusion, please join me — just shut up, be grateful and eat the food you made. It is there. It is accessible. It is edible. It is clean. It will not kill you.
As long as you didn’t procrastinate in the fridge too long.