How to handle holiday leftovers (without waste!)

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Holiday parties and events are so fun, but the leftovers after can be overwhelming to try to get through! Read on for how to handle holiday leftovers (without waste!)

I learned almost everything I know about meal planning and meal prep in an elementary school cafeteria.  

Glamorous right? 

I started working in a cafeteria in a charter school on my college campus to give me needed “experience hours” to get into the dietetics program. 

And despite being a cafeteria it actually WAS sorta glamorous in that it was a fancy charter school and we made almost everything from scratch. 

It was here I learned how to cook for a crowd, cook on a schedule, AND handle holiday leftovers (and all leftovers) safely AND so they actually get eaten. 

THIS is what we’re talking about today my friends. 

Originally this episode was going to be SPECIFICALLY about Easter leftovers (since you likely have starburst jellybeans coming out of your ears, although, come to think of it I don’t think you need MY help getting rid of those). 

But instead I decided to give you a step-by-step plan for managing holiday leftovers from ANY event or holiday using Easter as an example. 

Step by step system for how to handle holiday leftovers (without waste!)

Let’s dig in to the step-by-step system.

Step #1 Plan for the number of guests you are going to have: 

When I worked at the elementary school, the kids had two options of which entree they wanted to eat.  One was a more ready-made option with cold sandwiches/fruit kind of like a sack lunch, and the other was a hot, usually from-scratch entree. 

We had the same number of kids every day, but knowing WHAT they were going to choose was always tricky.  To combat this problem we had each classroom send down a lunch count every morning so we had an idea how many kids were going to want which lunch. 

It wasn’t a PERFECT system, we really had no way of making sure kids stuck to their choices (and sometimes the hot lunch was too tantalizing, or looked less appetizing than they thought and we had lots of last-minute trades) but overall it worked well for giving us a ballpark estimate. 

In my REAL life however, I live in mortal fear of not having enough food when I throw a party.  In fact, I held a small dinner party just a few months ago where I KNEW we would only need 1-2 boxes of pasta, but I just couldn’t stop myself from throwing in that 3rd box (after all a box of pasta only costs a dollar, right?)

Well, needless to say, we had pasta coming out of our ears (and I’d be lying if I said we were able to get through all of those leftovers without some waste.  We’ll call it a lesson learned. But probably not.  I might do it again.  HaHa)

The best thing to do to prepare for leftovers is to get info from your guests before the party.  Who’s coming? Who isn’t? Are you offering multiple main dish options?  See who will eat what, and if they’re planning on eating both. 

Some general rules to follow are to plan for 1 lb of food per adult and 1/2 lb of food per child. 

As far as specifics go, the best resource I’ve found for serving sizes for parties is the food for fifty textbook. 

You can pick one up used on Amazon for pretty cheap (around 35 dollars) They coolest part of this book are these handy charts in the front of the book that tell you the serving size for essentially ANYTHING you can think of as well as what certain things will yield.  For example a medium onion usually yields 1 1/2 C. 

If you DON’T want to purchase an entire textbook, this article from the Spruce is fairly useful for determining how much to serve (though not nearly as detailed)

You can (and should) always plan for a LITTLE extra for big eaters, or if you WANT to have a few leftovers, but going in with a plan helps ensure that your leftovers are manageable (not half of what you prepared to begin with. 

Step #2 Take inventory after the event/party: 

I get it.  You’re EXHAUSTED after you guests leave.  But it’s so important to handle holiday leftovers quickly after the party if you want them to remain safe. In fact, the rule is that food is only supposed to remain in the danger zone (or at room temperature) for 4 hours before it is thrown out.  How many parties have you just thrown the food in the fridge at the end of the night after it’s already sat out that long.  

Too many! 

Let’s talk about exactly what it means to take an inventory.  At the end of every day at work at the elementary school we would count how many servings we had left of each meal.  This helped us see if we were preparing food accurately, and how accurate our food count was (which helped us make adjustments for later as we needed to). 

You can do the same thing at the end of your party.  Or maybe even in the middle if it’s a long party and you need to get that food taken care of. Get the food out of the danger zone as quickly as possible! 

In general, if there are only a few servings of something left I’ll just store it in the fridge and eat it in the next day or two for a lunch. 

If there is a LOT of something, I’m more likely to store it in the freezer (another trick I learned from the elementary school!). 

One thing I find REALLY helpful when storing things in the freezer is to store it in the form that I’m most likely to use it. 

So since we’re talking about Easter, if you have a bunch of leftover ham you could absolutely just freezer it in slices as it is. 

But usually I use leftover ham in dishes like quiche, cobb salad, pizza, breakfast burritos, and other ideas.  Essentially every thing I use leftover ham for involves the ham being diced.  So if I want to use it, I’m way more likely to use it if I dice it up and freeze it in useable portions (putting only enough in each bag for one meal.  Usually about 2 Cups depending on the meal. 

Be sure to label any leftovers so you know exactly what they are when you go to use them. 

Step #3: Make a plan to use up the leftovers from your party: 

Carefully packaging up your leftovers only makes a difference if you then make a PLAN for how you’re going to use those leftovers before they go bad. 

Luckily, if you do choose to freeze your leftovers the freezer is sorta like a pause button for your food.  So you don’t have to use it IMMEDIATELY but in my experience, if I don’t have a plan for it, it tends to just get buried in the abyss of the freezer only to be thrown away later. 

To make your plan simply use the inventory list you created when you put the leftovers away. 

Let’s say after Easter you have:

2-3 servings of potatoes

6 Cups leftover ham

24 hardboiled eggs 

12 rolls

4 servings of green beans. 

So the potatoes I’m just going to store in the fridge to eat as leftovers. 

Since there’s a lot of ham I’m going to chop it up into pieces and store 3 bags of frozen ham in the freezer. 

Eggs are pretty finicky in the freezer, so even though there’s a lot of them I’m not going to freeze them.  Luckily, my kids LOVE hardboiled eggs so I’m going to add them to my list of available snacks for the week, and I’m going to set 6 aside to make a Cobb salad for dinner one night. 

The rolls will probably get eaten up if I leave them out, but I’d love the chance to NOT make rolls one night for dinner so I’m going to go ahead and package those up and freeze them as well. 

There’s not enough green beans to bother freezing (and I’m not sure they’d do great in the freezer anyway since they’re already cooked, they might get pretty mushy) so I plan to eat those as leftovers at lunch for the next few days as well. 

Now let’s talk about the ham in the freezer.  It will stay good in there for several months, but I’m going to go head and use it sooner rather than later to keep things fresh and organized.  So for my meal plan the week after Easter I’ll probably skip meal-prepping meat and choose to use the ham instead.  I can make a Cobb salad (to use up ham & eggs, I could even serve the rolls on the side!, Ham and pineapple pizza, and corn chowder with ham for the last meal. 

Alright my friends, if you want to handle holiday leftovers like a pro follow the 3-step system outlined in this episode.  Plan servings appropriate, take inventory and store properly, and plan leftovers into your meal plan. 

What life skills have YOU learned in unexpected places (like the elementary school cafeteria?)

Want to learn MORE about leftovers? 

Here’s how to handle your meal prep so it DOESN’T taste like leftovers



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