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Unplanned leftovers typically result from inefficient meal planning and myopic meal preparation strategies. As a result, an individual has more food than he can eat and therefore food is leftover. Unplanned leftovers typically result in food waste which is an immense problem to the United States; food waste costs the United States economy an estimated $144 billion.

Planned leftovers are multiple meals which are purposefully planned and cooked in advance in order to be eaten in the future. The popular name for planned leftovers is meal prepping which is currently a large and highly popular phenomenon in the United States. Meal prepping is considered to be more in line with the way that previous generations considered leftover food. Historically, no food was labeled leftover because preservation was embedded in cooking. Therefore, food was purposefully cooked to be consumed in the future.


According to a 2017 study, leftover food was the second largest type of food waste after inedible food found in dustbins in the United States. Prepared food and leftovers accounted for 23% of the food waste found in dustbins. Prepared food and leftovers were the third highest food wasted by weight (19%) within households after inedible food and edible fruit and vegetables.

68% of respondents in a US survey claimed they prioritize eating leftovers most of the time, however, this sometimes only means a delay in discarding leftover food. 75% of people feel less guilty about saving left overs compared to when they throw leftovers away. Additionally, 45% of people feel less guilty about throwing food that has been stored in the refrigerator away, therefore, it would appear that refrigerating only delays discarding leftover food. 70% of respondents sometimes save left overs even when they already know it will not be eaten since this makes them feel less guilty about discarding food.
When respondents were asked what they do with leftovers, they gave a wide range of responses. 74% of leftovers are eaten as another meal while 59% are eaten as part of another meal. According to respondents, 19% of leftovers are thrown in the garbage while 12% is composted. Additionally, 10% of leftovers are fed to pets and animals. 13% of the respondents surveyed claimed they do not like leftovers at all. Not liking leftovers is one of the two main reasons why people trash them, the second reason they trash leftovers is they perceive it has spoiled.

The two main factors that result in unplanned leftovers are inefficient meal planning and shortsighted meal preparation strategies can result in leftovers.


Meal prep is the popular name for planned leftovers which has become very popular in the United States particularly in the internet fitness culture within the United States. Google Trends reveals that meal prep has received increased interest over the past 15 years within the United States, peaking in January 2019. This peak is considered to coincide with the January resolution season when people are trying to focus on specific personal goals for the new year. There are websites, blogs, social media accounts, and even businesses entirely focused on meal prep.

Meal prepping basically involves cooking and portioning food in the refrigerator to be consumed later. Most often this is done during the weekends in preparation for the week. Meal preppers distance themselves from the term leftovers stating that it involves strategic planning that ensures portion control. On the other hand, leftovers are considered to be portions of food that no one else wants to eat.

Meal preps goals focus on improved efficiency and output. Mainly because it saves time and money since all the meal preparation is done at once as opposed to preparing each meal during the week. Secondly, meal prepping gives control over portions eaten since portion control is a large part of this strategy. Additionally, meal prepping enables people to lose weight because it features healthier home cooked meals and portions are limited.

Aside from the benefits listed above, meal prepping has also enabled Americans to escape from past misconceptions regarding leftovers. Since meals are portioned separately, people can avoid feeling that they are eating leftovers from a previous meal. Meal prep has some highly critical detractors who contend that it is simply a new name for leftovers and food tastes better when freshly cooked. Some critics also consider the benefits of meal prepping to be overrated.

Other trends

Food sharing is a growing phenomenon in the United States which is part of the sharing economy where ridesharing platforms like Uber exist. Olio is a digital app that enables users to share leftover food which originated in the United Kingdom but is used globally. In January 2019, Olio was the 51st top-ranked mobile app download in the United States on the iPhone as determined by App Annie. App Annie is a leading app analytics platform, the ranking presents the top 600 apps in the United States by downloads and the January 2019 ranking represents the peak of Olio's ranking on that platform.

Food sharing apps enable users to upload pictures of leftovers and share their locations, people within their communities can then request for food that sparks their interest. Olio is specifically focused on reducing food waste while another app called Leftover Swap was focused on reducing hunger. Leftover Swap is now defunct and but Olio is widely regarded in the United States.

Composting is another way in which food scraps or unplanned leftover foods are used in the United States.


Since the 1920s leftovers were regarded as being for the poor, during that time, wealthy landowners bragged about giving leftovers to their domestic workers. Prior to refrigeration in the 1960s, the concept of leftovers did not exist since there was no way to store food. Therefore, preservation was a part of cooking with methods such as curing, pickling, and salting employed to preserve food. Additionally, these 'leftovers' then formed part of another meal that would be consumed later. During World War 1, from 1914 to 1918, people were encouraged to eat leftovers as an act of patriotism. The ensuing great depression also brought about a period of intense poverty that made leftovers even more valuable to Americans.

Regard for leftovers plummeted in the 1960s when refrigeration, electricity, and food became cheap and plentiful. Leftovers lost their appeal and throwing them away became a privilege of the American middle class. Etiquette columns in the 1960s and 1970s cautioned against serving leftovers to guests or requesting for leftovers since it could make one an object of ridicule.


Meal prepping is a hugely popular trend in the United States that has resulted in a resurgence in the consumption of planned leftovers. In addition, foods like curries that taste better after a few days have also resulted in increased interest in the consumption of planned leftovers.

With respect to unplanned leftovers, the increased awareness of the growing food waste problem in the United States has increased their consumption; according to the ReFED, 27 million tonnes of food is thrown away by American consumers each year. Food sharing apps are also recent and emerging trends that are helping to increase the consumption of leftovers by other people that need them.


  • "Once the mainstay of weekday lunchboxes and thrifty home cooks, leftovers today constitute the single largest source of edible food waste in U.S. homes, according to a new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group."
  • "American consumers throw away 27 million tons of food each year, according to the food waste coalition ReFED, clogging landfills, generating greenhouse gasses, and costing the economy an estimated $144 billion. The solution, however, could be simple: get people to eat leftovers again"
  • "While past efforts have focused on improving consumers' food literacy and kitchen skills, converting them to leftovers will involve changing deep-seated food preferences."
  • "70 percent of respondents note that they sometimes save leftovers even if they think they will not be eaten."
  • "When asked to identify specific actions taken with respect to leftovers, a majority claimed to eat leftovers as another meal, either without alteration or adding other food (see Table 21). Although 12 percent of respondents claim to compost leftovers, more respondents (19 percent) say they throw leftovers in the garbage"
  • " Ten percent of respondents say they feed leftovers to animals, while five percent of respondents claimed to not have leftovers."
  • "As 75 percent of respondents feel less guilty when they save leftovers than when they throw food away, and 45 percent feel less guilty about wasting food that has been in the refrigerator for a long time (see Table 42), it is possible that a substantial portion of food saved as leftovers is not, in fact, ultimately eaten by people (though it may be eaten by animals). "
  • " Thirteen percent of respondents dislike leftovers generally."
  • "More than half of respondents say they regularly engage in strategies to waste less food, including prioritizing eating leftovers and freezing food if they don’t think they’ll be able to eat it in time (see Table 38). Note, however, that freezing food in some cases may merely delay rather than prevent discarding it."
  • "Eleven percent of food was discarded per kitchen diary data because it was not wanted as leftovers"
  • "No one sets out to waste food. But impulsive shopping habits, sloppy storage practices, inefficient meal planning, shortsighted preparation strategies and a general lack of attention to detail can undermine our best intentions, and the result is often profligate food waste."
  • "One of these small habits, that actually requires very little effort or input, is recycling our leftover foods and food waste. Doing this has the potential to drastically reduce the volume of garbage going to landfill, and can also save us money (as it can replace some things like a fertilizer and compost which have to be bought otherwise)."
  • "Would you like to cut down on the amount of food waste? Here are some tips that can help you make it happen: Eat all leftovers the next day, and never cook so much that this is impossible."
  • "We are long finished with Thanksgiving, but there still may be some leftovers hiding in the fridge. But even beyond holiday feasts, we’re all used to the concept of leftovers and having extra food. Sometimes, we may not know what to do with all of that food if we don’t feel like eating it ourselves."
  • "Luckily, a Britain-founded mobile phone app called OLIO hopes to fix this problem while making the world a better place, one meal at a time."
  • "Food waste is a major issue, and plenty of people are coming up with ideas to fix this. If you have some food you no longer want to eat, or you happen to cook too much for dinner, you can use OLIO to help. The app, created by two entrepreneurs, connects people with neighbors and with shops in their local areas so surplus foods can be shared, as opposed to being thrown away."
  • "OLIO is quite simple to use. All you have to do is open up the app, add a photo of the food along with a description, and add when and where the item will be available for pick-up. If you’re looking for food on the app, you just need to browse the listings in your area, and make a request for whatever catches your interest."
  • "Until the icebox (aka proto-refrigerator) became standard in many homes at the turn of the 20th century, “leftovers” didn’t exist. Because there was no way to keep food in the form a freshly prepared meal took at the table, preservation of remaining food was as much a part of the culinary process as preparation. Cookbooks would often follow directions for a meal with instruction for pickling, curing, or salting the remains to prolong the life of all ingredients."
  • "These weren’t leftovers as we think of them today, but the basis of another meal or food item entirely. But the ability to reliably keep things cool changed all that, as people could hang onto last night’s dinner without worrying about immediate spoilage. And so the notion of “leftover”—the remains of a meal that could be kept and consumed in a recognizably similar form later—was born, thanks to this technological innovation of the early 20th century."
  • "In fact, in World War I, eating one’s leftovers was positioned as so patriotic that some celebrated killing house pets rather than recklessly waste human food on them (in those days, pets ate scraps from human meals). From the wartime years through the intense poverty of the Depression, resourcefulness with this new category of “leftover” proved one’s virtuous frugality even more strongly. A 1917 U.S. Food Administration poster reminded citizens to “serve just enough/use what is left”; while a Good Housekeeping headline from 1930 admonished, “Leftovers Shouldn’t Be Left Over.”"
  • "By the 1960s, when the majority of American homes had electricity and refrigeration technology improved, leftovers potentially had a much longer life. Yet as food prices fell, leftovers lost status; throwing them away became a mark of middle-class status, historian Helen Veit notes in her book, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century."
  • "Eating leftovers, or worse, serving them to a guest, thus made one an object of disdain or ridicule rather than paragon of civic virtue as in earlier eras. Etiquette columns throughout the 1960s and early 1970s regularly fielded questions about whether it was even acceptable to ask for a “doggy bag” at restaurants, the uncertainty of letter writers revealing this ambivalence about how to act appropriately around leftovers."
  • "No matter how valiant the attempt, sometimes it is just impossible to finish that last helping of casserole for dinner. Instead of letting perfectly good food languish in the fridge, the developers of LeftoverSwap suggest sharing your leftovers with a member of the community. The smartphone application allows users to take a picture of their dish, identify what is on the plate, and arrange for pickup and delivery."
  • "The LeftoverSwap team asserts that 40% of the food we produce goes to waste, 25% of us do not know our neighbors names, 16% of Americans lack enough food to remain healthy, and 99% of us do not need that extra helping of beef lo mein. To help solve all of these problems, the application aims to reduce hunger and prevent precious resources from ending up in the landfill. "
  • "Whether its social media or a ride with Uber, there are many different ways to share these days. As a result, it’s no surprise that the food sharing economy is picking up steam! With so much food waste, many are looking for solutions that will reduce waste. "
  • "Some food services are dedicated to sharing leftovers or providing a unique meal for locals. "
  • "When it comes to wasted food, Olio is at the top of its game. Instead of local bakeries discarding products like bread and bagels, they are picked up and posted on Olio. Started in 2015, the project has 450,000 participants in 32 countries! A third of those who use the app fall under the poverty line, which makes it philanthropic and food-waste friendly!"
  • "If you're part of Instagram's Fit Fam, you know that a good body is made in the kitchen, and that means cooking at home… or meal prepping. Throughout internet fitness culture, the idea of #MealPrep has spread like wildfire. Over 7.8 million posts on Instagram have documented the phenomenon of pre-cooking and packaging one's food for the week into near-identical units of Tupperware. "
  • "The uninitiated may view meal prep as creating leftovers, which has been around for nearly a hundred years. In the 1800s, techniques like pickling, smoking and salting helped humans preserve food for later use. Starting in the early 1900s, refrigeration systems became popular among those in the middle class, facilitating the mainstreaming of leftovers as we understand them today."
  • "Meal preppers are quick to distance themselves from leftovers, though. In a Facebook post, Prepared Nutrition, a meal prep service in Louisiana, clarifies the difference, calling meal prep "a strategic cooking method that allows proper portion control over a set period of time," compared to leftovers, which are "pieces of uneaten meals, typically the portions of the meal that no one wants to eat." "
  • "Aside from its functional and economic advantages (for those who can afford to do it) in today's society, meal prepping also allows people to escape the cultural baggage of leftovers. "
  • "Since the 1920s, leftovers have frequently carried a reputation of being for the poor — if you were eating leftovers you weren't rich enough to afford fresh food. In The Atlantic, Helen Veit writes that certain wealthy people would publicize their distance from leftovers by bragging about giving them to the help: "some white southerners publicized the fact that they sent their domestic servants home with the leftovers from their own dinners." The idea persists to this day, with a now-defunct 2013 app proposing giving leftovers to the poor as a way to solve world hunger, and the Facebook post above, suggesting that leftovers are inferior because they're not fresh. "
  • "Meal prep escapes this reputation by packaging food into discreet units. By separating dishes cooked at the same time into different packages, eaters can avoid feeling like they're eating something from a previous meal. Despite having the same relationship with freshness and time as leftovers, meal prep meals are packaged as fresh and new."
  • "You pack your fridge with a handful of containers for each day of the week, all of them containing the same, fully-cooked, “meal-prepped” lunch. But I have to tell you something: you’re lying to yourself. That’s not meal prep — it’s leftovers."
  • "I imagine you’re wondering why the distinction matters. And I’ll be honest, it’s not the most pressing issue in the world right now. It’s still one I want to tell you about, though, because you can do better. You don’t have to eat the same, leftover meal every day."
  • "At some point over the past few years, meal prepping — the act of preparing a week’s worth of pre-portioned meals — has become the de facto money-saving, clean-eating, good-feeling life hack. Google searches for the term began only in 2013, but have spiked considerably every year since then."
  • "Not only does every lifestyle, food, and wellness publication (including this one) have numerous articles on the topic, there are whole websites and social media accounts devoted to the art of meal prepping. Like SoulCycle or juice cleansing or getting a salaried job right out of college, it has become one of those things that people can’t do without loudly broadcasting it."
  • "One of the best strategies for maximizing your grocery budget (and minimizing food waste) is to make a series of meals that use many of the same ingredients. That’s one of the central tenets of meal prepping, but this really isn’t too hard to naturally do, even without meticulously planning and preparing a week’s worth of food. "