A Southern Grandma's Rules For Saving and Repurposing Food Containers 

Where else would she store all the leftovers?

Woman loading dishwasher, (B&W)
Photo: George Marks

On childhood trips to my grandmother Mimi's house, choosing a snack from the refrigerator was a game of roulette. With leftovers stored in various reusable containers—most of which were the rinsed-out tubs of Country Crock butter spread—scavenging for a bite to eat often involved pulling back the lid of nearly every vessel in there, in hopes that one of them would hold the butter beans. My grandmother was hardly unique in her steadfast reuse of Country Crock tubs. Fellow Southern Living editor Brennan Long says her grandmother did the same thing: "It made Thanksgiving leftovers a little confusing! Lots of beige casseroles all in the same containers." But whether your Mimi stored leftovers in the little taupe tubs or not, there's no denying that Southern grandmothers have had their own system of recycling for years. Here are a few of their repurposing rules to live by.

Keep Cans on Hand

There are two things that inevitably live on or near a Southern grandmother's stovetop: a seasoned cast iron skillet and a can of lard. Whenever Queenie has made her way to the bottom of a can of coffee or Campbell's cream of mushroom, she gives it a good, soapy rinse and then sets it right by the stove. There, she'll store her bacon grease, reserving all the drippings for rolling out a flaky pie crust or frying chicken.

Don't Toss the Jelly Jar

Once the last of the strawberry preserves are gone, Babs always cleans the jar to shrug off the sticky and repurposes it as a drinking glass (or uses it to store her own quick pickles). Birmingham-based BAMA Company caught on to this habit and started selling their jams and jellies with designs so charming that they inspired collections. Their line of preserves was discontinued in 2020, but you can still find the jelly-jars-turned-drinking-glasses on websites like eBay and Poshmark.

Think Beyond the Kitchen

When it comes to reusing food containers, Gran gets creative: A lidded sherbet tub is just the right size for collecting loose change; a half-gallon milk jug is ideal for watering all the house plants; and a Folgers coffee keeper is perfect for scooping dirt onto your flower beds.

Give Single-Use Items a Longer Life

In Lolly's kitchen, there's no such thing as disposable, even if an item is advertised as such. Plastic cups are used at the family reunion, run through the dishwasher, and pulled out for lunch again the next week. Zip-top plastic bags are hand-washed with a little Dawn and used to store leftovers until the zipper breaks.

Save Takeout Containers

On the rare occasion Yaya orders delivery, it's not because she's craving someone else's food more than her own. She's in it for the cutesy little cups that hold the soup. They're the perfect volume for delivering a generous serving of banana pudding to her friend next door.

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