Leftovers can be a busy parent’s best friend. But let’s be real—sometimes we push those Tupperware® containers to the back of the fridge and forget about them. How long will that leftover spaghetti last? Can you safely reheat Thursday’s meatloaf? Is food safe to eat as long as it still smells okay? Although we often may have more leeway than we think, some hard and fast food-safety rules will help keep you free from unintentional food poisoning. Read on for tips to make the most of your leftovers.
Timing is everything
Two hours is the absolute maximum amount of time food can be safely left at room temperature without a heat source or refrigeration. This safe zone is halved if the surrounding air temperature is 90°F or greater. Even if that food looks okay, smells fine, and tastes good, it can still make you sick. Don’t trust your senses on this. If you are unable to refrigerate leftovers within two hours of service, toss them out.
Leftovers are not indefinite
Cooked food is safe up to four days after initial service as long as it is properly stored in the refrigerator (see the two hour rule above). Foods that have been in the refrigerator for longer than four days should be thrown out. Foods that won’t be eaten within four days can be stored in the freezer, although the quality of some leftovers diminishes once frozen. And forget the old “Peas Porridge Hot” nursery rhyme—food loses quality each time it is reheated. Avoid reheating leftovers in large batches, and reheat only what you’ll eat in one serving.
Store food correctly
Two hours, four days—so many numbers to remember! Here’s one more: 40°F. Forty degrees is the magic number that prevents bacterial growth, which can lead to food-borne illness. It’s also best to store foods in shallow containers so that the food cools quickly and evenly. Food in large containers can leave hot spots where bacteria can flourish. Cover the food with airtight lids, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil to keep foods from drying out or picking up odors.
Watch your reheating methods
Leftovers are awesome because you just need to pop them in the microwave, wait a few minutes, and dig in. But remember: cooked foods should be reheated to a temperature of at least 165°F to ensure that rogue bacteria are dead and gone. Soups, gravies, and sauces should be reheated to boiling before serving. The USDA suggests using stoves, microwaves, or ovens to reheat leftovers. Crockpots, steam tables, and chafing dishes should not be used because slow cooking doesn’t get food hot quickly enough to avoid possible bacterial growth. If you are using these methods to serve foods, heat them before placing them in the serving dishes.
Food Safety by the Numbers
4 days: Amount of time that leftovers can be safely stored in the refrigerator
40°F: Temperature at which foods should be kept to inhibit bacterial growth
60 minutes: Amount of time food can safely be left out in temperatures above 90°F
120 minutes: Amount of time food can be safely left out in temperatures below 90°F
140°F: Foods between 40 degrees and 140 degrees encourage bacterial growth
165°F: Leftovers should be reheated to this temperature.