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Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS588

Handling Leftovers Safely

  • Sara Elnakib, PhD, MPH, RDN, Family and Community Health Sciences Educator, Cooperative Extension of Passaic County
  • Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science

“Leftover” foods are cooked foods that you or your family do not eat within two hours after they are cooked. Leftovers include foods that you may eat before or after they have been stored in the refrigerator or freezer. The chance of foodborne illness or spoilage increases the longer you store a food after it is cooked. Improper handling or storing of cooked food can be a cause of foodborne illness in the home.

The careful cook can reduce this threat by following the guidelines below for storing, reheating, and disposing of leftover foods.

Storing Leftovers

Safe leftovers start with safe preparation. Cook foods properly, and then refrigerate or freeze within two hours after cooking. In hot weather, that time limit is only one hour. Remember that the “safe” period starts after the food is cooked. It includes the time that the food sits before being served and the time it sits on the table while the meal is being eaten. This period lasts until the food is actually in the refrigerator or freezer.

Remember to wash your hands with soap and water before handling any cooked food, especially food you store to eat later. Use clean utensils to handle the food, and store it in clean containers. Do not put food back into the same container it was in before it was cooked, unless you have cleaned the container with soap and water. Do not place food on a counter or cutting board before refrigerating or freezing, unless you have cleaned the surface beforehand.

Place foods to be refrigerated or frozen in small, shallow containers, three inches tall or less, and cover them completely. Don’t stack these containers right next to other containers, leave some space around them. By using shallow containers and by leaving space around the containers you can promote rapid and even cooling of the food. When you refrigerate or freeze cooked food in a large, deep container, the food in the center of the container may remain warm for a longer time. Dangerous bacteria may grow in this warm spot without making the food look or smell bad. If you eat this food later, you may get a foodborne illness, despite not having signs of food spoilage. Never taste leftovers that are of questionable age or safety.

As a general rule, never keep leftovers for more than four days. Remember to remove the stuffing from cooked poultry and refrigerate or freeze it separately. You should do this because the stuffing in the center of the bird can stay warm long enough for food poisoning bacteria to grow. By removing the stuffing and placing it in its own container, you allow it to cool more rapidly. A good way to ensure leftovers don’t remain in your refrigerator too long, is by labeling leftovers with the date cooked before refrigerating them.

Warming Leftover Foods

When leftover foods are reheated, make sure you heat them completely. Leftovers that are merely “warmed” and not heated throughout may be more likely to cause food poisoning. Leftover sauces, soups, gravies, and other “wet” foods can be reheated to a boil before serving. Heat all other foods to 165°F throughout. Be sure to stir foods while you reheat them, to ensure that all the food reaches the appropriate temperature. Remember that microwave ovens may not heat foods evenly so use a rotating turntable and/or stir during re-heating.

Throwing out or Composting Leftovers

When leftovers have been in the refrigerator too long, or if they look or smell unusual, dispose of them! Any time you are in doubt about the freshness or safety of any food, dispose of it. This is especially important for leftover foods. Dispose of any potentially unsafe food in a compost bin, garbage disposal, or a tightly wrapped package, so that it cannot be eaten by other people or animals. Remember that meat, poultry, and fish should not be home-composted to avoid attracting animal pests. For more information on home composting see fact sheet FS811, Home Composting. If you follow these suggestions for handling leftover foods responsibly, you will improve the safety of your family’s food. Foodborne illness is a preventable tragedy, and you can prevent it by following these simple guidelines for handling leftovers safely.

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December 2019