In some households, leftovers are treasured items. And around the holiday season, it's not uncommon to have an abundance of them. Whether you've hosted a party or are coming home from one, there are some certain precautions you should take to make sure that the goodies you are saving for tomorrow remain safe for consumption.
What to do with leftovers
These tips can come in handy whether the food you are storing is coming from a restaurant or home-cooked meal:
- All foods should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of preparation to ensure that no bacteria grows as it cools.1
- If you have a large pot of leftovers, don't place it directly into the fridge. The center of that dish is not going to cool as quickly as the outside, meaning that bacteria can begin to develop even though it's in the refrigerator. Instead, distribute the food into smaller portion-sized containers.
- When you are putting your food in containers, make sure not to "over-pack." Stuffing things to the lid will not allow cold air to circulate around the contents, which is necessary for refrigerated foods.2 Be sure that the lid fits on securely or that the storage bag is properly sealed.
- Clean things up around the kitchen as you go, this will help to prevent cross-contamination of foods. This is especially important if you've prepared the meal in your house. For instance, placing leftovers on the same surface as you did the raw meat during preparation can lead to foodborne illnesses.
- According to the Mayo Clinic, all leftovers should be enjoyed within three to four days of preparation when kept in the fridge.3 This will help to prevent food poisoning. If you won't be eating the foods within that timeframe, you can place them in the freezer to extend the shelf life.
However, storing leftover properly isn't the only thing you have to do to make sure that you don't fall ill when enjoying those holiday leftovers.
How to reheat leftovers
Whether you are using the stove, oven or microwave to reheat your leftovers, there are certain precautions you should be taking. In order to ensure that the foods have reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you should:
- Stir the food during heating
- Allow microwaved foods to sit for 3 – 5 minutes after reheating
- Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature
- Thaw frozen leftovers carefully using one of three methods: refrigeration, cold water or the microwave
If the leftovers you are enjoying don't require reheating, you still want to be careful before consuming them. Salads, sandwiches and other cold foods should be placed in the fridge within the two-hour window too. When you're ready to enjoy them, make sure to eat them within the same time frame and right out of the fridge. Leaving the items on the counter can also lead to bacteria growth.
A key to ensuring that leftovers and other foods kept in the fridge stay safe for your family is keeping an appropriate internal temperature. Set your refrigerator to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the freezer should be kept at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. If you or someone in your family comes down with a foodborne illness due to contaminated leftovers or other foods, it's important to seek medical attention immediately. According to the FDA, food poisoning hospitalizes 128,000 Americans and kills 3,000 annually.
1 Foodsafety.gov, "Handle leftovers with care" March 8, 2011
2 U.S. Food and Drug Administration, "Refrigerator thermometers: cold facts about food safety" November 1, 2013
3 Mayo Clinic, "Food poisoning: How long can you safely keep leftovers?" September 8, 2012