My husband and I recently hosted our first ever Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we dashed about like mad people, erasing any evidence of life lived inside of our house.
Everything had to be spotless. Never mind that my mother changed my diaper as a child, she cannot know that sometimes I use rags as dishtowels or that my folded laundry frequently sits on top of my dresser instead of inside it.
The flurry of cleaning had nothing on the food though. Turkey, dressing, pies, oh my! We had a feast! We comfortably fed sixteen people and I still found myself having to take bottled waters out of the fridge to make more room for leftover food.
In the days since, I’ve eaten so much leftover turkey and stuffing that I am preparing to sprout feathers. If I have another bit of my mother’s potato salad, which is the best in the world, I’ll cry. And the pie? Let’s just say all the new workout clothes I received as gifts will be put to good use.
But unfortunately, our refrigerator is still filled with leftovers. So how long is it safe to eat leftover food? For your sanity, I’ll keep you updated, but from a scientific point of view, we’re almost to the finish line.
How to Safely Store Leftover Food
According to the USDA, storing leftovers safely begins almost as soon as you’re done cooking your meal. Once you’ve completed your cooking, serving and eating, you should immediately begin cooling your food before putting it in the refrigerator. This sometimes means dividing it into containers or cutting leftover food into smaller pieces.
The goal is to eliminate the time it takes for a food to reach 40 degrees F. Between 40-140 degrees is considered the “danger zone” because those are the temperatures where food-born illness-causing bacteria will flourish. Once the food dips below this temperature, bacteria that could make you sick is less likely to grow. The Mayo Clinic recommends storing leftover food after two hours at room temperature — the earlier, the better.
How Long Can I Safely Store Leftover Food?
Once the leftover food is cooled sufficiently, it should be wrapped tightly or stored in an air-tight container, regardless of whether you will be storing it in the freezer or the refrigerator.
Different leftover foods keep for different amounts of time. For example, uncooked foods like salads or sandwiches need to be thrown out faster than a casserole. Although, if you want some advice for yours truly, putting a salad in the fridge is never a good idea. I can’t imagine a situation where soggy lettuce is appetizing.
Once the leftover food is stored in the refrigerator, it should be eaten within the following five days. According to the University of Minnesota, food should be eaten as follows:
- soups and stews: 3 to 4 days
- gravy and meat broth: 1 to 2 days
- cooked turkey, meat and meat dishes: 3 to 4 days
- cooked poultry dishes: 3 to 4 days
- casseroles: 3 to 4 days
- luncheon meats: opened package 3 to 5 days; unopened package 2 weeks
- pasta and potato salads: 3 to 5 days
If you choose freeze your leftover food, you should unthaw and cook it within three to four months. Although it’s probably still safe to eat them later, flavors and moisture start being affected after this time.
How to Safely Reheat and Eat Leftover Food
Once you’ve stored your food properly, you’ll have leftover food to munch on for days. If the leftover food is stored in the refrigerator, make sure that the temperature of the refrigerator is set at below 40 degrees. If not, chances are nothing in it is safe, so this is an important step!
Once you pull out your leftovers, it is important to reheat them in a microwave safe dish. Sometimes, this will mean taking the extra step to transfer the food onto a plate or into a dish. However, if you’re heating your grub up in a container that isn’t microwave safe, chances are that chemicals from the plastic are seeping into your food, which is both gross and scary.
If you want to reheat food you’ve stored in the freezer, the process will take a little bit longer. The safest way to thaw out frozen food is by putting in the refrigerator for a day or two. This means planning ahead and taking your leftovers out the day before you plan to eat them.
If you’re anything like me, usually eating leftovers is somewhat of a last resort (Man! I don’t feel like cooking tonight! What do I have that I could just warm up?) So for us, there are other options to thaw out our food.
The first option is using the microwave. Again, don’t be lazy and make sure to put your leftover food in or on a microwave safe dish before thawing it out. Most microwaves now even have a defrost feature that will defrost your food based on what type of food it is or how much it weighs.
If you want to skip the thawing out process altogether, that’s also an option, but just keep in mind that it’s going to take your leftover food much longer to warm up if it’s frozen to begin with. Soups and gravies can be deposited straight into a pot and put on the stove; casseroles and meats can be placed directly in the oven. But be prepared to wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.
Regardless of what method you use to defrost your dinner, you should use a thermometer to make sure that your food has reached an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees when it’s done.
So the good news is, my days of eating Christmas leftovers are quickly coming to an end. However, these rules will continue to apply in the New Year, as I rely heavily on food prep to eat “clean” and food prep by definition is essentially making food to store and eat later.
So when you find a tupperware full of something tasty in the back of your fridge, but you can’t remember when you cooked it, it’s time to let it go and throw it away.
Zeratsky, Katherine. “How Long Can You Safely Keep Leftovers in the Refrigerator?” Healthy Lifestyle: Nutrition and Healthy Eating. The Mayo Clinic, 30 July 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
“Leftovers and Food Safety.” Food Safety Education. USDA, 13 June 2013. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
Driessen, Suzanne. “Storing and Reheating Leftovers.” Food Safety. University of Minnesota. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.