5 Things to Know About Leftovers, According to a Food Safety Expert

updated May 1, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Whether you’re cooking the big family meal or attending it, there’s one thing that everyone looks forward to the day after Thanksgiving (hint: it’s not Black Friday): the delicious leftovers!

The last thing you want, however, is a queasy stomach (or worse), thanks to improper food handling. To keep your tummy happy the second — or third — time around, follow this advice from Deirdre Schlunegger, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness.

1. Keep an eye on the clock.

Once food is cooked thoroughly and served, it has about two hours at room temperature before bacteria can start to grow and make it less safe to eat. Ideally, that means keeping food on properly calibrated hot plates while it’s out (so it doesn’t cool below 165°F) or getting it into containers and into the fridge as soon as dinner is over. But because these things are not always possible, what you do next is especially important.

2. Store it safer.

Not only should leftovers be stashed in the fridge as soon as dinner is over, but you also want to get them down to a safe temperature — 40°F or lower — as quickly as possible. “The smaller the portion size, the faster it will cool,” says Schlunegger. To speed up that process, foods should be stored in a layer no more than two inches deep. Slice up thick pieces of meat and use shallow bowls for soups or sauces. Use airtight containers, and be sure there’s space around containers in the fridge itself so the cool air can circulate freely.

3. Eat cold foods with caution.

The good news: You don’t have to give up your cold-turkey-for-breakfast habit, as long you wrapped and stashed it in a timely fashion. The rule of thumb for cold foods: If it was fully cooked in the first place and refrigerated within that two-hour window, you can nosh it straight from the fridge. Otherwise, only high heat can diminish health risks.

4. Reheat like you mean it.

A 30-second zap won’t cut it. “When you’re ready to eat leftovers, reheat them on the stove, in the oven, or in the microwave until the internal temperature reaches 165 ̊F,” Schlunegger says. Bring liquids like soups to a rolling boil and use a food thermometer to measure internal temp of solid foods. In addition to general safety, this can also ensure you don’t over-reheat foods and dry them out.

5. Don’t trust your nose.

If something smells totally off, of course, don’t eat it. But often foods can be unsafe even before their odor turns foul. “Because bacteria typically don’t change the taste, smell, or look of food, you can’t tell whether a food is dangerous to eat,” says Schlunegger.

In general, don’t trust leftovers you’ve had more than three to four days, and less for ones that are more perishable, such as fish or dairy, or if the food was eaten directly from (like a restaurant doggie bag). If you have a ton of leftovers and want them to last longer, put them in the freezer immediately and thaw then reheat when you’re ready to eat.