Leftovers can be a great late-night snack, next day lunch, or even be used to make a quick meal for your hungry family. Take precautions with leftovers to make sure your family is eating safe food. Follow these leftover handling tips so your family can enjoy delicious and safe "Planned-Overs."
How Long Can I Keep Leftovers?
Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or frozen for 2 to 6 months. Although safe indefinitely, frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times in the freezer.
- Refrigerate food within 2 hours of cooking or being served at a restaurant. Food that has been held at unsafe temperatures for more than 2 hours may become contaminated with harmful bacteria that are not destroyed by ordinary cooking and reheating. Discard any food left out longer than 2 hours.
- Cool properly. Size matters! Separate food into smaller portions and place into shallow pans. Food in each pan or storage container needs to be 3 inches deep or less. Use an ice bath to cool foods such as soups and stews. Let your refrigerator cool leftovers. Store them on the top shelf, cover loosely so the food will cool faster. Once cool, cover them tightly.
- Label and date storage containers. Label your leftover storage containers with the product name and the either date the food was made or a throw away date.
- Use freezer containers or wrap in moisture/vapor-resistant material. When freezing leftovers, keep frozen at 0°F. Some meats dry out when frozen. Cover in broth to prevent this from happening.
- Not all leftovers freeze well. Avoid freezing hard-cooked egg whites (toughens them), lettuce and cabbage (becomes limp), mayonnaise (separates). Cream fillings, puddings, custard, gelatin salads, and cheese do NOT freeze well.
- Remove as much air as possible but leave room for expansion of water during freezing. Store only the amount of food that will freeze within 24 hours.
Thawing Frozen Leftovers
- Safe ways to thaw frozen leftovers include: the refrigerator, cold water and the microwave oven. Refrigerator thawing takes the longest, but the leftovers stay safe the entire time. After thawing in the refrigerator, the food should be used within 3 to 4 days or can be refrozen.
- Cold water thawing is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The frozen leftovers must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, water can get into the food and bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could enter it. Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.
- Microwave thawing is the fastest method. When thawing leftovers in a microwave, continue to heat it until it reaches 165° F as measured with a food thermometer.
- It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing, either in a saucepan or microwave (in the case of a soup or stew) or in the oven or microwave (for example, casseroles and combination meals). Reheating will take longer than if the food is thawed first, but it is safe to do when time is short.
- Reheat leftovers thoroughly to a temperature of 165°F or until hot and steamy. Bring soups, sauces, and gravies to a rolling boil.
- When using a microwave for reheating leftovers, use a container that is labeled microwave safe. Cover and rotate the food for even heating.
- When reheating meat and poultry in the oven, the temperature should be no lower than 325°F.
- Reheating in slow cookers isn't recommended because foods may be sitting too long in the "Danger Zone" (40°F - 140°F).
Leftovers and Food Safety, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Patton, P., Larvick, C., Albrecht, J. A. (2008). Food Safety for Families Parent Newsletter: Leftover Food Safety. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. This newsletter was developed as part of the Food Safety for Families with Young Children Project, USDA‐CSREES Project 2008‐51110‐19237.
King, K. 10 Smart Tips to Keep Your Restaurant Leftovers Safe, Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)