You had people over for dinner- it was a big party with family and friends, and now, there’s the lingering food.
Should you throw it out? Is it going to go bad by the time it reaches the fridge?
If it looks good and smells good, chances are you can keep it. Tomorrow’s lunch can always use some cold turkey sandwiches or a side of mango salad.
But, to be sure you’re not putting yourself and others in danger, here are some general rules to play by to keep your leftovers safe, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service:
1) PUT FOOD AWAY AFTER 2 HOURS
Always refrigerate food within 2 hours of cooking it- don’t leave it on the table all night, and then put it in the fridge in the morning. It could be contaminated.
In general, throw out all perishable food that has been out at room temperature for more than 2 hours-and just 1 hour for a picnic outside, if it’s hot out.
2) COOL FOOD QUICKLY
A big pot of food can grow foodborne illnesses. Get your hot food to cool down quickly by dividing it into smaller, shallower containers to prevent bacteria from growing. A prime example of this is dividing that big pot soup into smaller portions before bacterial problems starts to in the middle while the whole thing takes forever to chill.
3) WRAP, WRAP, WRAP
Ok, don’t wrap yourself. But think of your mom telling you that you couldn’t wear that halter top to high school and cover it up. Cover your food and the tops of open containers to keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and to stop your food from picking up odors from other leftovers sitting around in the fridge.
4) STORAGE: 3-4 DAYS or 3-4 MONTHS
Want to keep those mashed potatoes for two weeks? Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or frozen for 3 to 4 months. Technically, you can freeze things forever but there’s always the danger that frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when they’re stored for longer times in the freezer.
And also, who knows-maybe there was a power outage over the weekend when you were away and some things in the freezer have actually melted and re-frozen, without your knowledge. If kept for super long, you might not actually know how fresh the food really is.
5) THAW SAFELY
Relax and un-chill safely. Safe ways to thaw food include the refrigerator, cold water and the microwave oven. Thawing leftovers in the fridge takes the longest, but it’s the safest method.
Remember when you’re thawing something in cold water, that the bag the leftovers are being held in could break and water get in, bringing with it any surrounding bacteria.
Always cook food thawed by cold water before re-freezing it.
6) REHEAT SAFELY
When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165° F by measuring the internal temperature of the food with a food thermometer. Always reheat sauces, soups and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil. Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through.
When reheating in the microwave, sources advise that you cover and rotate the food for even heating. The United States Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service writes:
“Arrange food items evenly in a covered microwave safe glass or ceramic dish, and add some liquid if needed. The moist heat that is created will help destroy harmful bacteria and will ensure uniform cooking. Also, because microwaves have cold spots, check the temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer and allow a resting time before checking the internal temperature of the food with a food thermometer.”