Leftover Lesson: To Eat or Not to Eat

The ultimate guide to saving leftovers

Leftovers are the best friends on which you can always rely in times of need. They offer convenience, cooking-free nights, and delicious next-day meals — that is, assuming you’ve stored and reheated them properly. In other words, don’t let your best friends stab you in the back by making you sick.

According to Home Food Safety, a collaborative program of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra Foods, it’s extremely important to make sure your leftovers are safe to consume.

"Oftentimes our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Instead of overeating at home or a restaurant, save part of your meal to eat later," said registered dietitian and academy spokeswoman Melissa Joy Dobbins. "Just make sure you’re storing and reheating leftovers properly to keep them from making you sick."

The Mayo Clinic suggests that leftovers can be saved for three to four days in the refrigerator. Beyond that, the risk of food poisoning increases. If you don’t plan on consuming your leftovers within that time frame, freeze them immediately.

Here are four tips to keep your leftovers in tip-top shape for next-day consumption:

Refrigerate leftovers to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below within two hours of them being served to you. (In hotter weather — think more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit — refrigerate after one hour.)

Seal leftovers in an airtight, clean container, and label it with the expiration date.

Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, and use a food thermometer to make sure the food has reached the safe minimum internal temperature throughout.

If you’re not eating your leftovers the next day, make sure you check on them and discard when it’s past the expiration date. If you’re not sure, just chuck it.

"Unfortunately, you can’t rely on sight and scent alone to tell if food is spoiled or contaminated with foodborne pathogens," Dobbins said. "That’s why it’s important to follow these simple steps, but a majority of Americans do not always do so, putting them at risk for food poisoning."

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, only 23 percent of Americans always use a food thermometer to check the doneness of their foods, and only 28 percent regularly check the refrigerator thermometer.

Check out Home Food Safety’s Leftover Safety tip sheet and the free app "Is My Food Safe?" to determine the shelf life of your leftovers.

And for some gross, educational fun, take Home Food Safety’s quiz, "What Was It?" which asks "Ever find long-forgotten leftovers or expired foods that are so long gone they can’t even be identified?" The quiz presents 10 moldy, way-expired foods and asks you to ID them. We’re not sure what this says about us, but we scored a perfect 10 out of 10.

Have we completely grossed you out? Fear not, because The Kitchn has 10 dinner recipes that make for delicious next-day lunch leftovers. Slow-Cooker Black Bean Enchiladas? For dinner and lunch? Yes, please.

— Jaclyn Bertner, HellaWella


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