Whether your family cooks a few times per week or does bulk cooking for the week on one day, it’s easy to find yourself in a situation with an abundance of leftovers lurking in the depths of the refrigerator with questionable edibility. Leftovers can be a wonderful way to save time and energy in the kitchen by using food that you’ve already prepared to get a quick and healthy dinner onto the table, but there are guidelines to help you identify what you can enjoy and what should be tossed. And there are also tips that you can use to make the most of your leftovers and minimize food loss.
Leftovers and Food Safety Guidelines
- First, handle and cook food properly. That’s the first step in enjoying later leftovers. Make sure that your hands are clean when handling food, that you don’t cross contaminate foods, and that you cook foods to the appropriate internal temperatures.
- Observe the danger zone. Bacteria particularly enjoy growth in temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The rule of thumb is to only allow foods to be in the danger temperature zone for two hours or for one hour if the air temperature is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, such as at an outdoor picnic. If food stays out longer than these guidelines, throw it out.
- Cool food rapidly to get the temperature to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and refrigerate as soon as possible. This may require putting large quantities of food (such as soups and stews) into shallow dishes for cooling, using a cold water bath, or cutting food into smaller portions for cooling/refrigerating.
- Store leftovers correctly. Seal leftovers in airtight and preferably see through containers labeled with when they were cooked and what they are. We are all fooled with the belief that we will remember the what and when of our leftovers, but then items in the refrigerator get shuffled and we lose track.
- 3 to 4 day rule. Keep leftovers refrigerated for up to three to four days and then discard.
- Freeze immediately. If you decide to freeze your leftovers, freeze as soon as possible in a labeled, airtight container and try to eat the food within three to four months for maximum quality.
- Defrost properly. There are several methods for defrosting that meet food safety standards. Check out this USDA link to find out the proper way to defrost in the refrigerator, in cold water, and in the microwave.
- Reheat properly. Use a food thermometer and make sure that leftovers are reheated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
- When in doubt, throw it out. Pathogenic bacteria, which cause food borne illness, can be present in a food even if the food doesn’t look, smell or taste spoiled.
- Check your refrigerator and freezer temperatures. Keep your refrigerator above freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit) but at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. This will keep your refrigerated foods from freezing or from being in the danger zone. The best place to check the temperature of your refrigerator is in the middle of the middle shelf. Keep your freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Clean your refrigerator often. Clean out leftovers that are more than four days old, expired food, crumbs, etc. often, and clean up spills immediately. Spills, as well as bacteria and mold, can put your family at risk for food poisoning.
Leftover maximization tips
- Freeze some. If you know you can’t use it within the recommended time, freeze leftovers in usable portions for later use. Make sure you label your leftovers with the date and contents. Also, it may help to keep a list of leftovers posted on the freezer so that you know what you have. When it gets used, you can scratch it off of the list. Another tip is to keep all frozen leftovers in one area of the freezer so that they can quickly be found without searching through your other freezer contents.
- Give it away. If you have more leftovers than your family can use and freezing isn’t the best option, send some to family and friends. Do you have a family member who lives alone and could use a healthy home-cooked meal? Or a friend who just had a baby and would welcome a meal? Deliver refrigerated portions as soon as possible.
- Find other uses. For instance, if you get tired of your fajita ingredients after serving them twice, but you still have more chicken and grilled vegetables, add them to your pizza toppings or to your omelet. You’ll have healthy ingredients to create a quick meal without forcing yourself to eat another fajita or wasting the remaining food. What can you do with leftover brown rice when the white beans are gone? Try brown rice breakfast pudding. Super Healthy Kids is a great resource for finding recipes based on an ingredient.
With these guidelines and tips, you can enjoy and get the most out of your leftovers and get a break from cooking. Doesn’t that sound like a great time-saving gift to yourself?
I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.Learn More about Natalie