How Long Do Leftovers Last In the Fridge?

Leftovers

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Whether you are preparing meals in advance or batch cooking to have meals for later in the week, leftover foods are becoming a bigger part of many households. While leftovers can make healthy meals come together in a matter of minutes, there are specific food safety reminders you need to keep in mind while preparing and storing these foods to ensure no foodborne illnesses develop. We'll dive into these tips below.

What to Know About Leftover Food Safety

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes that one out of six Americans will get sick from a foodborne illness each year. Foodborne illness symptoms can range from mild abdominal pain to severe vomiting and diarrhea that causes hospitalization. If you've ever experienced a foodborne illness, then you know exactly what these feel like.

There are 31 pathogens known to cause foodborne illness, with the five most common in the United States being Norovirus, Salmonella, Clostridium perfringens, Campylobacter spp., and Staphylococcus aureus. It's important to remember the basics when preparing, storing, and reheating leftover foods to prevent these bacteria and viruses from developing.

Cook Food to the Proper Internal Temperature

The first rule of thumb is to cook your food to the proper internal temperature, especially if it is a potentially hazardous food (think raw meats, seafood, poultry, etc.). It's highly recommended to invest in a good food thermometer so you can always temperature check foods before beginning the cooling process to store your leftovers.

Cook these foods to the following temperatures or until they meet the descriptions:

  • Beef, Pork, Veal, and Lamb (chops, roasts, steaks): 145F with a three minute rest time
  • Ground Meat: 160F
  • Poultry (ground, parts, whole, and stuffing): 165F
  • Fin Fish: 145F or when the flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork
  • Shrimp, Lobster, and Crabs: Flesh pearly & opaque
  • Eggs: Cook until the yolks and whites are firm
  • Egg Dishes: 160F
  • Leftovers: 165F

Cool and Store Leftovers The Right Way

According to food safety expert Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, award-winning nutrition expert and Wall Street Journal best-selling author of "The Family Immunity Cookbook," consumers need to pay close attention to how long their leftover foods are sitting out.

"If leftovers are held at room temperature for over two hours, they should be discarded," Amidor says.

Culinary dietitian Wendy Jo Peterson, MS, RDN, author of "Meal Prep Cookbook For Dummies," agrees with Amidor, noting that any form of leftovers—even those foods prepared as part of meal prep—need to be cooled and stored immediately. Peterson recommends portioning foods into smaller serving sizes and storing them in sealed containers or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap for best quality.

If you've cooked a large portion of food, consider using an ice bath underneath the storage containers to help cool the food quicker for storage. Unfortunately, the old-school method of portioning the food and leaving it on the counter until you remember to seal the lids shut and refrigerate does not bode well for food safety.

How Long Should You Actually Keep Those Leftovers

Whether you leave food out for others in your household to eat when it is convenient for them or get pulled in another direction during meal prep, it's good to be mindful of the "danger zone," as food safety experts call it. This zone refers to the temperature range of 40F to 140F in which bacteria can grow rapidly if food is left out.

Following the FDA guidance, Amidor and Peterson both agree that three to four days is the best recommendation to follow when considering how long to actually keep those leftovers.

"For leftovers like cooked meat, poultry dishes, cooked vegetables, cooked grains/pasta, and fish, the USDA recommends using within 3 to 4 days," Amidor says.

"For cut produce, the FDA recommends the same time, but I personally recommend keeping the fruit or vegetable whole until right before eating as it can mold or the quality can decrease if stored closer to four days in the refrigerator. After that time, the food should be tossed. If you find that the food has an off odor, texture, or you're just not sure how long it's been sitting in your refrigerator, then toss. As the saying goes: 'when in doubt, toss it out!'"

However, Peterson also recommends using your best judgment: "Some pasta salads, soups, and combination dishes, if stored properly, are still safe to eat at day five in the refrigerator."

Always Reheat Leftovers to 165F

Use the microwave, oven, toaster, or air fryer to quickly and efficiently reheat leftover foods without affecting the quality of your food. All dishes should be heated to an internal temperature of 165F before eating.

Simple Tips to Maximize Leftovers

If you find yourself with a slew of leftovers and aren't quite sure what to do with them, try incorporating these tips:

  • Once cooled properly, freeze part of the dish for consumption at a later date.
  • Use smaller meal prep containers to portion into single servings, freezing some for future meals.
  • When sliced and wrapped tightly, bread can be frozen for a grab-and-go slice.
  • Leftover chili works great in a quesadilla or on top of nachos.
  • Leftover lentils can be mixed into scrambled eggs or tossed onto a pizza.
  • Sliced fruit and veggies can be frozen and blended into smoothies.
  • To prevent food waste, simply reduce the recipe by half to have just enough to satisfy you and your crew.

A Word From Verywell

You can continue to meal prep and store your batch-cooked items as leftovers for quick and easy meals throughout the week. Just remember to follow FDA food safety guidance and use refrigerated foods within three to four days. When in doubt, throw it out.

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Article Sources
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  1. Center for Disease Control (CDC). Burden of Foodborne Illness: Findings. Updated on November 5, 2018.

  2. Food and Drug Administration. Safe Food Handling. Updated on November 30, 2017.

  3. Food and Drug Administration. USDA. Leftovers and Food Safety. Updated on July 31, 2020.