Food Safety Leftovers and To-Go Dining

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You cooked too much food, or you ordered too much at the restaurant. What do you do with leftovers to keep them safe to eat? Usually you save them for lunch or dinner the next day, have them as a snack on movie night, or just let them sit in the fridge until you notice them again and throw them out!

Here are a few precautions … so that this bonus food won’t make you sick.

How long have the leftovers been sitting out on the table or counter? We’ve stated this in the preparation and picnic pages (click here for food safety prep, and here for picnic food safety), but we want to repeat it now: Anything left out at room temperature for two hours or longer should be thrown away. Do it no matter how good it still looks. Food left out at this temperature has grown germs… because the original few germs (the manageable ones) on the food, as well as the extra ones put on it by human hands, have had a chance to multiply. Even if it smells all right, take no chances.

Are you taking home leftovers from the restaurant? The two-hour rule still applies. If you leave your doggie bag in the car while you see a movie or do errands, don’t take a chance on the food. However, if you can get the leftovers into your refrigerator within two hours, they should be good enough to eat for lunch the next day.

  • Even though your leftovers may have been cooked completely and correctly, they can still make you sick (click here for cooking guidelines). Always remember that cooked food spoils, usually within a few days. Of course, if you detect mold, a slimy texture, or a sour smell, you’ll know it’s gone bad. But sometimes there’s no discernible difference in the food, and it can still make you sick! So remember when you stored those leftovers in the fridge (jot down the date on the package if you need to). Eat up most proteins within three or four days, with a maximum of seven days. Older than seven days? Don’t take a chance. (Find out how food spoils, click here.)

  • What about reheating? Restaurants do what the experts recommend: they reheat (re-cook) all items to 165 °F (73.8 °C). That can make a leftover pizza slice dry and stale, however. So here are our recommendations: IF you’ve handled the food safely before – IF it wasn’t allowed to be sitting out too long, IF it hasn’t been sitting in the refrigerator too long, IF it was cooked to the proper temperature in the first place, and IF you put it in the refrigerator right away (or pretty quickly after wards) – you should be able just to warm it up, not all the way to 165 °F (73.8 °C), as long as you eat it immediately. But… if you think that the leftovers might not have been handled safely (perhaps the food was given to you by a friend), heating them to 165 °F (73.8 °C) is the safest bet. The high temperature will kill any germs that may have survived the cooking.

  • If you’re taking leftovers in your lunch, keep your lunch as cold as you can, using a small ice pack or storing it in a refrigerator at work. It might not be exactly 41 °F (5 °C), but it will keep the food cold enough that germs won’t like it.

Understanding how to deal with leftovers can help you stay healthy as well as helping your food budget. In fact, since doctors and hospitals are expensive, knowing these warnings will help your overall budget. For many reasons, it’s important that you understand what can happen if you don’t take care of your food!

Well, we purchased the food, we stored the food, we prepared the food, we cooked the food, and now we have to learn about leftovers! Hungry yet?

Or are you thinking, “No way!” and planning to go out to eat? Click here for Red Flag warning signs inside your favorite restaurant.

If you want to learn what the health department does on your behalf, click here.

And, to read a brief history of food safety, click here.

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