Love For Leftovers

As many of us plan on what to eat this holiday season, it can be good to have the end in mind — leftovers!

Eating leftovers is an economical choice that reduces food waste and keeps the holiday memory alive for a few more days. However, there are a few tips to share to make sure your leftovers are safe for all to enjoy.

How long can I keep leftovers in the refrigerator and freezer?

You have the option to refrigerate leftovers or freeze them. If you keep your leftovers in the refrigerator, you want to consume them within 3 to 4 days. If you choose to freeze your leftovers, for quality we recommend keeping them in the freezer for 3 to 4 months. Again, you can keep leftovers in the freezer longer, but the quality may decrease — think freezer burn.

Temperatures to remember:

  • Refrigerator: Keep at 32°F to 40°F, buy an appliance thermometer.
    • Why: Temperatures at this range will prevent the growth of most foodborne pathogens.
  • Freezer: Keep at -20°F to 0°F, buy an appliance thermometer.
    • Why: Temperatures at 0°F will prevent bacteria growth. However, freezing doesn’t kill all bacteria. 
  • Reheating leftovers: Reheat leftovers to 165°F, buy an appliance thermometer
    • Why: This temperature will prevent growth of most foodborne pathogens

How do I store leftovers? Cool the foods quickly!

Have food storage containers in mind. Use shallow containers that are 4” or less in height to store leftovers. Shallow containers will help cool foods to 40°F and below faster.

Why: Temperatures at 40°F and below will reduce the risk of bacteria growing quickly (one bacteria can grow to over 16 million bacteria in 8 hours under the right conditions).

How: Slice large cuts into smaller portions to be refrigerated or frozen. Hot foods can be placed directly into the refrigerator or placed in an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating.

Gifts are not the only thing that should be wrapped well!

Wrapping leftovers so they are airtight will help keep moisture, absorbing funky odors and help keep bacteria out.

Though this infographic shows how to thaw a frozen turkey, the same methods can be used for other frozen foods.

Thawing: Thaw frozen leftovers in the microwave, refrigerator, cold water method or cook frozen. The best method is thawing in the refrigerator because the food can always be refrozen if using a refrigerator thaw.

Why: These methods do not encourage bacteria growth.

Reheating leftovers: Whether you use the oven, stovetop or microwave, you will want to reheat leftovers until they reach a safe internal temperature of 165°F. If you use the microwave, cover the bowl or plate, and make sure you stir the food to prevent cold spots, where food many not heat up.

Helpful resources:

  1. Your local Extension office: Find here
  2. Free FoodKeeper App: Here
  3. USDA: Leftovers and food safety

This post written by Extension food safety specialist Shauna Henley, PhD.

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