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Leftover Safety: Know the Basics to Keep Your Family Safe

Yesterday, you probably indulged in turkey, stuffing and a variety of side dishes. Today, you may be considering a turkey sandwich with cranberries and gravy for lunch.

A few questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge are:

  • Have my leftovers been kept out of the “danger zone”?
  • Was my food cooled rapidly?
  • Were my leftovers stored safely?
  • How do I properly reheat my leftovers so I know they’re safe?

The Danger Zone

Bacteria grow well between 40 degrees F and 140 F. Hot foods should be quickly refrigerated to minimize the time these foods are held within the danger zone.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends the following steps to keep foods safe:

  • Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking food or holding it hot (proper hot holding temperature is 140 degrees F).
  • Throw away all perishable foods that have been left at room temperature for more than two hours.

Cool Food Rapidly

To cool food rapidly and make sure it reaches a safe refrigerator-storage temperature at 40 F or below, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. The smaller the portion size, the faster food will cool in the refrigerator. A big pot of turkey stew will cool more slowly than several small containers, leaving the potential for increased bacterial growth in the middle of the pot that remains in the danger zone for a longer time.

Store Leftovers Safely

Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of preparation. Although it seems energy-efficient to cool foods on the counter before putting them in the refrigerator, if they are left out too long or cooled too slowly, bacteria can grow and reach levels that can cause illness if foods are not cooled quickly.

The smell and look of leftovers aren’t always good indicators for whether foods are safe or not. A general rule of thumb is to use refrigerated leftovers within three to four days; frozen foods should be eaten within four months.

A table displaying safe storage times for both the refrigerator and freezer is available at foodsafety.gov.

Thawing Leftovers

Leftovers can be thawed in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in a microwave. Thawing in the refrigerator is the safest way to thaw leftovers; however, it is also the slowest.

When thawing leftovers in cold water, place them in a leak-proof package or plastic bag to prevent food from becoming contaminated from the air, water or surrounding environment. Change the water every 30 minutes to speed up thawing.

Whether using a microwave or reheating leftovers thawed with another method, make sure that the leftovers reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F before they are served.

If your leftovers have been frozen and you’d like to eat only a portion of them, thaw the leftovers in the refrigerator, remove the portion you’d like to reheat, and refreeze the remainder of the thawed leftovers without reheating.

Reheating Leftovers

Leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees F.  A food thermometer should be used to check the internal temperature of food.

Soups, sauces and gravies should be brought to a rolling boil.

Leftovers retain their moisture and heat more evenly when covered.

When possible, stir foods in the middle of heating.

Let foods stand for a few minutes after taking them out of the microwave. Heat will continue to distribute during this “standing time.”

© Food Safety News