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Storing Leftovers

Everyone cooks more than they can eat, at least every once in a while. For some individuals and families, having leftovers at the end of the meal is a common occurrence. For others, it’s intentional. Many home chefs cook more than their families can eat so that there’s plenty left over for another meal the next day or later in the week. It’s a sign of the times in this busy world where Mom doesn’t necessarily stay home with the kids and may not have time to create a new meal every night.

Leftovers are great! They can be eaten as is, used in a sandwich, or incorporated into a recipe for a meal that’s different than the one you enjoyed previously. However, storing these foods correctly is essential. Improperly stored leftovers, especially cooked food, can result in the development of all kinds of bacteria, which can make you and your family members sick. You’ll also want to be careful about handling the leftovers and reheating them properly so that everyone in your household remains healthy.


There are a lot of different opinions when it comes to how and when to store hot foods. Do you take them directly from your table to the refrigerator or should they be allowed to cool first?

Experts say that if the items are very hot, they can be cooled at room temperature for about 30 minutes and then refrigerated. Foods that are merely warm to the touch should be refrigerated immediately as should cold foods. If a cold food feels warm, throw it away.
If you’re entertaining a crowd and the food has been sitting out for a while, be extra cautious when determining whether or not to save it. As a rule, leftovers should be stored within 2 hours of cooking. Anything sitting at room temperature (or higher) for longer than that should be discarded, especially if the food has been outdoors or in a particularly hot room.

The warm foods you plan to save should be placed in airtight containers and placed in the refrigerator individually, not on top of one another. This gives the food a better chance of cooling more quickly as cold air will be able to circulate around each container. Others suggest you put the leftovers in large zip-lock bags as the surfaces of those cool very quickly when laid on a refrigerator shelf.

If you have a large pot of soup or stew to refrigerate, don’t take it directly from the stove to the refrigerator. Such large portions take a long time to cool sufficiently. Instead, divide it into smaller quantities and store in airtight containers. The same goes for large pieces of meat like whole chickens. It’s best to de-bone these and divide the meat into smaller portions. Place the portions in bags or containers and then refrigerate.

Refrigerated leftovers should never be kept for more than 4 days, so it’s a good idea to date your containers so as to avoid contamination. And never taste a leftover to see “if it’s still good.” You’re likely to swallow a sizeable batch of bacteria! You can’t detect food-borne illnesses by taste or by sight. If you’re uncertain of its freshness, throw it away.

For the most part, the same rules can be followed for freezing, but food will, of course, keep longer in the freezer. Just be sure the containers are airtight to avoid freezer burn.


When it’s time to reheat the leftovers, break out the meat thermometer. Solid foods, like poultry or roasts, should be reheated to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Things like soup or stews should be placed in a pot and heated to about 185 degrees or a “rolling” boil.
Never reheat leftovers a second time! If there’s food left after the second tasting, discard it immediately.