The Life of Leftovers
Karma Metzgar, C.F.C.S. Former Northwest Regional Nutrition Specialist, Nodaway County Extension Center, University of Missouri Extension
Leftovers. Some people define leftovers as planned overs -cooking with the idea to have another meal from the effort. Others define them as containers of "stuff" that get shoved to the back of the refrigerator. And there are some foods which are better the second time around. But, the big question is how long do leftovers last? And, the answer is not until they are gone. Leftovers have a shelf life even when refrigerated that needs to be respected or you could end up with symptoms of food poisoning, also called foodborne illness, similar to the flu.
Generally, refrigerated leftovers should be used within three to four days after cooking.
Reheat foods only once and toss if there are any leftover leftovers. The three to four day guide applies to soups, stews, cooked meat and meat dishes, cooked poultry dishes, fried chicken and casseroles. The refrigerated shelf life for gravy and meat broth is one to two days.
If you don't anticipate using the leftovers in the recommended time span, freeze them to extend the shelf life. Freeze in portion sizes that are easily eaten in one setting.
When storing leftovers, put in them small, shallow containers so there is more rapid chilling of the food. Keep in mind if foods are stored while still hot or warm, be sure to all cool air to circulate to keep food safe. Bacteria grows rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F, so if a food is lukewarm for several hours bacteria may start to grow. Label the containers either with a "use by date" or "today's date." Make sure your family understands your coding system. I have seen some food storage labels that have both dates to fill in. This is a good idea. Then there is no misunderstanding of the dating system.
The next issue is reheating. Foods should be reheated thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees F. This means soups and gravies should be brought to a rolling boil. Food should steam throughout, not just at the edges.
Careless reheating can contribute to foodborne illness. When reheating in a microwave, be aware that foods cook differently in microwaves than by conventional heat. In a regular oven, hot air makes both the food and its container hot, while in the microwave, the air is cool. Cooking occurs when microwaves cause food molecules to vibrate; the resulting friction creates heat. While microwaves can get food hot enough to kill bacteria that may be present, the microwave doesn't always cook evenly. Since microwaves go about an inch deep in most foods, the center cooks when heat from the outer areas travels inward. Therefore, it is up to the cook to arrange, cover, rotate, stir and turn foods so they reach a safe temperature throughout the food.
Food continues to cook after the heat turns off, whether the food is still in the oven or someplace else. Be patient and allow the food to stand to equalize the temperature of the food.
Remember to promptly refrigerate leftovers, date them, plan to use within three to four days or freeze them, and reheat once until steaming.