Leftovers and Food Safety

In my family, I tend to prefer the term ‘planned-overs’ to the term ‘leftovers’ – I am ‘planning’ to serve a soup or casserole again that week! Whether it’s food prepared at home, or more of a restaurant meal than can be eaten in one sitting, there are some basic steps to assure that planned-overs are safe the second (or third) time around.

Cook food safely. The first step in having safe leftovers is cooking the food safely. Use a food thermometer to make sure that the food is cooked to a safe, minimum internal temperature.

  • Red meats: Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source. For safety and quality, allow meat to rest for at least three minutes before carving or consuming. For reasons of personal preference, consumers may choose to cook meat to higher temperatures.
  • Ground meats: Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160°F as measured with a food thermometer.
  • Poultry: Cook all poultry to an internal temperature of 165°F as measured with a food thermometer.

Cool promptly and rapidly. Food remaining after a meal at home or in a restaurant needs to be cooled promptly; move items into the refrigerator within two hours of foods being taken off the grill, pulled from the oven, or finished on the stovetop. Refrigerate foods from a restaurant as soon as possible, and within two hours. Keeping foods out of the Danger Zone will help ensure that harmful bacteria don’t grow. Cooling foods rapidly is one of the most important steps in preventing foodborne illness. Divide large amounts of food into shallow containers, no more than 3″ deep, and refrigerate. Cut large food items like roasts or hams into small parts and refrigerate. Even if casseroles or soups are still hot, they should be promptly refrigerated!  The one time I knowingly gave my husband and myself food poisoning was due to my failure to cool food properly [perhaps I’ll share that story some day.]

Reheat safely. When reheating ‘planned-overs’, be sure they reach 165°F as measured with a food thermometer. Reheat sauces, soups and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil. Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through.

When reheating in the microwave, cover and rotate the food for even heating. Arrange food items evenly in a covered microwave safe glass or ceramic dish, and add some liquid if needed. Be sure the covering is microwave safe, and vent the lid or wrap to let the steam escape. The moist heat that is created will help destroy harmful bacteria and will ensure uniform cooking. Also, because microwaves have cold spots, check the temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer and allow a resting time before checking the internal temperature of the food with a food thermometer. Cooking continues for a longer time in dense foods such as a whole turkey or beef roast than in less dense foods like breads, small vegetables and fruits.

Consume…or freeze. Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, or frozen. For quality, try to limit frozen-storage time to 3 to 4 months; properly frozen leftovers will be safe indefinitely, but they will loose quality over time.

The USDA has a fact sheet on Leftovers and Food Safety. Stay food safe, Barb