Cook Food Safely. The first step in having safe ‘planned overs’ is cooking the food safely. If cooking at home, use a food thermometer to make sure that the food is cooked to a safe, minimum internal temperature. If dining out, order meat ‘well done’.
- 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.
Keep Food out of the “Danger Zone”. Bacteria grow rapidly between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F (the Danger Zone). After food is safely cooked, hot food must be kept hot at 140°F or warmer to prevent bacterial growth. Refrigerate ‘planned overs’ within 2 hours of removing from the stove or oven or once the slow cooker recipe is done.
Cold perishable food, such as chicken salad or a platter of deli meats, once removed from refrigeration should be at room temperature no more than 2 hours. When serving food at a buffet, keep food hot food hot in chafing dishes, slow cookers, or warming trays.
Cool Food Rapidly. For those hot ‘planned overs’ to be safe the next day (hot or cold!) be sure to cool food rapidly so it reaches as fast as possible the safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40°F or below. To do this, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers, no more than 3 inches deep. Cut large items of food into smaller portions to cool. For whole roasts or hams, slice or cut them into smaller parts. Cut turkey into smaller pieces and refrigerate. Slice breast meat; legs and wings may be left whole. Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator, or be rapidly chilled in an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating. Avoid leaving food on the counter to cool! I did this at one point in the first few months of my marriage and made my husband and me very sick. Our marriage survived, but the practice of cooling food on the counter did not!
Wrap Leftovers Well. Wrapping planned overs for storage will ensure that upcoming meals are safe and tasty. Wrap planned-overs in airtight packaging, or seal them in storage containers. These practices help avoid food waste by keeping bacteria out, retaining moisture, and preventing leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator. Immediately refrigerate or freeze the wrapped leftovers for rapid cooling. Glass dishes work well for retaining quality, as do layers of aluminum foil and sturdy plastic. Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days or frozen for 3 to 4 months. Although safe indefinitely, frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times in the freezer.