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Storing and reheating leftovers

Many home and office refrigerators contain leftover food. Leftover food can be a convenient next meal, but before reheating leftovers, determine if they are safe to eat.

Leftover safety basics

Before using leftover food, it's a good idea to check the temperature of the food to make sure that it was refrigerated at or below 40 degrees F. One out of four home refrigerators are too warm.

  • Keep your refrigerator at 36-38 F so the food is held at 40 F or below.
  • Don't pack the refrigerator; cool air must circulate to keep food safe.

Have you ever found food stuck in the back of the refrigerator and asked, "How long has that been there?" If you don't remember how long it's been there, remember the old adage, "when in doubt, throw it out." Were the leftovers refrigerated within 2 hours of cooking? If not, throw them out. Were the leftovers cooled properly, i.e. turkey and ham sliced into smaller portions and other leftovers cooled quickly in shallow pans less than two inches deep? If not, throw them out.

When in doubt, throw it out!

Common leftovers and recommended refrigerator storage times

  • Soups and stews: 3 to 4 days.
  • Gravy and meat broth: 1 to 2 days.
  • Cooked turkey, meat and meat dishes: 3 to 4 days.
  • Cooked poultry dishes: 3 to 4 days.
  • Casseroles: 3 to 4 days.
  • Luncheon meats: opened package 3 to 5 days; unopened package 2 weeks.
  • Pasta and potato salads: 3 to 5 days.

"Cool Whip," cottage cheese containers, margarine tubs and most plastic storage containers are not heat stable. Don't reheat in these types of containers.

What is microwave safe?

It's tempting to throw the plastic container with the leftover food in the microwave to reheat. Unless the container is labeled microwave safe, take the time to put the food on a microwave safe plate or bowl.

  • "Cool Whip," cottage cheese containers, margarine tubs and most plastic storage containers are not heat stable. Chemicals from the plastic may absorb into the food during heating.
  • Microwave plastic wraps, wax paper, cooking bags, parchment paper and white microwave-safe paper towels are safe to use.
  • Don't let plastic wrap touch foods during microwaving.
  • Never use thin plastic storage bags, brown paper or plastic grocery bags, newspapers, or aluminum foil in the microwave oven.
Stir or rotate food midway through the microwaving time

Microwaves tend to heat unevenly, so follow these steps to reheat safely:

  1. Arrange food items evenly in a covered dish and add some liquid if needed.
  2. Cover the dish with a lid or plastic wrap; loosen or vent the lid or wrap to let steam escape. The moist heat helps destroy harmful bacteria and ensures uniform cooking.
  3. Stir or rotate food midway through the microwaving time to eliminate cold spots where harmful bacteria can survive.
  4. After reheating food in the microwave, keep covered and allow food to stand for 2 minutes before eating.
  5. Then, use a clean food thermometer to check that food has reached 165 F.

Suzanne Driessen, Extension educator

Reviewed in 2021

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