Handling Leftovers Safely

After any holiday party, family dinner or other gathering where food is served, there are often plenty of leftovers for the hosts and guests to enjoy later. Unfortunately, even if the food was properly cooked, leftovers can become unsafe to eat if they are not handled and stored properly.

Proper handling of leftovers makes them safer to eat later. To keep your leftovers safe, follow the rules below:

Refrigerate or Freeze Leftovers Promptly

Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of preparation (or one hour on days over 90º F) to reduce the chance of bacteria growing. Any perishable foods sitting out at room temperature for longer than two hours should be discarded.

Leftovers can also be immediately frozen for reheating later. While freezing stops the growth of bacteria, food quality can suffer if stored too long in the freezer.

Reduce Temperature of Hot Foods Quickly

It’s important to get the temperature of the leftovers down rapidly to discourage any type of bacterial growth. To speed the cooling process, try separating large quantities of leftovers into smaller containers. It is okay to place hot leftovers directly into a properly operating refrigerator, provided large quantities have been divided into shallow containers for quicker cooling. Leave hot foods partially uncovered while cooling, and then cover them completely once they reach 40º F or freeze.

Reheating Leftovers

When reheating leftovers, make sure the internal temperature of the food item reaches at least 165º F before eating it. If using a microwave, stir the food periodically to help promote even reheating.

Leftovers that were frozen can be thawed in the refrigerator for reheating later. You can also use a microwave to thaw frozen leftovers if the food will be consumed right away.

Dispose of Uneaten Leftovers

Properly handled leftovers can usually be kept in the refrigerator for three to four days. If not eaten within that time, they should be discarded.

Consumer Resources Mailing List

Receive NSF consumer updates.

View Mailing List Archives

close