After any holiday party, family dinner, and other gathering where food is served, it seems like there is always 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.
Refrigerate or freeze prepared foods, leftovers, and other perishables within two hours of preparation or purchase. If guests are going to be delayed for a short time, keep hot foods in the oven, checking the internal temperature to be sure it stays at least 140°F. If dinner is done early or guests are going to be delayed for a significant period of time, separate the main and side dishes into shallow containers and store in the refrigerator for reheating later.
Be sure the refrigerator is set at 40F. Use a thermometer to check the temperature of the refrigerator regularly. Harmful foodborne organisms can grow if temperatures exceed 40°F.
Never attempt to thaw frozen leftovers at room temperature. Instead, place them in the refrigerator. Microwaves can also be used to thaw and reheat food more quickly if the food will be consumed right away.
When storing leftover foods, get the temperature of the food down rapidly to discourage any type of bacterial growth. Separate large amounts of leftovers into smaller containers, as this will allow for more rapid cooling of the foods once they are placed in the refrigerator. It is okay to place hot food directly in the refrigerator, provided large quantities of food are divided into shallow containers for quicker cooling. Leave hot foods partially uncovered while cooling, then cover completely once they reach 40°F.
Properly handled leftovers can usually be kept in the refrigerator for about four days. If not eaten within that time, they 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. Be sure to reheat leftovers to at least 165°F before serving.
Remember: Proper handling of any leftovers can determine how safe they will be to eat later.