After a great party or dinner celebration, deciding what to do with a table full of leftovers may not be at the forefront of your mind, but it’s an important part of partying. It’s certainly a pity to waste good food, but letting leftovers linger without temperature control can be unsafe.
Any food left out for more than two hours is susceptible to harmful bacterial growth and should be disposed of. This goes for any part of the meal, and it’s especially important if your leftovers have been sitting out in the summer heat. This holds true for both cold and hot foods, so be sure to serve foods immediately before mealtime and store anything that’s sitting out as soon as the meal is coming to a close.
Bacteria thrive between 41 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit – this is known as the temperature “Danger Zone” for food storage. As soon as the food hits that range, bacteria start growing immediately, so the less time spent in that zone, the safer the food is.
Wrap it up!
How should you handle what’s left?
• Save only the food you know to have been handled safely in the first place, and which hasn’t been tainted by double-dipping or by lots of hands picking at it. If it’s been sitting out uncovered in your backyard, get rid of it.
• Be honest in assessing what you are likely to eat over the next three or four days. While no one likes throwing away food, it’s not worth storing it in your fridge just to end up throwing it out anyway. If you’d like to save them, freeze them immediately.
• Be sure to store foods properly. Pack meats separately from vegetables and grains. Mark the storage containers or bags with the item names and the dates you packed them in addition to a “use-by” date so you can keep track of what to use by when.
• Cool all foods completely before storage. Make sure your refrigerator is working to keep food cold enough, preferably no more than 40 degrees. You can help keep the temperature consistent by not overloading the refrigerator, which compromises its efficiency – another reason to be choosy about what you’re saving!
• When reheating, leftovers must reach a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 30 seconds to kill bacteria. It’s best to do this on the stove top or in the oven as microwaves don’t heat evenly and some areas may be heated properly and others may not be hot enough. Be sure to use a thermometer to check the temperature, removing the food from the heat source before checking the to make sure you’re getting an accurate reading and you’re not just measuring the temperature of your heat source!
Storing your leftovers safely not only keeps you from wasting delicious food, it prevents the growth of dangerous bacteria and limits your exposure of foodborne illnesses. Any hot or cold foods should not be left out for more than 2 hours. Be choosy about what you decide to save, and be sure to eat it within a couple of days.
When in doubt, toss it!