Toi Degree: Safely storing leftovers

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 26, 2022

By Toi Degree
N.C. Cooperative Extension

One holiday down; two more to go and so many leftovers. Now that the party is over and you’re cleaning up, it’s important to assess the safety of the leftover foods. Here are a few things to consider before deciding what you will keep or throw out.

Perishable foods such as meat, poultry, cooked foods, cheese and cut-up fruits and vegetables that have been out for more than two hours should be discarded. Leftover foods kept hot (above 140 degrees with chafing dishes, warming trays or slow cookers will need to be refrigerated right away. Perishable foods that were not out for more than two hours or that were kept on ice can also be saved. Prompt storage can prevent pathogenic bacteria that cause foodborne illness from growing in your leftovers. These bacteria have no odor and can’t be tasted or seen.

Leftovers should be stored in shallow pans or containers so that they cool down quickly. The quicker your leftovers cool, the less time they spend in the “Danger Zone” (40-140 degrees). To prevent bacterial growth, it’s important to cool food rapidly so it reaches the safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40 degrees or below as fast as possible. To do this, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. A big pot of soup, for example, will take a long time to cool, inviting bacteria to multiply and increasing the danger of foodborne illness. Instead, divide the pot of soup into smaller containers so that it will cool quickly.

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. As you are putting food away, ask yourself if you can finish the leftovers in four days. If not, go ahead and package them for the freezer. Most cooked foods will keep their best quality for 2-4 months in the freezer. To protect your foods from the drying effects of the freezer, package them in heavy-duty plastic containers, freezer bags, aluminum foil or freezer paper.

Most leftovers will keep for about three to four days in your refrigerator or frozen for three to four months. Although safe indefinitely, frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times in the freezer.

When it is time to thaw and reheat your leftovers, just make sure to do so safely. The three safe ways to thaw include the refrigerator, cold water and microwave oven. Refrigerator thawing takes the longest, but the leftovers stay safe the entire time. After thawing, the food should be used within three to four days or can be refrozen. Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees as measured with a food thermometer.

Making sure to properly handle food is very important from the time that you purchase until it reaches the plates of your guests and beyond. For more information on food safety, go to

Toi N. Degree is family and consumer education agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension — Rowan County Center. Contact her at 704-216-8970 or

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