How Long Are Leftovers Good For?

From last night’s meatloaf to the three-day-old pasta in the back of the fridge, learn how to store leftovers properly and how long they last before they have to be tossed.

Having leftovers in your fridge is a timesaver when you have a hectic schedule—you can easily reheat a quick meal and go on with your next activity. Eating leftovers is also a perfect way to reduce food waste. With leftovers piling up in your fridge for days, and knowing that food is perishable, do you wonder how long they are good for? Find out why leftovers go bad in the first place, how to store leftovers, the signs of spoilage and when it is time to part with them.

How to Store Leftovers

According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, leftovers should be kept out of the danger zone, the range between 40°F and 140°F where bacteria grow most rapidly. To store your leftovers safely, you should put them away within two hours of cooking (or within two hours after they've been removed from a warming appliance).

While hot food can be refrigerated directly, for large portions of leftovers that may not chill as quickly, place them in multiple shallow containers to cool faster. For large cuts of poultry and meat, cut them into smaller pieces. Alternatively, you can also place your hot food into a cold-water bath or an ice bath to bring down its internal temperature.

Cover your leftovers with plastic food wrap. You can also put your leftovers in sealable food-grade bags or use an airtight lid to cover your containers. Keeping the food covered, wrapped or sealed keeps food moist and prevents unwanted odors.

Stow the leftovers on the shelves of the fridge or freezer. Placing them on the doors will increase temperature tempering, making the leftovers not last as long. Finally, make sure your fridge has a temperature below 40°F and a freezer temperature of less than 0°F to slow down bacterial growth.

a photo of a person packing up leftover vegetables into containers
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How Long Do Leftovers Last?

Leftovers can be stored for up to four days in the fridge and for up to four months in the freezer, according to the FSIS. However, this timeline should serve as a general rule of thumb. For best practices, you should always inspect leftovers for signs of spoilage before consuming.

How to Tell If Leftovers Are Bad

Look out for these signs indicating that your leftovers may have gone bad.

Appearance

Some obvious signs that your leftovers are no longer safe to eat is if there is a color change or visible mold. If you also notice a difference in texture, such as the food looking dried or shriveled, or a sheet of slime on the surface, you can assume that the food is also likely spoiled and should be trashed.

Smell

Another way to tell if your leftovers have spoiled is by the smell. If the leftovers are emitting any off odors or rancid scent, it's best to dump them into the compost or trash. Some leftovers may not emit a strong smell, so if you're unsure, it's best to play it safe and toss them and not risk any potential illness. You can also look for other signs of spoilage to help make your decision.

Taste

Sometimes, the food may look and smell the same as it did when you packed it into a container. If that's the case, one last resort to check for spoilage is to taste a small bite of the leftovers. Any flavor change or apparent sourness indicates the food is no longer edible. Spit it out and discard the rest of the leftovers.

What's the Best Way to Reheat Leftovers?

Whether your leftovers are in the fridge or the freezer, reheating them before consumption is recommended to ensure any bacteria are destroyed. Use a food thermometer to ensure leftovers reach an internal temperature of at least 165°F, or heat them until hot and steaming. It is best to reheat your leftovers on the stovetop or in the oven or microwave. When using the microwave to reheat foods, you may need to reheat them in intervals while rotating the food or stirring the soup or stew to ensure it's reheated evenly. Using slow cookers or hot holding elements for reheating leftovers is not recommended. They may keep the food's temperature within the danger zone range, making eating unsafe.

The Bottom Line

Leftovers generally last for up to four days in the fridge and four months in the freezer when stored properly. Store leftovers within two hours of cooking to avoid the danger zone and bacteria growth. If you notice any signs of spoilage, like changes in the appearance or smell, it's best to toss the leftovers and avoid potential risk of food poisoning.

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