Ah, leftovers. They can be a much-welcomed sight in the refrigerator, an easy dinner whose work you did yesterday – or they can be a loathsome eating choice if left too long (not tuna casserole again!). As more people are trying to trim their budgets and waste fewer resources, leftovers are gaining in popularity and are popping up in breakfast scrambles and lunch boxes all over the country.
But how do you know if the leftovers that lurk in your refrigerator are safe? How long does cooked chicken stay safe to eat, versus a vegetable lasagna or seafood fritter? Use our handy guide to leftovers and you’ll never be left guessing again.
First of all, if you’ve cooked a big batch of something delicious that you know you won’t be able (or won’t want to) finish in the next few days, go ahead and freeze what you think you won’t eat immediately. Separate your food into smaller portions for freezing, and you’ll have ready-to-go meals in the future that just need a little defrosting.
Second, make sure that your refrigerator is set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below (your freezer should be at 0 degrees Fahrenheit or below). Frozen foods can be stored indefinitely, however their quality will begin to deteriorate after about 2 months or so, depending on the type of food.
Third, be sure to seal everything tight with as little air inside as possible. Choose locking plastic containers or reusable plastic wrap to seal your leftovers and keep them fresh. Put leftover food in the refrigerator immediately; anything left at room temperature longer than four hours carries a high risk of food poisoning.
Finally, when judging leftovers, always use your nose and smell the product – if it has any kind of “off” odor, throw it out. Your nose is the first line of defense against spoiled food – however you can’t always smell if a food has gone bad. Use the following information to determine whether a food can be eaten or not.
CASSEROLES: Cooked casseroles with beef, pork, poultry, fish and meat may be kept safely for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.
LUNCH MEATS: Prepackaged lunch meats last for 3-5 days once their packages have been opened, while sliced meats from the deli will last for 5 days.
MEAT: Cooked beef, pork or poultry can be kept safely in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, and can be frozen safely for up to 6 months.
GRAVY & BROTH: Cooked gravy and broth will stay fresh and safe to eat for 1-2 days in your refrigerator. Freeze it into ice cube trays and you’ll have a handy burst of flavor to add to your next meal.
PASTA: Cooked pasta keeps for 3-5 days in the refrigerator, although pasta in soups will swell after the first day.
PIZZA: While many college students may argue that leftover pizza (the perfect breakfast) needs no refrigeration at all, in fact it can be kept safely for 3-4 days in the refrigerator and in the freezer up to 2 months.
RICE: Cooked rice may be stored safely in your refrigerator for up to one week.
SALADS: Egg, tuna, ham, chicken and macaroni salads can be kept safely for 3-5 days. Un-dressed green salads and cut vegetables can be kept this long as well, and no salads freeze well – so eat it up!
SEAFOOD: Seafood leftovers can be kept only 2 days in the refrigerator, and will taste better if consumed in 1 day.
SOUPS & STEWS: Whether made with meats or vegetables, soups and stews may be refrigerated safely for 3-4 days and frozen safely for 2-3 months.
VEGETABLES: Cooked fresh vegetables keep well for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.