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The life of leftovers

Karma Metzgar, C.F.C.S., Northwest Region Nutrition Specialist & Regional Director, Nodaway County Extension Center, University of Missouri Extension


Leftovers. Some people define leftovers as “planned-overs” — cooking with the idea to have another meal from the effort. To others, leftovers are containers of stuff that get shoved to the back of the refrigerator. And then there are some foods which are actually better the second time around.

However you define them, the big question is “how long do leftovers last?” And the answer is not “until they are gone.” Leftovers have a shelf life that needs to be respected or you could end up with symptoms of food poisoning, also called foodborne illness, similar to the flu.

Generally, refrigerated leftovers should be used within three to four days after cooking. Reheat foods only once and toss if there are any leftover leftovers. The three to four day guide applies to soups, stews, cooked meat and meat dishes, cooked poultry dishes, fried chicken and casseroles. The refrigerated shelf life for gravy and meat broth is one to two days.

If you don't anticipate using the leftovers in the recommended time span, freeze them to extend the shelf life. Freeze in portion sizes that are easily eaten in one setting. Always thaw frozen leftovers in the refrigerator, not out on the counter.

Follow these guidelines for storing leftovers:


  • Put leftovers in small, shallow containers so the food can chill rapidly. If foods are stored while still hot or warm, be sure to allow cool air to circulate to keep food safe. Bacteria grows rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees F, so if a food is lukewarm for several hours bacteria may start to grow.
  • Label the containers with either a “use by” date or with today's date. Make sure your family understands your coding system. Food storage labels that have spaces for both dates are a good idea, as this will ensure there is no misunderstanding of the dating system.

Careless reheating can contribute to foodborne illness. Here are some tips for reheating leftovers properly:


  • Foods should be reheated thoroughly to a temperature of 165 degrees F. This means soups and gravies should be brought to a rolling boil. Food should steam throughout, not just at the edges.
  • Be aware that foods cook differently in microwaves versus conventional heat. In a regular oven, hot air makes both the food and its container hot, while in the microwave, the air is cool. Cooking occurs when microwaves cause food molecules to vibrate; the resulting friction creates heat. While microwaves can get food hot enough to kill bacteria that may be present, the microwave doesn't always cook evenly. Since microwaves go about an inch deep in most foods, the center cooks when heat from the outer areas travels inward. Therefore, it is up to the cook to arrange, cover, rotate, stir and turn foods so they reach a safe temperature throughout the food.
  • Food continues to cook after the heat turns off, whether it is still in the oven or outside it. Be patient and allow the food to stand to equalize the temperature.

Heating leftovers that have spoiled will not make them safe. Some poisons made by food-poisoning germs are not destroyed by heat. So if your leftovers smell bad or look moldy or slimy, just throw them out. Never taste old leftovers to see if they are safe.


The key points to remember are to promptly refrigerate leftovers, date them, plan to use within three to four days or freeze them, and reheat once until steaming. And then eat and enjoy!


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Last update: Monday, November 28, 2011