How To Use Leftovers Safely


Following information is from A Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet

Leftover foods are cooked foods that you or your family do not eat within 2 hours after they are cooked.  Leftovers include foods that you may eat before or after they have been stored in the refrigerator or freezer.  The chance of food poisoning increases the longer you store a food after it is cooked.  Improper handling or storing cooked food is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the home.  The careful cook can reduce this threat by following the guidelines below for storing, reheating, and disposing of leftover foods.


How To Store Leftovers

All cooked foods should be reheated to 165 F., refrigerated, or frozen within 2 hours after cooking
 In hot weather, that time limit is only 1 hour.  Remember that the “safe” period starts after the food is cooked.  It includes the time that the food sits before being served and the time it sits on the table while the meal is being eaten.  This period lasts until the food is actually in the refrigerator or freezer.


Remember to wash your hands with soap and water before handling any cooked food, especially food you store to eat later.  Use clean utensils to handle the food, and store it in clean containers.  Do not put food back into the same container it was in before it was cooked, unless you have carefully cleaned the container with soap and water.  Do not place food on a counter or cutting board before refrigerating or freezing, unless you have carefully cleaned the surface beforehand.


You should place foods to be refrigerated or frozen in small, shallow containers, 3 inches tall or less, and cover them completely.  Do not stack these containers right next to other containers, but leave some air space around them.  By using shallow containers and by leaving air space around the containers you can promote rapid, even cooling of the food.  When you refrigerate or freeze cooked food in a large, deep container, the food in the center of the container remains warm for a longer time.  Dangerous bacteria may grow in this warm spot without making the food look or smell bad.  If you eat this food later, you may get food poisoning.


Never taste leftovers that are of questionable age or safety.


As a general rule, never keep leftovers for more than 4 days.


Remember to remove the stuffing from cooked poultry and refrigerate or freeze it separately.  You should do this because the stuffing in the center of the bird can stay warm long enough for food poisoning bacteria to grow.  By removing the stuffing and placing it in its own container, you allow it to cool more rapidly.


If you date leftovers before refrigerating them, this can help you ensure they do not remain in your refrigerator too long.


Warming Leftover Foods –  When leftover foods are reheated, make sure you heat them completely.  Leftovers that are merely “warmed” and not heated throughout are much more likely to cause food poisoning.  Cover any leftover sauces, soups, gravies, and other “wet” foods, and heat them to a rolling boil before they are served.  Heat all other foods to 165 F. throughout.  Be sure to stir foods while you reheat them, to ensure that all the food reaches the appropriate temperature.



Throwing Away Leftovers:


When leftovers have been in the refrigerator too long or if they look or smell unusual, throw them out!

Anytime you are in doubt about the freshness or safety of any food, dispose of it.  This is especially important for leftover foods.  Dispose of any potentially unsafe food in a garbage disposal or a tightly wrapped package, so that it cannot be eaten by other people or animals.


If you follow these suggestions for handling leftover foods safely, you will improve the safety of your family’s food.  Food poisoning is a preventable tragedy, and you can prevent it by following these simple guidelines for handling leftovers safely.



Is it OK to refrigerate a cooked turkey whole?  That is, can I leave it on the carcass or do I need to debone it?   Do I refrigerate while still hot?  Thanks. – Olga (11/19/07)


Yes, you can refrigerate a whole cooked turkey, Always refrigerate as soon as possible, and do not let the turkey sit on your counter to cool.  You never said why you would want to refrigerate a whole turkey.  If this is still what you want to do, refrigerate while still warm from the oven.

If you are talking about refrigerating your turkey after your turkey dinner, then refrigerate as soon as you are done with your turkey dinner, refrigerate the remaining turkey.  The safety rules say you have a two (2) hour window for refrigerating the turkey.   Any foods that have been at room temperature longer than two (2) hours must be tossed or thrown away!

When storing leftover turkey, be sure to remove the meat from the carcass before refrigerating, otherwise it will take too long to get cold.  If you plan to save the carcass for stock (which I do), pick the bones cleans and refrigerate the carcass separately.



Cooking Hints & Tips   

Comments and Reviews

3 Responses to “How To Use Leftovers Safely”

  1. Durwood Gregory

    I’m confused. In one paragragh, you say you can refrigerate a whole cooked turkey. But in the next, you say to strip it, before the frig

    • Nancy

      In the answer that you are referring to, it was asked if a whole turkey could be refrigerated. The reply on the page is, yes, immediately after dinner, but we also asked why would someone do that? The preferred method is to remove the meat from the bones which is stated later in the answer.

  2. Joanne L Hoschette

    Assuming the turkey was roasted,then the meat removed from the bones, how long can the bones be stored in the fridge before boiling off for stock?


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