Leftover Food Safety Tips

The big game is over and you have party food leftovers.  If your food has been at room temperature longer than 2 hours – it can have bacterial growth and produce toxins. There are some important rules about leftovers you need to follow to ensure no one gets foodborne illness.

Leftover Safety – Rule of 4

Did you know bacteria can grow on perishable foods left out on the counter for more than 2 hours? The food pathogens that make you sick are odorless, colorless and invisible.

For leftover food to be stored safe, it must be kept under conditions of what is called the Rule of 4: No more than 4 days in the refrigerator at 40˚F or 4˚C.

  • Small Portions: Divide perishable food items into smaller portions or pieces, place in a shallow container, and refrigerate (or freeze) within 2 hours after the party.
  • Airtight Packaging: Wrap leftovers in airtight packaging, or seal them into freezer bags or airtight containers. This helps keep bacteria out, retain moisture and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator
  • Refrigerator: Leftovers kept in the refrigerator for three to four days and then must be eaten or put in the freezer.
  • Freezer: Leftovers will last in the freezer for three to four months. Although the leftovers are safe indefinitely in the freezer, they can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times.
  • Use the Cold Food Storage chart below to know how long to store food in the refrigerator to avoid spoilage:
Category Food Refrigerator
(40 °F or below)
Freezer
(0 °F or below)
Salads Egg, chicken, ham, tuna & macaroni salads 3 to 5 days Does not freeze well
Hot dogs opened package 1 week 1 to 2 months
unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Luncheon meat opened package or deli sliced 3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Bacon & Sausage Bacon 7 days 1 month
Sausage, raw — from chicken, turkey, pork, beef 1 to 2 days 1 to 2 months
Hamburger & Other Ground Meats Hamburger, ground beef, turkey, veal, pork, lamb, & mixtures of them 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Fresh Beef, Veal, Lamb & Pork Steaks 3 to 5 days 6 to 12 months
Chops 3 to 5 days 4 to 6 months
Roasts 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Fresh Poultry Chicken or turkey, whole 1 to 2 days 1 year
Chicken or turkey, pieces 1 to 2 days 9 months
Soups & Stews Vegetable or meat added 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Leftovers Cooked meat or poultry 3 to 4 days 2 to 6 months
Chicken nuggets or patties 3 to 4 days 1 to 3 months
Pizza 3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months
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Reheat Leftovers Properly

When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165°F as measured with a food thermometer. Reheat sauces and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil. Cover leftovers when reheating to help retain moisture and allow the food to heat all the way through.

Now you see how easy it can be to keep your family bacteria free. Remember these tips when dealing with leftovers so foodborne illness won’t be on your shoulders. Because people won’t remember how great a time they had, they will only remember that your food made them feel bad.

If you still have questions about the safety of meat or poultry, an expert can assist you at the USDA meat and poultry hotline at 1-888-674-6854.