Leftover Dilemma: Can I Eat It Or Should I Toss It?

You know the feeling:  you’re standing in front of your open refrigerator. There’s a mess of containers in there. Move ‘em around. Discovery: A mystery plastic container all the way in the back; a couple of Chinese food take-out containers; some oddly shaped tin-foil packages. Don’t you wonder what’s in them?

With some trepidation you take a peek. Container #1: the leftover take-out chicken fried rice from five days ago. Container #2: the rest of your lasagna you brought home last night from a huge restaurant portion. Then there’s some of Mom’s really delicious stuffing from last weekend in that plastic container.  The tin-foil packages: grayish looking stuff that doesn’t smell so great.

Big question: Will you end up writhing in pain and spending the next day in the bathroom if you eat any of it?

How Long Can Prepared Food Safely Stay  Unrefrigerated?

According to the FDA, when you buy hot, cooked food, you should get it home quickly and eat it right away.  It shouldn’t sit out at room temperature. If the food is cold – not hot — and sitting out, it should be eaten within two hours of when it was prepared.  Otherwise, store it in the fridge, or freeze it.

Take-Out Food

When take-out food is delivered, you want to prevent any lurking potentially nasty and harmful bacteria from multiplying, so eat the food within two hours after it arrives. If you aren’t going to eat it within two hours keep it hot in an oven set at or above 200° F (93° C). Side dishes also should to be kept hot in the oven. Cover the food to keep it moist while you’re keeping it warm. Don’t guess at the temperature of the food. Use a food thermometer to check that the food is kept at an internal temperature of 140° F (60° C).

The Food Temperature “Danger Zone”

The FDA defines the “danger zone” as the range of temperatures at which bacteria can grow. It is usually between 40° and 140° F (4° and 60° C). To keep food safe, it’s important to keep it below or above the “danger zone.”

The 2 Hour Rule For Leftovers

There is a 2 Hour Rule: toss any perishable food (the kind that can spoil or become contaminated by bacteria if left unrefrigerated) that has been left out at room temperature for more than two hours. When the environmental temperature is above 90° F (32° C), throw out the food after one hour.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Nutrition Action Healthletter, expands on the Rules For Leftovers with what they call:

2 hours – 2 inches – 4 days

2 hours from oven to refrigerator: any leftovers should be refrigerated or frozen within 2 hours of cooking or they should be thrown away.

2 Inches thick to cool it quick: food should be stored in containers at a shallow depth of about 2 inches or less, to speed the chilling time.

4 days in the refrigerator or freeze it: use refrigerated leftovers within 4 days — with the exception of stuffing and gravy which should be used within 2 days. Solid leftovers should be reheated to 165 degrees F and liquid leftovers to a rolling boil. Whatever you don’t finish, throw out.

What About The Doggie Bag?

If you leave a restaurant with a doggie bag – or a prepared food store with a container of food – and you’re not going to get home within two hours of having the order served to you, scrap the food. If you do leave with doggie bag or food container in hand, keep in mind that the inside of your car can get very toasty and bacteria can multiply very quickly. So, if the doggie bag contains tomorrow’s lunch or a late night snack, it’s a good idea to go directly home and get those still identifiable leftovers in the refrigerator right away.


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