The Longevity of Your Leftovers

When to reheat and when to toss

By Lisa Cleary
|  Monday, Jan 3, 2011  |  Updated 8:12 AM EDT
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The Longevity of Your Leftovers

Leftovers been sitting around for a while? Think twice before reheating.

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As the holidays are in the midst of wrapping up, many refrigerators are bursting at the seams with leftovers from dinners and parties. 

Plasticware containers have a funny way of inching to the back corners of the fridge and, before you know it, there’s a foot of fuzzy mold growing on top of Mom Mom’s famous chicken salad. 

Then what about the luncheon meats saved from the deli platter that you’ve only had for a week?  There’s no mold on the salami that’s been sitting around, so it should be safe to eat, right?

According to FoodSafety.gov, you should put down those sammie-making utensils immediately.  Why?  Because you’re teetering on the edge of eating spoiled and potentially dangerous meat.

Open packages of sliced deli meats can go bad as quickly as three days, and it’s recommended that you toss any such leftovers within five.  Other meats, such as chicken and poultry (whole or sliced) should be kept in the fridge for only one or two days. 

Ana Aguado, food scientist, warns that the temperature danger zone for food spoilage is 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  Subsequently, any leftovers should be placed in the fridge as soon as possible so that they don’t reach potentially dangerous temperature levels. 

“When storing leftovers, it’s crucial to get food cold fast. So, try and store things in thinner containers as they cool quickly,” she said.

For example, Aguado explains that if you store leftover turkey from the holidays, make sure that you don’t initially leave it out at room temperature for a lengthy period of time.  Once storing the meat, be sure to wrap it up in a shallow, thin container.

“It takes time for the food to come down to refrigerator temperatures, and that turkey could have been in the danger zone for at least four hours. Plenty of time for bacteria to grow,” she said.
 
Feeling a little worried about your holiday leftovers, now?  Here’s some more FoodSafety data on the timeframes whereby refrigerated leftovers are safe to eat (any later than that, though, and you should toss):
 

  • Opened package of hot dogs = 1 week 
  • Unopened package of hot dogs = 2 weeks
  • Bacon = 7 days
  • Macaroni salad = 3 to 5 days
  • Ground meats (hamburger, ground beef, veal, turkey, pork) = 1 to 2 days
  • Steak = 3 to 5 days
  • Cooked meat or poultry = 3 to 4 days
  • Pizza = 3 to 4 days
  • Vegetable or meat-based soups or stews = 3 to 4 days  

In addition to noting the time frames of leftovers, Aguado recommends checking out the moisture contents of foods like that of dairy products. 

“Young, fresh cheeses last a lot less time as they are much higher in moisture,” she said.  Older and more mature cheeses (think dried Italian cheeses), on the other hand, have a tendency to last longer because the moisture content is almost half that of, say, mozzarella.

What if you’ve got leftovers from a mean egg casserole or quiche that was whipped up over the weekend?  Well, if you’ve had it in your fridge for over four days, then it’s time to toss it.  Likewise, eggnog is another item that shouldn’t be kept around for too long -- commercial eggnog bought at the supermarket can keep for three to five days, whereas homemade eggnog is good for only two to four days.

The leftover-life of desserts isn’t much longer, either.  Pies, like pumpkin or pecan, generally keep for three to four days.  Custard and chiffon pies should be eaten by the same amount of time; otherwise, figure on throwing the sugary remnants in the trash.

When rummaging in your fridge this week, keep in mind that even though foods like pies and soups have a knack for being more delicious on that second or third day, a plate of reheated, two-week-old mac-and-cheese isn’t going to be worth the misery of potential illness.  Date your leftovers, wrap them up tightly and store foods in thin containers. 

And, the next time, move Mom Mom’s chicken salad to the front of the fridge.
 


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