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Leftover Lessons: Know What’s Safe to Eat and What’s Not

Infographic describing the amount of time to keep leftovers and safely eat them

No one likes wasting food, but you shouldn’t eat things that could potentially make you sick just to avoid waste. We talked to OhioHealth dietician, Jenny Pitcher, RDN, LD, CHWC, RYT, to learn more about leftover food safety.

When are my leftovers no longer safe to eat?

Many of us are guilty of the using the “smell test,” but Pitcher explains that it’s not always a good judge of freshness. The smell test can’t detect things like bacteria growing on your food. Everyone also has a different sensitivity of smell. What smells fine to one person may not smell great to another.

Instead of the smell test, consider how long your leftovers have been in the fridge since they were prepared. Different items have a different shelf life, so keep the following time frames in mind:

  • Cooked pasta: Eat within 1-2 days
  • Cooked rotisserie chicken: Eat within 3-4 days from the date of purchase
  • Chicken, seafood, and pizza: Eat within 3-4 days
  • Red meat and pork: Eat within 3-5 days

For a more comprehensive list of items you may have at home, check out the FoodKeeper app. It was developed by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute. The app provides great insight on food and beverage storage and freshness.

Proper storage and reheating are important

Let your food cool in a shallow, glass container and get it into the fridge within two hours. In general, any food that has been sitting out for over two hours is not safe to eat.

Restaurant leftovers should go in the fridge as soon as you get home. If you plan on eating your restaurant leftovers the next day, it’s okay to leave them in the container from the restaurant. You should however, move the leftovers into a glass container if you don’t plan on eating them within 24 hours. Pitcher recommends not eating your restaurant leftovers after two days.

Reheat your leftovers to 165 degrees. The microwave is typically enough for reheating purposes, just be sure to stir your food well to avoid cold spots.

I REALLY don’t like being wasteful. What are my options outside of throwing food away?

Not everyone is comfortable throwing food in the trash or down the garbage disposal. Thankfully, there’s another option; composting.

You can compost all plant-based food scraps and some animal-based items like eggshells. When you compost, your scraps can be used in your own garden or yard. You can also donate your scraps to a local farmer’s market or garden. Here are a few organizations in the Columbus area if you’re interested in composting: InnovativeOrganics Recycling, The Compost Exchange.

Consider these other methods to cut down on food waste.

  • Buy things in reasonable quantities
  • Use the oldest products first
  • Use leftovers for lunch or add them to other meals

When in doubt, throw it out…or check the FoodKeeper app.


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