Leftover Lovers!

November 24, 2015

There is an age-old problem of what to do with the leftovers from a big holiday dinner or from an everyday meal. In some homes, leftovers are out of the question and are promptly dumped. It is a known fact that no one will eat them, so why save them? But in other homes, leftovers are almost as good as the original meal and are used for quick dinners and to stretch the food budget. This is especially true around the Thanksgiving meal. (Who doesn’t look forward to a late night turkey sandwich!)

 The proper handling and cooking of food is essential to avoid foodborne illness. For some people, foodborne illness will be only mild, but for others (the young, the elderly and the immunocompromised) it can be deadly. It can also prevent working in some occupations for a period of time, leading to the loss of income and can keep children from attending daycare. (54 cases of foodborne illness were reported to this health district last year, with many cases going unreported.)

You may know the basics of proper food handling: Clean, Separate (don’t cross-contaminate), Cook and Chill.  However, the proper handling of food includes the handling of leftovers. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Program provides the following advice for the safe handling of leftovers. (Some of the information is directly from their “Ask Karen” feature and some is from a fact sheet.)

How many times can I reheat foods? Leftover cooked food may be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days. During this time, you can reheat the leftovers to 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer, but return any unused portion to the refrigerator within two hours. Because the quality decreases each time food is reheated, it is best to reheat just the amount needed. Cooked foods that cannot be used within four days should be frozen for longer, safe storage.

How do you thaw leftovers safely? Safe ways to thaw leftovers include the refrigerator, cold water and the microwave oven. Refrigerator thawing takes the longest but the leftovers stay safe the entire time. After thawing, the food should be used within 3 to 4 days or can be refrozen.

Cold water thawing is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The frozen leftovers must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, water can get into the food and bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could enter it. Foods thawed by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing.

Microwave thawing is the fastest method. When thawing leftovers in a microwave, continue to heat it until it reaches 165° F as measured with a food thermometer. Foods thawed in the microwave can be refrozen after heating it to this safe temperature.

How long are my take-out leftovers safe? Home cooked foods or leftovers brought home from a restaurant must be refrigerated within two hours. Discard all perishable foods, such as meat, poultry, eggs, side dishes or casseroles, left at room temperature longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in room temperatures or outdoor temperatures above 90 °F. Once leftovers are stored safely, they will remain safe for 3-4 days.

Any perishable food can cause illness when mishandled. Proper handling of the food and the leftovers is essential to ensure the food is safe for you to eat. Refrigerate perishable foods as soon as possible, always within 2 hours after purchase or delivery. If the food is in air temperatures above 90 °F, refrigerate within 1 hour. If perishable food has not been kept within these guidelines, discard it! (The exception to this rule are foods such as cookies, bread or whole fruits.)
General rules to follow: 2-Hour Rule: To keep hot foods safe, keep them at 140 °F or above. Cold foods must be kept at 40 °F or below. Bacteria grow rapidly between 40 and 140 °F. Discard all perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, and casseroles, left at room temperature longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 °F.
Keep HOT Food HOT! Keep COLD Food COLD! When in doubt, throw it out!

You can visit the USDA Food Safety website, www.foodsafety.gov, for great information on food safety. If you do not have the internet, District residents (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge) can call 203 248-4528 for a written packet on food safety.