How Long Do Leftovers Last in the Fridge?
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Not sure if those leftovers are still good? Don’t chance it—we have the answers to how long a variety of leftovers will last in the fridge and freezer.
Leftovers aren’t just a delicious time-saver. They’re also a meaningful way to reduce food waste and save money at the grocery store—something that’s extra important right now, with inflation soaring. That being said, no one wants to eat anything that’s spoiled, and sometimes, our wishful thinking can get the better of us. So how long can leftovers last in the fridge?
Unlike non-perishable food and individually sold grocery items, leftovers don’t exactly come with sell-by dates or, in this case, “eat-by” dates. Regardless of whether the leftovers came from a restaurant, food prep or a homemade meal, they won’t last forever. And no, you shouldn’t chance it, since spoiled food can cause food poisoning.
We spoke to food experts to find out just how long every type of leftover will stay fresh and delicious. After you read this, you might want to toss a few things, as well as organize your fridge to make all your food last longer. (Yep, where you put everything matters!)
How long can leftovers last in the fridge?
When it comes to answering the question of how long leftovers can last in the fridge, the general rule is no more than four days. However, it also depends on the type of leftover and how you store it.
Unfortunately, leftover food is more prone to bacteria growth. This happens for a variety of reasons, including “temperature abuse,” according to Caitlin Clark, a food scientist and researcher at Colorado State University. “[This] happens when the food is left on a kitchen table, countertop, food delivery vehicle, etc., for too long at an unsafe temperature,” Clark explains, “which allows bacteria to replicate while the food is still warm.”
Refrigerator temperature is also crucial to prolonging the shelf life of leftovers. And, of course, that goes for all food, from eggs to fish to milk. “Make sure your fridge is at 40°F (4.4°C) by using a fridge thermometer,” Clark advises. “If your fridge is too warm, your food will age more quickly, and it may spoil before these recommended times. Just a few degrees can make a big impact!”
If you don’t think you’ll eat your leftovers within four days, the Mayo Clinic recommends freezing them right away instead. That is definitely the case if you’re wondering how long chicken lasts—whether you’re dealing with raw chicken or cooked chicken.
RD.com, Getty Images (15)
How to store leftovers
Storing leftovers properly will ensure that they last as long as possible. Again, that’s a max of four days, in most cases. Also, don’t leave your leftovers sitting out on the counter where they can easily become contaminated by germs in the air or bacteria on the countertop and on utensils. Once you’re finished eating or prepping, immediately put those leftovers away.
Tips for storing leftovers
According to Clark and Rima Kleiner, RD, of Dish on Fish, follow these guidelines for keeping leftovers safe and delicious.
- Put leftovers in the fridge within two hours after cooking.
- Store leftovers in a sealed bag or shallow container.
- Use the top shelf of your fridge to store leftovers, as these foods should not be exposed to pathogens that can drip from raw meat or other foods; it’s also generally the coldest part of the fridge.
- Keep your refrigerator between 35°F and 38°F.
- Discard any leftover food that has been reheated once already.
- Thaw frozen leftovers in the refrigerator, so they stay safe.
The right food storage containers
Most of us have a plethora of mismatched Tupperware containers shoved haphazardly into a kitchen drawer, but when it comes to leftovers, you want to make sure you’re choosing the best food storage containers for the job.
“Ideal containers are shallow, so the food can chill quickly in the fridge, and airtight,” Clark explains. “If you’ll need to reheat the leftovers, choose a material like microwave-resistant plastic or borosilicate glass that can be placed directly in the oven from the fridge.” Bonus: Being able to move your leftovers directly from the fridge to a heat source can minimize the possibility of contaminating other surfaces, she adds.
The Rubbermaid Brilliance glass storage set, which comes with four lid-topped food containers, checks all the right boxes. Speaking of storing food, make sure your fruit and vegetable storage is up to snuff too.
How do you know when leftovers go bad?
Most of us would probably like to think we’d intuitively know if leftovers have gone bad just by looking at or smelling them. Surprisingly, though, it can be trickier than you may think to identify bad leftovers.
Clark recommends throwing away leftovers after four days or the second you notice any of the following signs:
- Slimy texture
- Separation of ingredients
- Color changes
- Mold growth
- Any change in smell
“Your leftovers should smell the same as when you cooked them,” Clark says. “Some certain signs to toss them are if they smell rancid, pungent or like body odor.”
Also be careful when reheating leftovers. As mentioned, leftover food that has already been reheated once should be discarded. But you’ve also got the temperatures to think about. According to the USDA, “bacteria grow rapidly between the temperatures of 40°F and 140°F. After food is safely cooked, hot food must be kept hot at 140°F or warmer to prevent bacterial growth.” To avoid potential food poisoning, the Mayo Clinic recommends reheating leftovers until they reach an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C).
The USDA also recommends throwing away perishable foods that have been left at room temperature for more than two hours (or one hour if the temperature is over 90°F). While we’re on the subject, you should also know how long food will last in the fridge without power.
- Mayo Clinic: “Nutrition and Healthy Eating”
- FoodSafety.gov: “Cold Food Storage Chart”
- Caitlin Clark, food scientist and chocolate researcher at Colorado State University
- Rima Kleiner, RD, of Dish on Fish
- USDA: “Leftovers and Food Safety”