Safe Leftovers


Getting ready to host and cook a large meal for a crowd of family or friends takes a lot of planning and preparation. Oftentimes we get so focused on the meal that we forget to also plan for the leftovers. To ensure that leftovers are safe to eat, make sure the food is cooked to a safe temperature and refrigerate leftovers promptly. The two main causes of foodborne illness are 1) not cooking food to safe temperatures, and 2) leaving food out at an unsafe temperature for too long. Safe handling of leftovers is very important to reduce foodborne illness.

According to Karen Blakeslee, food scientist and director of Kansas State University’s Rapid Response Center of Food Science, Clostridium perfringens is one of the most common foodborne illness sources with about 1 million cases in the U.S. each year. Common symptoms are diarrhea and stomach cramps within 6-24 hours of eating contaminated food.

To prevent foodborne illness such as Clostridium perfringens and have safe leftovers, the first step is cooking the food safely. Use a food thermometer to make sure that the food is cooked to a safe, minimum internal temperature. Red meats such as beef, pork, lamb, and veal need to be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Ground meats, including ground beef, need to be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. All poultry, which includes chicken, turkey, pheasant, and duck must reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Step two is to keep foods out of the temperature danger zone. Bacteria grow rapidly between the temperatures of 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the food is cooked and set out to consume, it is recommended to refrigerate or discard any food left out at room temperature for over two hours. Cold perishable foods, such as deli meat or deviled eggs, should be kept at 40 degrees or below. Using warming trays, slow cookers, or setting a platter of food over ice would help keep these foods out of the temperature danger zone while serving many with a large table spread. 

When storing leftovers, make sure they are placed in a sealed, covered container for best quality and safety. Covered leftovers help keep bacteria out, moisture in, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other foods in your refrigerator. Leftovers can be safely stored in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, or frozen for 3 to 4 months. Freezing longer can result in a decreased quality food product. 

The third step is to reheat leftovers to a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees. This vital step is also important to prevent any foodborne illness. When reheating in a microwave, be sure to cover your food and rotate the food partway through heating to ensure even heating. Covering food while reheating helps retain moisture; sometimes adding liquid is needed to prevent your food from being too dry. Food thermometers can be found at your local grocery store, Wal-Mart, and sometimes hardware stores. 

For more information about food safety during the holidays visit the K-State Rapid Response Center website at or call Harvey County Extension at 316-284-6930.

Image by Larry White from Pixabay


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