We’ve all been there. You open up your fridge, aching for a snack, and you notice a takeout container from when you went to eat last weekend (or was it the weekend before?). Yum! My Kung Pao chicken! You crack it open and notice a slight, questionable smell, but it’s not soooo bad. Should you risk it?
If you’re not 100% sure how long you’ve had those leftovers, no matter how delicious the original meal was, follow this food safety rule of thumb: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Food poisoning is no walk in the park—it can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness. In rare cases, food poisoning can even be life-threatening.
To store and enjoy your leftovers safely, follow these tips:
Refrigerate leftovers ASAP. Room temperatures can cause illness-causing bacteria to double within 20 minutes, so the sooner you chill your eats, the better. In general, you have a two-hour safety window (one hour if it’s warmer than 90°F outside) to get your food to a fridge—so no need to panic and ditch your friends at the restaurant just so you can preserve your leftovers.
Set your fridge temp to 40°F (and freezer to 0°F). Any temperature above 40°F can allow bacteria to multiply faster. Few refrigerator controls show actual temperatures, so test your fridge’s temp with an inexpensive freestanding appliance thermometer. It will allow you to monitor the temperature and adjust the setting of the refrigerator and/or freezer if necessary. Buy one for the fridge, one for the freezer, and check them often.
Write the date on your leftovers. There’s a magic number of days your leftovers will stay edible. Most cooked foods—like last night’s pepperoni pizza, your mom’s soothing chicken soup, or that fancy $40 steak dinner—will last in the fridge for about three to four days. Mark your doggy bag with a date so you know when to toss it.
Happy next-day eating!