Food safety tips for storing and using leftover food

It is important to know when leftover food is safe to eat and when it’s not. For safe use of leftovers to keep you and your family from food poisoning, follow these simple rules.

After a party, family gathering or a simple evening meal there are often some kind of amount of leftover food items. For safe use of leftovers to protect you and your family from food poisoning, follow these simple rules.

  1. Remember to wash your hands with soap and water before handling any cooked food, especially food you store to eat later. Use clean utensils to handle the food, and store it in clean containers. Do not put food back into the same container it was in before cooking, unless you have carefully cleaned the container with soap and water. Place food on a counter or cutting board that has been carefully cleaned and/or sanitized.
  2. Place foods to be refrigerated or frozen in small, shallow containers, three inches or less in height, and cover them completely. Do not stack these containers right next to other containers, but leave some air space around them. By using shallow containers and by leaving air space around the containers you can promote rapid, even cooling of the food. Do not refrigerate or freeze cooked food in a large, deep container. The food in the center of the container remains warm for a longer time, and can cause harmful bacteria to grow.
  3. Eat or refrigerate promptly uncooked foods, such as cold salads or sandwiches. The goal is to minimize the time a food is in the "danger zone" — between 40 and 140 Fahrenheit (four and 60 degrees Celsius) — when bacteria can quickly multiply.

The Food Safety Inspection Service recommends that when you are ready to eat leftovers, reheat them on the stove, in the oven or in the microwave until the internal temperature reaches 165 Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius). A food thermometer will help to measure the temperature of the food. Slow cookers (crock-pots) and chafing dishes are not recommended for reheating leftovers. Michigan State University Extension recommends that you never taste leftovers that are of questionable age or safety. Generally, never keep leftovers for more than four days. Anytime you are in doubt about the freshness or safety of any food, dispose of it. This is especially important for leftover foods. Dispose of any potentially unsafe food in a garbage disposal or a tightly wrapped package, so that the food cannot be eaten by other people or animals.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Iowa State University Extension have teamed up and produced the 4 day throwaway campaign and a handy app to guide in decisions related to safe handling of leftover food. Following these tips can protect yourself and your family from food poisoning.

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