Handling leftovers safely

Learn to handle leftovers safely to avoid illness.

Whether you are cooking at home or going out to eat, it is important to handle leftover food properly. Food sitting out from a family dinner for two hours is no different than a take-out container sitting in your car for two hours, both need to be refrigerated before two hours is up. If the temperature exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit than the rule is only one hour, says Michigan State University Extension. This includes the time that the food sits before being served and the time it sits on the table while the meal is being eaten. The two hours lasts until the food is put in the refrigerator or freezer. Improper handling and storing of cooked food is one of the most common causes of food poisoning.

Wash hands with soap and water before handling any food, especially food you plan to eat later. Clean all utensils that will touch food and store in clean containers - do not put back into same container before it was cooked, unless it has been thoroughly washed. Clean cutting boards or counters if using for food before storing. To cool food properly, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. Cut large items of food into smaller portions to cool. Hot foods can be placed directly in refrigerator or rapidly chilled an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating. Wrap in air tight packaging or storage containers. Do not stack these containers next to each other; leave some air space around them. This will allow rapid and even cooling of the food. If leftovers will not be eaten within three to four days, you could freeze them for up to three to four months for future meals. Dating your leftovers either in the refrigerator or freezer will help ensure they do not remain beyond their quality or safety date. Never taste any stored food that is questionable on age or safety.

There are three safe ways to thaw leftovers: refrigerator, cold water or microwave oven. Refrigerator thawing takes the longest, cold water thawing is faster than refrigerator, but food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. Microwave thawing is the fastest. It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing.

Leftovers need to be reheated to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, using a food thermometer.

Handling leftover food safely will avoid guessing if our food is safe to eat at a later time. If we follow the simple steps of refrigerating or freezing food within two hours, keeping our hands and kitchen utensil clean, store in small containers so they cool quickly and thaw properly we can stretch our food dollar more efficiently.

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