I’m constantly striving to waste less food. Part of that effort includes using up the leftovers from the meals I make for my family. While I don’t want to waste any food, I also don’t want to make anyone ill by eating unsafe leftovers. For the protection and safety of my family and friends who eat around my table, I need to make sure I handle leftovers properly.

Did you know that the USDA has a Leftovers and Food Safety Guide that you can print out? The guide helps you safely handle your leftovers from home and from restaurants so you can guard against foodborne illnesses. The guide answers questions like “How long can I keep leftovers in the refrigerator?” and “If I thaw leftovers, can I refreeze them?”

The first step to having safe leftovers, the guide says, is to cook food properly in the first place. The next step is to keep it at the proper temperature the first time it is served and then make sure it is refrigerated properly and in a timely manner — within one to two hours of being cooked — to make sure harmful bacteria doesn’t have a chance to grow. If these steps aren’t followed, there’s a chance the food isn’t safe, even before it has the possibility of becoming leftovers.

If you’ve handled the food properly, the guide then gives specifics about storing it in the refrigerator and freezer safely. There are some guidelines that I realized I didn’t know I should be following like the one that says you should divide large portions of food into smaller portions so they will reach a cold temperature in your refrigerator sooner. The guide uses one example of a large pot of soup. I frequently just put the entire pot in the refrigerator if I don’t have the time to divide it up immediately. While I’ve never had any problems with foodborne illnesses because of that, apparently the time it takes for the entire pot to cool could allow the growth of harmful bacteria, even in the refrigerator.

Other safety measures include:

  • Wrap leftovers well – They should be airtight whether wrapped in food wrap or stored in containers with lids.
  • Store leftovers safely – Three to four days in the refrigerator; three to four months in the freezer.
  • Frozen leftovers should be thawed safely – There are specific instructions for refrigerator thawing (the safest method); cold water thawing, and microwave thawing.
  • Reheating leftovers safely – Make sure food reaches a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Refreezing previously frozen leftovers – This can be done, following all of the same safety measures as the first time food was leftover.
The USDA’s Leftover and Food Safety Guide has many more details about each of the safety measures. It also has information on the agency’s Meat & Poultry Hotline, which you can call with specific questions about meat, poultry or eggs.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

How safe are those leftovers?
From properly preparing food in the first place to thawing and refreezing leftovers, the USDA has guidelines to guard against foodborne illnesses.