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The question ‘how long do leftovers last’ always crosses our minds when we have extra food at hand. Food wastage is a significant problem in the world. A 2016 news-report says that half of the food is thrown in the trash. It amounts to almost 160 billion dollars worth of produce a year. Leftovers are a great way of saving money, if stored in the refrigerator properly. By eating leftovers, you can avoid food wastage and save and also save money and time spent cooking fresh food.
We refrigerate food to store it at a lower temperature. How long do leftovers last depends on the cold temperature that inhibits microorganisms’ growth that harms food. The moisture control available in the refrigerator also helps in slowing down the deterioration of food.
As per USDA (US Department of Agriculture), the cooked leftover food should be refrigerated within two hours of preparation. The food can be left in the refrigerator for three to four days. However, it is believed that how long do leftovers last cannot be determined by a simple thumb rule. It is said that even the ‘consume by’ dates on the packaged food is more like a guideline. A lot depends on the type of food and how strictly the manufacturer’s quality checks are ensured. The idea behind these timelines is to convey the food’s shelf life.
Approximate life of refrigerated leftovers
How long do leftovers last depends on how long the food is left at the temperature between 40 F (Fahrenheit) and 140 F. This range is called the ‘danger zone’ as the risk of bacteria growth is high at these temperatures. That’s why it is recommended to store leftover food in the refrigerator as soon as possible.
Here’s a list giving the approximate life of refrigerated leftovers
Vegetables and Fruits: Uncooked vegetables and fruits have high moisture content. Anything with higher moisture content is supportive for bacterial growth. So in the case of fresh fruits and vegetables, how long do leftovers last depends on how you store them and how soon you consume them. Cucumbers and tomatoes can go bad sooner because they have more moisture than bananas with comparatively lesser water content.
However, the cooked leftover vegetables can last for 3 to 5 days. Similarly, the cooked & canned vegetable like beans can be stored for 7 to 10 days.
Bread: If bread is stored in the refrigerator, it can last for 5 to 7 days. However, if you see molds growing on the bread, the bread is spoiled and isn’t safe to eat.
Pizza: Any food with meat or cheese in it, like pizza, should be refrigerated within two hours of preparation. The longer you take to refrigerate, the higher is the risk of bacterial growth. Once in the refrigerator, the pizza can last for 3-4 days.
Cooked Chicken: In the case of chicken, how long do leftovers last depends from refrigerator to refrigerator. If you maintain a low temperature and the chicken is properly sealed in an airtight container, the chicken pieces can last for 3-4 days. However, along with the curry, it will only last for 1-2 days.
Chicken nuggets and patties: They last for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.
Leftover beef: In the refrigerator, the cooked beef can last for 3-4 days if stored properly. If it has a slimy film over it, then it is not considered suitable for consumption.
Seafood- Fish and Shellfish: Leftover seafood should be consumed within four days while it is refrigerated.
Lasagna: If stored in an airtight container, lasagna lasts for up to 5 days in the refrigerator. It should be discarded if it has a foul smell due to tomato sauce or cheese or the noodles inside look dried out.
Takeout Noodles: These noodles last up to 3 days in the refrigerator. However, due to high sauce content, they can smell bad before they actually become unfit for consumption. So the noodles should be heated up to 165 F (74 C) like any other food before eating to kill any present bacteria.
Soups and Stew: Whether the soup is with or without meat/fish, it can last for three days in the refrigerator.
Cooked rice: It has a greater risk of going bad faster due to the rapid growth of Bacillus cereus bacteria when the rice is at room temperature. It happens due to high moisture and protein content. These bacteria cause foodborne illness. After cooking, the rice should be cooled within an hour and then refrigerated. It can then last 3-4 days.
Hard-Cooked Eggs: These eggs risk the growth of the bacteria Salmonella. The leftover eggs should be stored in the refrigerator and consumed within seven days.
Homemade or store-prepared Non-vegetarian/ Macaroni salad: It lasts for 3-5 days in the refrigerator.
Pies: They can last for 3-4 days while refrigerated.
Cakes: Cakes with custard cream and fresh fruit toppings last for 1-2 days in the refrigerator, while those with buttercream last for 3-4 days. Sponge cake and cheesecake last for about seven days when refrigerated.
Donuts: In the case of donuts too, like cakes, how long do leftovers last depends on the type of donuts. Glazed or topped donuts last for about seven days in the refrigerator, while cream-filled donuts last for 3-5 days.
How to recognize that the refrigerated food is spoiled?
Leftover food can become unfit for consumption even if it is refrigerated. Consuming food left in the refrigerator for a long time can cause foodborne illness. Not all foods remain good in the refrigerator for the same time. Each food has a different time before it gets spoiled, as mentioned above. You can look for the following signs that indicate that the refrigerated food is spoiled:
- Molds: If you see molds on the food, it means it has gone bad.
- Slimy film: If the food has a slimy film on it, for example, in deli meats, such food should be discarded.
- Rancid smell: If the food smells rancid, it means it is not safe to eat.
- Taste: Food can be spoiled even if it does not have a foul smell. Even if the food has an unpalatable taste, it is considered spoiled.
If you doubt the condition of food, it is better to discard it.
Here are a few suggestions that can enhance the life of refrigerated leftovers:
- Repackage and date leftovers: Open canned foods should be repackaged in small containers for easy storage. Other leftovers can be stored in an airtight container with masking tape to the lid to mark the date so that you eat the food within the time frame. Use transparent glass containers instead of opaque vessels to store leftovers. This way you will not forget the available food.
- Temperature for storing leftovers: Leftovers should be refrigerated at 35-36 F. According to the USDA, leftovers should be heated at 165 F to ensure that food is safe to eat. Avoid reheating food in slow cookers as bacteria can grow in slow heating. Do not overfill your refrigerator as it will prevent the circulation of cool air. Reheat leftover in the oven are microwave when it is with an internal temperature of at least 75 F.
- Fix days: You can fix one or two days a week to ensure checking and finishing leftovers.
How long do leftovers last depends on a few factors, including prompt refrigeration, labeling, and food reheating. By applying innovative ideas, we can use leftovers kept in the refrigerator for a longer duration before it gets spoiled.