There is usually an abundance of food left over at holiday meals, which is welcome if you’re a fan of turkey or ham, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. But the last thing you want to worry about is getting sick from it, which actually happens more often than you’d think.
When food is taken out of the oven, cooled, cut and served, it’s easy for plenty of time to pass by. “When food sits out for hours it can become a veritable breeding ground for harmful (and possibly deadly) bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella ― making people violently ill,” said Mitzi Baum, the CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness, a national public health nonprofit advocating for a food safety culture change nationally.
According to Patrick Guzzle, the vice president of food science for the National Restaurant Association, “The most important things for people to watch out for are time, temperature and cleanliness.”
Two hours is the magic number.
Between taking food off the stovetop or out of the oven and then eating and socializing at the table, it’s easy for people to not consider or be aware that food is sitting out for too long. “Once the food comes out of the oven, you’ve got about two hours to serve, enjoy, and then refrigerate or freeze the leftovers,” Baum said.
If you’re going to have food out longer than two hours, make sure you maintain the temperature. “Keep hot foods warm with a chafing dish or hot plate,” Baum said. “Keep cold foods chilled by placing the dish in shallow ice.”
According to Kimberly Baker, a food systems and safety program team director at Clemson University’s cooperative extension, “Food that has been left out without temperature control should be thrown away after two hours, and after one hour if it is outside during warm days that are above 90 degrees Fahrenheit.” This is because microbes can grow quickly in warm environments.
“This is important because pathogens, if present, grow very quickly at temperatures greater than 40 F, and most rapidly at ambient temperatures ranging from 70-110 F,” she said.
Let food cool down before you put it in the fridge … but not for too long.
There are occasions when your food may still be too hot to place in the fridge. “One of the biggest mistakes is putting things that are too hot into the refrigerator,” said Keith Schneider, a food safety professor in the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida. “Refrigerators are really good at maintaining temperatures; they’re absolutely terrible at cooling things down.”
Placing a warm or hot container of food into the fridge can negatively influence your fridge’s temperature. “If you have a large portion of food in a very large container, it could raise the temperature of your entire refrigerator as it’s trying to pull heat out,” he explained.
And not only could it raise the fridge temperature, but your leftovers may not be food-safe. “If you put things in too hot, or if you put things in very large containers that will remain at that danger zone temperature, you’ll have microbes starting to multiply,” Schneider said.
The solution? Use wide and shallow containers. “Storing leftovers in shallow containers will cool them faster in the fridge,” Baum advised.
Use appropriate storage containers for leftovers.
Foods shouldn’t be placed haphazardly in the fridge. Instead, place them in proper containers or bags so they will keep well.
“Leftovers should be stored in containers with tight-fitting lids, zip-top bags, or wraps like aluminum foil or plastic wrap that will keep the leftovers contained and avoid the food from leaking into other foods during storage,” Baker suggested.
Using airtight containers is two-fold. “Covering leftovers in airtight containers helps keep bacteria out, as well as other refrigerator odors,” Baum said.
Label your leftovers.
An easy step that can make a big difference is labeling your food with the date. This will avoid doubts or questioning what day of the week you put the food into the fridge.
“Date and label when the food is stored, this way you know how long it has been in the fridge,” said Gill Boyd, a chef-instructor of culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education. Knowing the date also ensures you’re not eating something that’s past its prime. “This will help to know what foods are and to accurately identify when they should be thrown away,” Baker added.
Know your fridge’s temperature.
“One of the most important safety measures people should follow for saving leftovers is to make sure that their refrigerator is set to 40 F or less,” Baker said. A cold fridge means you don’t have to worry about your leftovers going bad sooner than they should. “Leftovers that are stored at 40 F or less can be stored for seven days,” she added. “If the refrigerator temperature is unknown, then it is recommended to store the leftovers for only three to five days or to freeze.”
Leftovers that don’t reach the required temperature could lead to illness. You run the risk of bacteria growth that could make you or your family sick.
Avoid reheating food multiple times.
One way to avoid getting sick from eating your leftovers is to minimize how many times you heat them up. If you take out your leftovers, reheat them, put them back in the fridge and then heat them up again, it can create a haven for bacteria.
According to Schneider, “As the food goes through soft cooling cycles, all those bacteria can grow and proliferate. Bacteria can lead to things, like staph poisoning,” he said. “If you keep letting it warm up several days in a row the chance of getting the poisoning goes up.”