Safe Handling of Leftovers
Welcome to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service Food Safety at home
podcast series. These podcasts were designed with you in mind - the consumer - who
purchases and prepares meat, poultry and processed egg products
for your family and friends.
Each episode will bring you a different food safety topic ranging from safe storage, handling,
and preparation of meat, poultry and processed egg products to the importance of keeping
foods safe during a power outage.
So sit back, turn up the volume and listen in.
Welcome to “Food Safety at Home.” This is Gertie Hurley with the Food Safety and Inspection
Service. I am your host for this segment on using leftover foods in the home.
With me today is Kathy Bernard from the USDA Meat and Poultry Hot¬line. Welcome to the
Thank you Gertie. It's my pleasure to be here.
Whether we eat in or dine out, we often have leftovers and need to be concerned with their
safety. We will discuss a few practical guidelines on the safe handling of leftovers. Kathy, when should
we first become concerned about the safety of our leftovers?
Gertie, food safety for leftovers begins with the original meal itself. First of all,
make sure that the food is cooked initially to the safe minimum internal temperature as
measured with a food thermometer. Keep hot food hot at 140 °F or above. Cold foods must
be kept cold at 40 °F or below. Bacteria grow rapidly between 40 and 140 °F. Throw away
all perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, and casseroles, that have been left
at room temperature over 2 hours; 1 hour when the temperatures are over 90 °F. So always
remember the 2-hour rule.
O.K. Say its 2 hours and we need to put the food away. Is it o.k., to put a large pot
of leftover soup in the refrigerator?
That’s a good question. A large pot of food like soup or stew will take a long time to
cool so divide the food into smaller portions in shallow containers and refrigerate. In
fact, any large item should be divided into smaller portions to cool. Whole roasts, hams,
and turkeys should be sliced or cut into smaller pieces or portions before storing them
in the refrigerator or freezer. Turkey legs, wings, and thighs may be left whole. All
leftovers should be wrapped or covered before refrigerating or freezing.
We’ve cooked the original meal safely and stored our leftovers as you have advised…What
about reheating leftovers?
Reheat leftovers containing meat or poultry to an internal temperature of at least 165
°F. Always use a food thermometer to verify the internal temperature of the food. Reheat
sauces, soups, and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil.
We can’t forget that some people use a microwave oven to reheat their leftovers.
That’s quite true Gertie. When reheating food in the microwave oven, be sure to cover
and rotate the food for even heating. Arrange food items evenly in a covered microwave
safe glass or ceramic dish and add some liquid if needed. Cover the dish with a microwave
safe lid or plastic wrap; and loosen or vent the lid or wrap to let steam escape. The
moist heat that’s created will help destroy harmful bacteria and ensure uniform cooking.
Cooking bags designed to be used in the microwave oven also provide safe, even cooking.
Also, it is important to always allow standing time before checking the internal temperature
of the food with a food thermometer.
Why is standing time important?
During standing time food continues to cook and the temperature of a food can increase
several degrees. Because of this, it’s advisable to let food rest or stand for a few minutes
after turning the microwave oven off or after removing food from the oven. Cooking continues
for a longer time in dense foods such as a whole turkey or beef roast than in less-dense
foods like breads, small vegetables, and fruits.
Kathy, isn’t it also a good idea to have your microwave owner’s manual handy for extra
Yes it is Gertie. Your microwave oven owner’s manual provides recommended cooking times
and power levels.
What else should we know about reheating leftovers?
Do not reheat food in slow cookers and chafing dishes because foods may stay in the “Danger
Zone” (between 40 and 140 °F) too long as it reheats.
How long should you keep leftovers in the refrigerator?
We recommend that you use cooked leftovers within 3 to 4 days.
Is it safe to freeze leftovers?
Yes. It is safe to freeze leftovers. Meat and poultry will stay safe indefinitely in the
freezer. However, from a quality standpoint, we recommend freezing meat and poultry leftovers
for 3 to 6 months.
That’s it for this session. We’ve been talking to Kathy Bernard from the USDA Meat and
Poultry Hotline Thank you Kathy for your helpful advice. I am Gertie Hurley. I’d like
to thank you for joining us for this episode of "Food Safety at Home" and remember, "Be
Well, that’s all for this time. Thanks for joining us today for another episode of
food safety at home!
For answers to your food safety questions call USDA's toll-free meat and poultry hotline
at 1-888-mphotline. That’s 1-888-674-6854.
You can also get answers to food safety questions online from our virtual representative
"ask karen" at www.askkaren.gov .
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Thanks for tuning in.