We love using leftovers but when is it safer to toss them?
brown rice in pot with fork

More cooking often means more leftovers, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Having leftovers can mean the next day's lunch is taken care of, or they can help you put together a quick meal at the end of a long day. But how do you know if your leftovers are still safe to eat? First and foremost, use your common sense. Food should be properly wrapped and stored in the refrigerator and not left out at room temperature for more than two hours. It's better to be safe than sorry—when in doubt, throw it out. If food is obviously spoiled, says the Food and Drug Association (FDA), such as abnormally soft, discolored, moldy, or has a strong unpleasant smell, you should discard it; that's true no matter how properly or how short a time it has been stored.

But if the food looks, feels, and smells fine, is it still safe to eat? The answer is maybe. When it comes to food safety, the FDA offers very specific guidelines to help you know when to keep it and when to toss it.

What the FDA Recommends

Generally speaking, three to four days is the longest you should keep any cooked food in the refrigerator. According to the FDA guidelines, you can safely store hard boiled eggs or a fully cooked ham for one week, but almost any other cooked dish—such as vegetable soups or stews, cooked poultry, cooked fish, cooked meat or meat dishes, and cooked convenience foods—should be stored for no longer than three to four days. Cooked gravy or meat sauce, on the other hand, should be kept for only one to two days. The FDA offers a range of days for keeping leftover food, and while those ranges may seem somewhat conservative, that because it's hard to know exactly how long something will stay safe. Factors such as temperature and acidity effect bacteria growth in cooked food. Cool temperatures and high acidity inhibit the growth of bacteria, so tomato-based spaghetti sauce that was quickly chilled may stay fresh longer than cream of chicken soup that was at room temperature before being stashed in the fridge.

What About Beans?

While the FDA offers no specific guidance for cooked beans, Joe Yonan, author of Cool Beans: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking with the World's Most Versatile Plant- Based Protein ($27.99, barnesandnoble.com) and the food and dining editor at the Washington Post, says, "I consider beans to be safe for five to seven days in the fridge, especially if you store them in their cooking liquid and make sure to not leave them out at room temp longer than two hours after you cook them. I've seen other estimates of three to five days, and I have seen them start to go off at the lower end of the range if they're stored without any liquid. The cooking liquid is so magical generally, so it doesn't surprise me that it would help protect them in the fridge."

How Long Does Rice Last?

Another food you may want to cook in batches is rice. According to Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking ($35.99, barnesandnoble.com), "It depends on how the grain was cooked, whether and how long it sat out at room temp before being refrigerated, and the fridge temp. A risotto with the benefit of acid from wine will resist spoilage longer than plain rice-cooker rice." As a general rule, McGee says it's best to serve leftovers within a few days, reheating until steaming hot, or else freezing for longer storage. For detailed guidelines, check out the Foodkeeper app, which was developed by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service with Cornell University and the Food Marketing Institute.


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