How Long Common Leftovers Last in the Fridge, From Chicken to Pizza

Refer to our handy chart before you reheat Tuesday's tacos or the soup you made over the weekend.

Leftovers can be a lifesaver on busy nights when you don't have time to cook or plan a meal—and they're an easy way to reduce food waste, save money, and get the most out of each dish. However, as perishable food items, leftovers can pose safety concerns if they're not enjoyed within a certain time frame. Read on to learn how long leftovers can last in the refrigerator and freezer—plus, discover tips and best practices for storing leftover food according to food safety professionals. 

How Soon Should You Store Leftovers?

According to the USDA, both leftover takeout and home cooked food should be refrigerated within two hours of cooking. The scientific reasoning behind this guideline is that unrefrigerated food will enter the temperature danger zone (40 to 140 degrees) after two hours. This is a safety concern, as this temperature range allows illness-causing bacteria to grow and multiply, increasing the risk of foodborne illness

The rate at which harmful bacteria can grow within this zone is noteworthy, too. "For example, under perfect conditions, E.coli can divide (double) every 20 minutes," says Margarethe Cooper, Ph.D, associate professor of practice and Victor P. Smith Endowed Chair in food safety education at University of Arizona. "Since this growth is exponential, without proper refrigeration to slow their growth, [the bacteria] can reach high enough numbers [to cause foodborne illness] if left out for more than two hours." 

There are some scenarios where leftovers should be refrigerated before the two-hour mark. "If the temperature is over 90 degrees, do not leave food out for more than one hour," says Cooper. The higher ambient (air) temperature can lead to faster bacterial growth, and ultimately, greater numbers of illness-causing bacteria, she says.

leftovers in the refrigerator

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How to Properly Store Leftovers 

In addition to refrigerating leftovers in a timely fashion, it's also important to store them correctly. This will reduce the risk of premature food spoilage. To properly store leftovers, place them in air-tight containers made of food-grade glass or plastic, says Nicole Richard, MS, research associate and food safety specialist at University of Rhode Island. Another method is to tightly wrap the food with plastic wrap. These techniques will protect the food from bacteria and other odors in the refrigerator. 

How Long Do Leftovers Last?

Typically, leftovers will safely last for three to four days if they're refrigerated within two hours and packed in an airtight container. According to the Mayo Clinic, after this time frame, illness-causing bacteria are more likely to grow, even in the cold environment of a refrigerator. What's more, these pathogens may not always alter the appearance, taste, or smell of the food—so it's not always possible to determine if the bacteria have reached unsafe levels.

Again, there are some exceptions to the rule. Some seafood will last for less than three days, according to Richard. Examples include fatty fish (like mackerel and tuna) and squid, which both last one to three days. Likewise, foods such as cooked country ham or bacon can last longer, about seven days. In general, the longer shelf-life of these processed meats are due to the preservatives and other additives that extend their shelf-life, says Richard. 

Refer to our handy chart when determining whether or not your leftovers are safe to eat:

How Long Common Leftovers Last in the Fridge
Cooked chicken 3 to 4 days
 Pizza 3 to 4 days
 Cooked ground meat (ex. taco meat) 1 to 2 days
 Cooked hamburgers 1 to 2 days
 Cooked turkey 1 to 2 days
 Cooked bacon 1 week
 Cooked rice 3 to 4 days
 Cooked pasta 3 to 4 days
 Hard-boiled eggs 1 week
 Mashed potatoes 3 to 4 days
 Soup 3 to 4 days

Storing Leftovers in the Freezer

If you don't think you'll be able to eat refrigerated leftovers within three to four days, transfer them to the freezer. Here, leftovers will stay safe indefinitely, but they'll have the best flavor and texture if you eat them within three to four months. (Be sure to label and date the food to keep track of its shelf-life.) To properly freeze leftovers, keep them in a freezer-safe airtight container or sealable food-grade bag, both of which will prevent leakage and help minimize freezer burn, says Cooper. Keep in mind that freezer burn will negatively affect the quality, but not safety, of the food, according to Richard.

With that in mind, not all leftovers will fare well in the freezer. "Typically, foods with higher water content become mushy after they're thawed from being frozen," says Richard. Examples include lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Additionally, after being frozen, dairy can separate and potatoes can become grainy, says Richard.

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  1. "How long are my take out leftovers safe?" AskUSDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  2. Zeratsky, Katherine, RD, LD. "Nutrition and healthy eating." Mayo Clinic.

  3. "Leftovers and Food Safety." Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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