Kitchen & Cooking

Here's how long your leftovers are really safe to eat

Step away from the week-old pizza...

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In my family growing up, wasting food was one thing you just didn't do. Whatever was left on the dinner table was packed away, stacked neatly in the fridge, then consumed over the next few days until every last bit was gone. Nothing—and I mean nothing—went in the trash unless there was visible mold (and even then, sometimes my mom would just cut mold off bread or cheese and deem it "fine").

Basically, I'm well-versed in leftovers.

But while stashing away last night's pizza is smart for your budget (and for tomorrow morning's breakfast!), how long can it really last in the fridge before it's better to just toss it in the trash? A.k.a. when are your leftovers no longer safe to eat? Here's what the experts have to say—and how you can store your food to help it stay fresher for longer.

When you should throw away your leftovers

Pizza
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Eat at your own risk.

How long your leftovers will last depends on how they're stored, of course. According to the USDA, any food left out at room temperature for more than two hours (or for more than an hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees) should be tossed immediately.

When it comes to refrigerated leftovers, the USDA says for most food, it's best to eat it within three to four days to be safe. However, for raw meat and fresh fish, that window is much shorter—the USDA advises you to consume it within one to two days or you run the risk of it spoiling.

How to store leftovers properly in the fridge

You can have the best refrigerator in the world set at the perfect temperature, but if you don't have the right containers, your leftovers are doomed. Our kitchen and cooking editor, Cassidy Olsen, recommends sturdy, glass ones that stack easily in the fridge, like these Pyrex ones (which are our current number one food storage containers!) or these Glasslock ones. "They can easily be frozen or put in the fridge, and they can also be brought to work for lunch or taken on the go without leaking," she says."

Another easy way to keep your food fresh is to keep your fridge clean. "Spoiled food breeds more spoiled food, particularly with produce in your produce drawers (like one bad apple)," Cassidy explains. "They release ethylene gas and bacteria that will then speed up the spoilage of surrounding foods." Plus, she points out that regularly cleaning your refrigerator helps you keep track of what you have so you don't forget about the leftover spaghetti hiding in the back corner.

How (and when) to freeze leftovers

Freezer
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Take advantage of all that extra freezer space.

Cassidy says she always recommends freezing food, especially if it's raw meat or something that you made a lot of and don't want to eat for days on end. "While the quality of meat will eventually degrade in the freezer, it's much safer than putting it in the fridge and hoping for the best," she says, adding, "This is particularly great with soups, stews, curries, and liquid-based meals, because they can really easily be reheated."

Cassidy also likes freezing loaves of bread in individual slices that she can pop in the toaster oven when she's ready to eat them. The key here (just as with storing leftovers in the fridge) is to use containers with airtight seals to protect against freezer burn or dehydration and to protect the flavor and texture of your food.

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