When Should I Throw Out My Leftovers?

When I was newly married and a novice cook, I always wondered about this. How do I know when it’s time to throw out leftover food? Asking different people didn’t really answer my question as everyone seemed to have a different answer and no one really knew for sure, it was just whatever made them feel comfortable.

When doing research on the subject though, I found that as a general rule, prepared meals kept in the refrigerator should not be kept longer than about 4 days. I personally found this answer quite surprising as I had always thought that food had to look funny or smell bad if it was no longer safe to eat. Boy was I wrong!

Bacteria growth is slower in colder temperatures, but it still exists. And since bacterial growth in its earlier stages doesn’t change the appearance, smell or taste of food, the old “give it a look and smell it” test is not adequate. The old adage, if in doubt, throw it out, is the advice you should follow.

Of course, it’s not to say that eating leftovers will give you food poisoning. You simply need to exercise caution. My family is very good about eating leftovers and sometimes what I like to do is alternate my leftovers. For example, if you make pot roast on Monday and spaghetti on Tuesday, you can now have leftover pot roast on Wednesday and spaghetti on Thursday.

And don’t forget that most foods freeze well, so if you don’t think you’ll be eating your leftovers in the next few days, put it in the freezer. Food in the freezer will obviously be well preserved for several months. Just be sure to use air-tight containers. I love using the Ziploc vacuum freezer bags for a lot of foods. The bags are not expensive and the little Ziploc vacuum you use to remove the air is less than $15.00 at the grocery store. I like to use this for all my fresh meats that I freeze to avoid freezer burn and it’s great for leftovers too. Let’s face it, no one wants to throw food away.

So the next time you ask yourself “should I throw out these leftovers?”, just remember if its been longer than 4 days, the answer is yes!


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