As the holidays draw to a close, it’s tempting to use leftover food for lunch and dinner rather than having to slave over the stove to cook yet another meal for the family. However, there are some precautions that should be taken when using leftovers.
“Leftovers should only be warmed up once,” said Betty English, the University of Georgia Family and Consumer Sciences agent for Columbia and Richmond counties. “That means that as you are clearing the table at the end of the meal, put those large quantities in small containers (so) that you will only warm them up once. That way, you will not keep warming up and cooling down that big pan of dressing.”
The problem with heating and cooling food and then heating and cooling it again is that the risk of food borne illness increases. It is safer to toss out leftover foods after reheating them.
Uneaten food should be refrigerated or frozen within two hours.
“Ideally, after the big meal, we should have the food back in the refrigerator within two to three hours,” said English. “And do not put hot food in the refrigerator.”
All food should be cooled prior to refrigeration. Pots of soup and stews can be placed in a water bath to help cool them down. Meats can be sliced and placed in shallow containers.
The optimal temperature for storing food in the refrigerator is between 37 and 39 degrees, English said.
“One of the best kitchen utensils that any cook can have in their kitchen are food thermometers – meat, refrigerator, stove and freezer,” said English.
When reheating leftovers, English said it’s imperative to reheat them to a minimum of 165 degrees. Stews, gravies and other liquids need to come to a rolling boil.
The United States Department of Agriculture recommends using any leftovers within four days. Meat and poultry that has been frozen will be good for three to six months.