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Are My Leftovers Still Safe to Eat?

man pulling a piece of left over pizza out of the fridge
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

There’s a bowl of pasta in the fridge, and you’re having trouble remembering when you originally cooked it. Is it safe? Dining on leftovers can sometimes be risky, so how can you know when it’s still OK to eat that?

A Lesson on Leftovers

Not all leftovers are created equal. Some of them require special reheating, per food safety guidelines. Some last longer in the fridge than others.

Leftovers are more than just the leftovers from last night’s dinner that you tossed in a plastic container and put in the fridge. When you open a package of lunchmeat or a bag of lettuce, what’s left in that open container is now a leftover and has a more limited life span in your refrigerator than it did before you opened it.

How Long Is It Good?

The easy way to deal with opened food packages and leftovers in your fridge is to live by the one-week rule. If it’s been sitting in your fridge for seven days—no matter how good it might still look—toss it out.

To get a little more specific, here are some of the more common foods and how long they’re usually OK in the fridge (this can be affected by proper storage and the temp of your refrigerator as well).

  • Meat: Meat can last anywhere from two days to a week. An opened package of raw hamburger only has a couple of days, but once it’s cooked, it’s good for about twice that. Opened lunch meat, on the other hand, has three to five days.
  • Pizza: Pizza is good for up to five days in the fridge. If you like to leave it in the box on the counter overnight, you may just be biding your time until you get food poisoning. (Your choice in toppings may affect your risk as well—a cheese lover’s pizza carries less risk than a meat lover’s, for example).
  • Soup: Soup lasts about three to four days. Even vegetable-based soups will start to change consistency and color as the veggies sit in the fridge. You lose flavor and risk illness.

These aren’t set rules for when you can and can’t eat the food in your fridge. If it still smells fresh and isn’t growing mold, there’s a chance it’s still good. However, if you take an initial bite and it doesn’t taste right, spit it out and don’t risk it!

When In Doubt, Throw It Out

Can’t remember when you cooked that beef stroganoff? Even if it smells fine and looks fine, is it worth the risk of food poisoning? That’s up to you. That’s why you should toss out any leftovers you have doubts about.

To keep from wasting food, put the date on the container before you put it in the fridge. Then you’ll know for sure how long it’s been in there. Freeze leftovers when you can. Finally, you can be preemptive in how you manage your leftovers. You might have the best of intentions when it comes to leftovers—like you cook extra so you and your spouse will have meals to take to work. If the leftovers end up sitting in the fridge, however, either scale back the portions of your recipes or commit to eating the leftovers shortly after you store them in the fridge.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow is a professional writer with two decades of experience. She has written and edited for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and more. Yvonne is a published poet and short story writer, and she is a life coach. Read Full Bio »
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