May 20

Correctly Storing and Refrigerating Leftovers

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by Julie Baker

You cannot underestimate the importance of food storage. Improperly stored food can result in bacterial growth and food poisoning. 

One of the most debated topics regarding food storage and leftovers is whether it is safe to put hot leftovers into the refrigerator. Some people speculate it is best to allow leftovers to cool, while others say there is nothing wrong with putting the hot food directly in the fridge. Who is right? Is there a universally correct answer?

Examining USDA Guidelines

While people might be concerned about bacterial growth from improper storage, they also need to consider that leaving foods out too long can have the same effects. According to research, putting your food immediately into the refrigerator can reduce the risk of bacterial spread.

The USDA explains that small amounts of hot foods can be placed in the refrigerator safely. The organization further explains that small amounts of foods are single-serving foods, typically enough to fill a small container.

The confusion comes into play when discussing the amount of leftovers. For instance, a deep soup pot or a large container of hot leftovers might interfere with other food in the refrigerator. Suppose the heat does not disperse as efficiently in larger pots. In that case, it is possible for hot leftovers to heat other food in the fridge, pushing those items in the temperature danger zone and risking foodborne illnesses.

The USDA suggests a workaround to this might be separating larger dishes into several smaller containers. The several small, shallow containers should allow heat to disperse more rapidly, avoiding any bacterial complications.

More research is necessary to determine the actual risks of storing hot food in a refrigerator. Still, following USDA guidelines should keep you and your family safe.

Understanding Food Safety Standards

Did you know that nearly 50% to 87% of foodborne illnesses are linked to home cooking and eating? The number is shocking since most people assume that eating at home is the safest practice. However, because many people do not understand proper food handling and refrigeration practices, they are actually at greater risks at home.

The CDC recommends that foods not be left out in the temperature danger zone — 40­­° to 140° F. Leaving foods in these temperatures for long periods can result in rapid bacteria growth. Refrigerators should be set to a temperature of 40° or colder to keep foods safe.

Storing Leftovers Safely

There is no reason you cannot keep and eat leftovers. However, to do so safely, you will need to understand and follow a few basic rules:

  • Cook to a proper internal temperature

  • Cool rapidly using ice baths or store in shallow containers

  • Seal in airtight containers

  • Store on the top shelf

Additionally, you will want to make sure you are only storing leftovers you will eat quickly. Typically, you can store most foods in the refrigerator for only three to four days. If you freeze the food item, you might be able to keep it for three to four months.

You can store hot leftovers in a refrigerator, but you will want to use shallow containers and individual portions. For larger meals, you might want to use rapid cooling techniques. For more information, check out the USDA or the CDC for food storage guidelines.


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