Making a good home-cooked meal is quite the undertaking. Even if your hard work is celebrated and heartily consumed by the whole family, you are likely to have some leftovers. How long can you dine on old dinners before it’s time to toss them? Opening the storage container and using the "sniff test" to check if yesterday’s chicken leftovers are still up to snuff doesn’t always cut it. Consider the general storage timelines provided below, and consult a helpful resource, such as Foodsafety.gov, if you need more details.

Storing Leftovers in the Refrigerator

On average, leftovers should be stored a maximum of three to four days in the refrigerator before being consumed. After that window of time, you run the risk of foodborne illness. The internal temperature of your refrigerator should be between 33◦-40◦F to reduce the spread of bacteria.  The optimal place to keep leftovers is on the bottom shelf in the back of your refrigerator, where the dish will stay the coldest, in an airtight container. Leaving food exposed in the refrigerator will dry it out and create a not-so-pleasant odor in your appliance.

Storing Leftovers in the Freezer

If you know that you will not eat your leftovers within a day or two after preparing the meal, consider freezing them. In general, you can safely store cooked meat and poultry two to six months and processed meats (chicken nuggets, burger patties) one to three months in the freezer. The colder temperature of the freezer, versus the refrigerator, is even better at helping prevent the spread of bacteria.

Reheat Before You Eat

When you are ready to enjoy your meal the second time around, reheat your leftovers on the stove, in a conventional oven or in the microwave, making sure they reach an internal temperature of 165◦F to kill any bacteria that began to grow on your meal. If you have leftovers that are skirting the recommended storage timelines and you question if they’re still edible, remember the food safety golden rule, “When in doubt, throw it out.” There is no reason to risk contracting a case of food poisoning or another foodborne illness.

Following simple guidelines like keeping your leftovers cold and reheating them to the correct temperature can help ensure that your meal will be just as good – and safe to eat – the second time around. For more helpful tips subscribe to our blog.