The Heart of New England - Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont
Leftovers and Other Aluminum
Foil Surprises: Is it Safe to Eat?
By Alice Mullen

When you’re looking for a quick easy dinner,
leftovers can be just what the
cook ordered. But as you pop the top of the plastic storage container or peel
back the crinkled aluminum foil covering, you may wonder, is it safe to eat?  

Instant indicators that your
leftovers were in the refrigerator too long are mold
growth, discoloration, off odor or slimy texture. If your food looks bad or
smells bad, throw it out. Don’t taste it. Eating unsafe food can cause you to
become sick with nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or other flu-like symptoms such as
fever and headache.

Very young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with
compromised immune systems are at greatest risk for foodborne illness.

For food that still smells good and looks good, you need to know how long the
food was in the refrigerator to determine its safety. Refrigeration slows down
bacterial growth, but it doesn’t kill bacteria. That’s why it’s important to know
how long the food was refrigerated.

At room temperature, bacteria in food can double every 20 minutes. The more
bacteria there are, the greater the chance you could become sick. Refrigerating
foods quickly after purchase or preparation will help keep most harmful
bacteria from multiplying. Remember to refrigerate or freeze perishable,
prepared food and leftovers within two hours or sooner.

Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator, but divide large quantities of
leftovers into small, shallow containers for quicker cooling. You can also cool
soups or stews by putting the pot in a pan of ice water and stirring the food.
Cover foods before putting them in the refrigerator.

The safest way to defrost food is in the refrigerator. When defrosting meat,
poultry or fish, place on a plate or tray and store on the bottom shelf of the
refrigerator.  This prevents any raw meat juice from dripping on ready-to-eat
foods like fruits, salads or desserts.

Keep the inside of your refrigerator clean by washing with hot, soapy water. Be
careful not to over pack your refrigerator. Cold air must circulate around the
food to keep it safe.

To maintain the proper cold temperature, set your refrigerator no higher that
40ºF and the freezer unit at 0ºF. Place an appliance thermometer in your
refrigerator so you can check the temperature occasionally.

The thermometer will also be helpful if the power goes out. By knowing the
exact temperature, you can determine how cold the foods are and if they are
still safe to eat. If the power does go out, keep the door closed as much as
possible. Discard perishable foods that have been above 40ºF for two hours or
more. Remember, when in doubt, throw it out!

Most cooked meats, poultry and fish remain safe three to four days in the
refrigerator. Leftover soups, stews, casseroles and cooked vegetables are also
safe for three to four days. Use gravy and meat broth within one to two days.
Milk can be safely refrigerated for one week and opened packages of hard
cheese for three to four weeks.  

For additional storage times, check out the
cold storage chart or call the USDA’s
Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-800-256-7072.          

About the author Alice Mullen is an Educator, Family and Consumer
Resources at the University of New Hampshire's Cooperative Extension.
Leftovers - Are They
Safe to Eat?

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