I don't know about you, but I like leftovers. Perhaps it's because I love food in whatever form it comes in, and leftovers in particular seem to hold a special memory of a meal recently enjoyed. Plus, you can't beat their convenience. As a stay at home parent who is responsible for making meals, you really appreciate this.

Leftovers, however, can get tiring, even for someone who loves them. After two or three days of eating the same thing, you begin to realize that variety is the spice of life. For me, there are also some health considerations that are always lurking in the back of my head: at what point is it still safe to eat leftovers?

There are, of course, practical ways to protect yourself from food borne illness, including the use of your senses. If something looks, smells, or tastes funny, don't eat it. Unfortunately, your senses can't detect everything, and even if you have an incredibly sensitive sense of smell and a hyper-sensitive palate, there are certain things that can avoid your detection.

With that in mind, it's probably a good idea to employ a little common sense. Here are some basic guidelines on the safe handling, storage, and re-heating of leftovers to protect the safety of your family.

1. Cook Food Adequately

To have safe leftovers, your food must be cooked properly in the first place. Raw vegetables can harbor harmful bacteria, so they should be washed thoroughly and whenever possible, cooked.

  • Raw meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees (use a meat thermometer), and then left to rest for three minutes after being removed from the heat source.
  • Ground meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
  • All poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

2. Minimize Bacterial Growth

Harmful bacteria tend to thrive in a temperature range between 40 degrees and 140 degrees (room temperature is about 72 degrees), so cooked foods should be kept at 140 degrees or hotter, or placed in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking. Perishable food that has been left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded. Food that has been left at warmer temperatures (90 degrees) like outdoors in the summer time should be discarded after one hour.

If you're hosting a party, hot foods can be kept warm in a chafing dish, warming plate, or a slow cooker. Cold foods like salads or cold cuts can be kept cool by keeping them on ice or by serving small portions that are replaced frequently.

Leftovers should be cooled to 40 degrees as soon as possible. Large servings can be divided into smaller portions to cool faster. Place the directly in the refrigerator or cool in a cold water bath and then refrigerate.

3. Store Leftovers Properly

Place leftovers in airtight packaging, whether that be with some sort of wrapping or in a storage container with a lid, then immediately place in the refrigerator. This will keep bacteria out and help to retain moisture and flavor. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for three to four days and in the freezer for three to four months. Although food can be stored frozen indefinitely, they tend to lose moisture and taste over time.

4. Serve Leftovers Safely

Frozen leftovers can be thawed either at room temperature, in the refrigerator, or by using water or a microwave, after which is should be consumed within three to four days. Thawing in the refrigerator is the safest because the food is at a safe temperature the entire time, but it is also the slowest. Frozen leftovers can also be re-heated directly without thawing using a sauce pan, microwave, or in the oven.

When cooking leftovers, be sure the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees. Sauces and gravies should be brought to a boil, and food cooked in a microwave should be covered loosely to allow for venting and rotated regularly for even cooking.

If there are leftovers from the leftovers, they can be re-frozen if they have been heated to the safe temperature of 165 degrees. If a large quantity of leftovers is frozen but only a small portion is needed, it is okay to thaw them in the refrigerator, remove the needed amount, and then re-freeze the remainder without re-heating as long as it was kept properly cool.

As for what to do with leftovers, the sky is the limit. Leftover vegetables and meats are great for soups and stews, or they can used in stir-fry recipes or a quiche. And who doesn't love a turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sandwich?

In order to enjoy your leftovers, however, it is important to take the necessary steps to make sure they are safe.

For more information about leftovers, visit the website for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). For some ideas about what to do with leftovers, checkout our recipe idea post.