How Long Are Leftovers Good For?   

How Long Are Leftovers Good For?

Backyard table with barbeque foods laid out.
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Holly Mills, MS, RDN, CSO
Heather-Ann Younker, RDN, CSO

After a big holiday meal, it’s common to snack on leftovers in the days following. However, leftovers should only be eaten for three to four days after initial preparation - any later and you may increase your risk of contracting a foodborne illness, such as salmonella, E.coli or listeria.

We talked to oncology dieticians, Heather-Ann Younker and Holly Mills, about what the best practices are for eating leftover food, here’s what they had to say:

Does the ‘sniff test’ work?

In short, no. 

After three to four days, bacteria in food can rise to dangerous levels. Many times the bacteria won’t alter the look, taste or smell of the leftover food so it can be difficult to tell if it’s still safe to eat. 

Whenever you have any doubt, it’s best to throw it out. 

After preparing food - should you keep it hot or cold?

Pathogens grow quickly when food is left at room temperature – to minimize pathogens: Refrigerate hot food (over 90 degrees F) after one hour Other foods should not sit out for more than two hours at room temperature Cover leftovers, wrap them in airtight packaging, or seal them in storage containers. This helps keep bacteria out. Use chafing dishes or cool plates to help keep food at the right temperature for longer

When to freeze leftovers

If you’re not going to be able to eat your leftovers within three to four days, freeze them. You’ll have much more time to enjoy the food, typically three to four months.

If you have a lot of leftovers, consider freezing them in single-serve portions. You may be more likely to eat them if meals are quick and easy to defrost.

What if you freeze leftovers in bulk, defrost and have leftovers from your leftovers? You can refreeze refrigerated leftovers or leftovers that were heated to 165 degrees.

How to Tell If You Have Food Poisoning

Leftovers that stuck around too long or weren’t safely stored may cause illness.

Common symptoms of food poisoning include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomachache
  • Stomach cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Anyone may become ill from food poisoning. But some people are more susceptible to foodborne illness, including:

  • Young children
  • Older adults
  • Pregnant women
  • People with weaker immune systems (due to diabetes, kidney disease, etc.)
  • Immunocompromised people (including those getting chemotherapy, people living with HIV, etc.)

Foodborne bacteria will usually cause illness within one to three days of eating the contaminated food. However, symptoms may appear within a few hours or up to six weeks later.

What to Do If You Think You Have Food Poisoning

If you think you or a family member has a foodborne illness, contact your health care provider immediately and report the suspected foodborne illness to the FDA. To report a foodborne illness by phone, dial 1-800-FDA-1088 or file a report online

The best way to avoid food poisoning from leftovers is tossing questionable food. If it wasn’t refrigerated quickly or is too old, don’t eat it.

Next Steps & Resources:

  • Meet our sources: Heather-Ann Younker, RDN, CSO and Holly Mills, MS, RDN, CSO
  • To make an appointment with a doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website
  • USDA Food Keeper App - A tool to help you know how long foods are safe for.
  • USDA Food Safety - This page shares active recalls, recommendations on how to prepare and store food, and other food safety information.

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.



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