Never Eat Leftovers After This, Doctors Warn

The surprising item can make you seriously ill if you consume it.

When it comes to quick and easy meals, leftovers can be a true lifesaver. But whether you're tossing last night's pizza slices in the oven or reheating Sunday's soup, there's always the chance there could be something off with your food. So before you dig in, you should know that doctors warn some leftovers could be putting your health at risk. Read on to see which foods in your fridge you should toss right away.

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You should never eat leftovers that have been left out for two hours or more.

leftovers in tupperware
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Sometimes after preparing and eating a big meal, it can be easy to forget that extra food is still sitting out on the stovetop. Or maybe you absent-mindedly left your half-eaten spaghetti you took home from your dinner date last night on the counter. Whatever the case, experts warn that anything that's sat outside the fridge for a while isn't safe to consume anymore.

"Cooling your leftovers quickly, within two hours, to refrigerator or freezer temperatures is considered safe," Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietician nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic, told USA Today. "You want to help that food come down to refrigerator temperatures most quickly," she said, while also recommending to use shallow containers that allow food to be spread out so it can be chilled faster.

You should throw away any prepared food that wasn't refrigerated fast enough.

person throwing away cooked chicken nuggets
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As painful as it may be to have to pitch that perfect pasta, experts warn that the only way to handle leftovers that have been left out too long is to throw them out. At the wrong temperatures, bacteria will "grow in food that's been left out too long, or can make a toxin in the food," Frank Esper, MD, a doctor from the center for pediatric infectious diseases at Cleveland Clinic Children's, told USA Today, including non-meat items such as pasta, rice, and beans.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this means that any dishes that sat out for two or more hours should be thrown away. And be wary of your summer barbecue party's buffet: the agency also warns food that's been sitting out in warmer temperatures above 90 degrees should be thrown out after an hour.

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Food needs to be reheated to 165 degrees to ensure that it's safe to eat.

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Warming your food back up to the right temperature for eating is about more than just the comfort of a hot meal. It's also essential for getting rid of any microorganisms that can make you sick.

"It's recommended that you reheat leftovers to a hot enough temperature, being 165 degrees, to ensure that it's safe to eat, that that bacterial load has been controlled for," Zeratsky told USA Today. To be sure you're hitting that temperature, it's recommended that you use a food thermometer—especially if you're microwaving. The USDA also recommends covering your leftovers while they warm up to retain moisture and ensure sure your food has been heated all the way through.

Get rid of any leftovers that are more than three or four days old.

woman throwing away trash in the kitchen
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Even if you manage to get your food into the fridge before too long, you're still dealing with a limited amount of time to safely enjoy your leftovers. According to the USDA, chilled food is only good for three to four days in your refrigerator and should be thrown out after that.

If you're planning on getting the most out of a big meal prep, your freezer may be the best option. The agency says that frozen food is good for three to four months, but it should still be eventually tossed out. "Although safe indefinitely, frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times in the freezer," the agency writes on its website.

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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