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How long do leftovers last? Experts share tips for safely storing food. – Yahoo Life

Each year, it feels like we've just worked our way through the leftover turkey and side dishes from Thanksgiving when it's time to store a whole new collection of holiday leftovers. Inflation has food prices at a premium these days, and, since we're spending more than ever on ingredients for holiday meals, we don't want anything to go to waste. But in reality, how long are leftovers good for? And how can we make the most of them while they're still safe to eat?
As long as you follow safe food handling procedures, your food will likely be OK. "Just because that lasagna you served tonight sat on your counter for an hour or two while you ate and cleaned up does not automatically make it poisonous to eat," says Roger Sitrin, lead recreational chef instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education. "Food that spends time in the danger zone — 40 F to 140 F — provides the best environment for food borne pathogens to grow and multiply, so avoid leaving food in that temperature range as much as possible. But, it doesn't mean it will absolutely make you ill, there's just a better chance."
In addition, use your senses: sight, smell and taste. "I look to see if there is any obvious deterioration in the food like mold or discoloration," Sitrin tells Yahoo Life. "Then I smell it. Does it still smell delicious? Is there a strong offensive odor? This is how our senses of smell and sight inform our brains as to what is good to eat. Finally, if it passes the visual and smell test, I give it the taste test."
Next, keep an eye on the calendar, being sure to mark the date on your storage container. "In general leftovers can be saved for three to four days after cooking maxif you store them properly," says Trevor Craig, a food expert and corporate director of technical training and consulting at Microbac Laboratories.
That doesn't mean you can't buy yourself a bit of extra time: Do so by freezing leftovers instead. "If you want to keep them longer you can always freeze after cooking — not after 3-4 days of storage — and eat them a bit later," says Craig.
We taste food with our nose and eyes before eating it, and the same can be said for leftovers. In the sense of whether or not we want to eat what's sitting in front of us, it's likely your food won't look, smell or taste as good as the day you cooked it after it spends a few days in the fridge. "Even though you may not see growth," explains Craig, "microbial contamination is likely to not only be a risk to your health but also to degrade the food."
"When you store food, you're going to want to store it in containers that are airtight to further protect your food and [ones that are] heat safe, if you plan to use them for reheating," says Craig. "You'll probably want to let your food cool before sealing as well, as trapped warm food is likely to collect moisture that's not going to help with the breakdown of your food."
How you prepare leftovers after they've been stored matters as well. "Keep your food out of room temperature as much as possible as the product warming up and cooling down is going to speed up the growth of bacteria," says Craig.
Best practice is to take the food out of the fridge, dish out your leftovers and put them back in the fridge. "Even though heating food high enough for long enough will kill bacteria, that doesn't mean it will destroy the toxins left by some bacteria that can be the causes of food borne illness," says Craig.
Place leftovers in a container you can see through. "There is a much better chance you will use leftovers if you can quickly identify them when you open the refrigerator," says Sitrin. "It saves having to do the lift-look-smell-taste test on every container." Label the container using masking tape and a permanent marker, writing the name of the item and the date you placed it into the container.
Cool items completely before placing them in the refrigerator, otherwise, your refrigerator has to work twice as hard to remove the heat you are introducing with the leftover item. "Heating up the refrigerator causes it to work extra hard and it also puts the entire refrigerator at risk of being warmed up," says Sitrin. Remember: Don't place a hot container of chicken soup next to your quart of milk.
Don't feel the need to buy new containers if you already have a perfectly viable option in the kitchen. "I use those plastic quart containers you often get with takeout," says Sitrin. "I wash and reuse them over and over so then I don't feel as bad about using plastic. You can also use glass containers." Sitrin's biggest tip: Avoid any container that you can't see through.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste and yard debris make up about 30% of waste sent to landfills. "Composting your food and yard waste helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by diverting these items from landfills," says Jeremy Walters, a sustainability ambassador for Republic Services. All your vegetable scraps, fruit peels and coffee grounds are a perfect addition to your organic waste bin or your at-home compost.
Some states, like California, now require residents and businesses to recycle organic waste. "Composting is not the same process as recycling cans, paper and plastic, so never put organic waste in your curbside recycling bin," says Walters. Before you start composting, make sure you understand which items can be composted and how best to keep your compost balanced.
"Generally, you can compost items like coffee grounds, fruits and vegetables, eggshells, tea bags, nutshells, yard waste, leaves and more," says Walters. "Typically, you can't compost fats, meats or dairy products, but it is best to check with your local service provider on acceptable materials."
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