Next to the kid asking the wise owl, “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop® “? What’s the best way how to store leftovers in the fridge? has run a close second. All joking aside, I decided to share what I know about how to keep leftovers safe for eating.
The most important thing you’re gonna need to know about storing leftovers is this.
Don’t let your leftovers sit out for more than 2 hours before packing them up, and placing them into shallow clear airtight containers.
Colored containers are pretty, but if you can’t see what’s in them, you’ll never open them up. When the time comes and you finally do, odds are in your favor you’ll toss the container and the leftovers out due to the grossness factor.
The best airtight containers you can buy are from Tupperware®. If you don’t feel like spending a lot of money on containers, you can always get some good Rubbermaid Takealongs from the dollar stores.
Although they’re free, I wouldn’t recommend you store your leftovers in plastic lunch meat tubs. They do work, but they sometimes have small cracks in the containers. You may not be able to see it, but bacteria will be able to slither their way in.
You’ll also have to keep a really careful eye on them when you’re reheating your food in the microwave. Sometimes, they’ve been known to get a little melty.
Plastic freezer bags work just as well to store your leftovers. If you choose to go that route, always make sure you get as much of the air out as possible before sealing the bag.
Cool your leftovers quickly
To prevent the growth of bacteria, your food must cool quickly. Once it’s sealed either in an airtight clear container or a plastic freezer bag, you can put it in the fridge while it’s still hot. I would highly recommend you place the container or plastic freezer bag on a plate, to avoid the possibility of cracking the glass shelf in your fridge.
Putting your leftovers away in the fridge while they’re still hot is the best method and one you should try to make a routine. If you’re prone to having squirrel moments, by going this route you won’t forget to put your leftovers away in the fridge.
How to store take-out leftovers
If you’re a fan of Chinese food takeout, after you distribute the food on your dinner plates and there’s still food left in the containers, I’d recommend you put the take-out boxes in the fridge immediately. If seconds are warranted, you can just pull them out of the fridge and heat them for a few seconds in the microwave.
If you’re not planning on eating the leftovers that day, transfer them from the take-out boxes to airtight plastic containers.
If you eat your Chinese take-out directly from the containers, DO NOT save any leftovers. Whatever you don’t finish; throw out.
One. You’re double-dipping which means all the germs living in your mouth are going back into your food.
Two. Anyone in your household can grab that food and chow down on it. Unbeknownst to them, there’s a cootie festival living in the Kung Pao Chicken.
Three. You could be harboring strep throat or some sort of virus or bacterial infection that you’re not aware of. Guess what? You just shared the love.
Fourth. Your kids are now sick. You’re forced to take off unpaid time from work because you sucked up the last few hours of PTO you had when you left early to take Timmy to the Orthodontist.
Aside from rice, I wouldn’t keep any of the leftovers in the take-out boxes. The liquid from most dishes has a nasty habit of seeping through the containers. Not only do you have a mess to clean up, but you may also have some bacteria spores that crashed the refrigerator party and are more than eager to introduce themselves to everyone there.
When you take in a pizza and you have a few slices left, how many times have you just put the box with the slices into the fridge? It seems easy and safe. After all, the box has a lid, right?
Yes, it has a lid, but your best bet would be to stack and wrap your slices of pizza. You’ll want to place the slices on a large plate layered with a piece of wax or parchment paper. You’ll want to stack the remaining slices on top, sandwiching another piece of wax or parchment paper between each slice. You can cover the entire plate with either aluminum foil or cling wrap.
How to store leftover soup and stew
If you make soups or stews you’re always gonna have a ton of leftovers. I know a few people (my 80-year-old mother is one of them), who will put the entire pot in the fridge with the soup still in it. Of course, my mom won’t listen to me because she knows everything, and I’m just a kid. Hey, those are her words, not mine.
You’ll want to make sure the containers you use are shallow, as they’ll cool quicker than it would if you stored them in deep containers.
How long do leftovers last in the fridge?
That’s the million-dollar question.
If properly stored, most leftovers can be kept in the fridge for 3 to 4 days. If you freeze them, most will be good for 3 to 4 months.
Defrosting frozen leftovers
Even though your leftovers were fully cooked, you still need to pay close attention to the way you defrost them. From a food safety standpoint, you’ll want to follow the proper protocol when defrosting your frozen food, in the same manner as you would uncooked frozen food.
Refrigerator defrosting takes the longest but it’s the safest method. After defrosting your leftovers, you’ll want to eat them within 3 to 4 days. If you don’t think you’re gonna eat them in that time-frame, you can always refreeze it again. The quality of the food may not be that great, but it’s an option if you need it.
Coldwater defrosting is much faster than defrosting in the fridge, but you’ll have to babysit the food. Since water may seep into your containers (if you didn’t seal them properly), the water and bacteria from the sink can mix in with the food you’re defrosting.
If you decided to do a cold-water defrost, make sure you drain and refill the sink with cold water every 30 minutes. See, I told you, you’d be babysitting.
From frozen to cooked
There’s no need to defrost your leftovers in the microwave. Frozen leftovers can go directly from the freezer to the microwave to be cooked. Regardless of what type of food you’re nuking, you’ll want to make sure the internal temperature is at least 165°F or 74°C. (if I’m wrong the Celcius conversation, blame Google).
Foods do have a tendency to dry out when being defrosted or cooked in the microwave, so it’s a good idea to cover the food with a moist paper towel.
Superhero Tip: When microwaving leftover rice, to keep it from not sticking together, place it in a bowl and cover with a damp paper towel. Not sure why this works so well, but I’m sure it has something to do with the steam coming off the paper towel.
- Date and label your leftovers.
- Keep leftovers towards the front of the fridge to remind you to eat them.
- First in, first out. Eat your older leftovers first.
- Never store your leftovers in cans, as the metal can leach into your food.
- Always refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking. It’s okay to pack it up when the foods still hot.
- Store all leftovers in shallow, clear, airtight containers. Tupperware® is the best. Nope, not sponsored, I just love it and used to sell it in the ’90s. This is the set I’d recommend.
Do you know how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop®? Share in a comment.
P.S. My oldest piece of Tupperware® I still own is a sandwich keeper from 1993, It still has my son’s name on it.