This time of year you may find yourself with heaps of leftovers, and no clue how to use them. To add to the confusion, there’s the question of just how long you have to eat your leftovers when you’ve placed them in the fridge. Refrigerators are essential in extending the life of your food, as bacteria can quickly multiply when your food is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, and the best french door refrigerators (opens in new tab) or best side-by-side refrigerators (opens in new tab) even offer freezer sections to extend the life of your food even more. We’ve got a guide on how to freeze meat and vegetables safely (opens in new tab) to make that process easier.
Food waste is a massive issue in the US year-round, and food waste is estimated at between 30-40% of the food supply according to the USDA (opens in new tab). Those are infuriating numbers, especially because there are so many ways to make the most of your leftovers or fresh produce without throwing them out. One of the best ways to cut down on leftovers and food waste going forward is to try one of the best recipe apps and software (opens in new tab), which compile an exact shopping list of all the groceries you need to get you through the week, and can cut down on unnecessary spending by helping you plan out your meals.
Leftover rules: When to throw
The general rule is that if you see any mold on your food, it needs to go in the bin. While not all types of mold can be dangerous to eat, none of them are nice, and they can lead to respiratory issues if left to spread in your refrigerator. It’s not quite that simple, though. Just because your leftovers aren’t moldy, this doesn’t mean they’re safe to eat.
As a very general rule of thumb, the very longest you can keep any leftovers in the refrigerator is a week. According to the FDA Food Code, all perishable foods that are opened or cooked should be thrown out after seven days (opens in new tab). This applies to vegetables and foods that are less likely to go moldy quickly, like bread or pasta. For meat, we suggest that the hard limit is four days. Even if your food still looks and smells fine after four days, it could still give you food poisoning, so it’s best avoided.
Not everything has the same shelf life
Ultimately, how long your leftovers will last in the fridge depends on the type of food. If you’re faced with piles of uneaten brussels sprouts or mashed potatoes, you could have up to a week to eat your vegetable leftovers if stored in an airtight container within your refrigerator. Vegetables tend to be the longest-lasting fresh produce you can buy, and while we can’t guarantee that they’ll taste their best or be at their freshest after a few days, there’s no harm in leaving them for upwards of three days whether cooked or uncooked.
Some refrigerators come with crisper drawers designed to create the optimum conditions to extend the life of fruits and vegetables, and choosing the right fridge is a big part of making sure your food doesn’t go bad earlier than it should. Because fruits such as tomatoes or strawberries typically have a higher water content, they’re likely to spoil far faster than drier items such as carrots and mushrooms.
Meat typically lasts longer when cooked, so if you have a chicken in your refrigerator and you want to extend its lifespan, you can cook it and eat the leftovers in the days that follow. Or, if you’ve got your meals all lined up for the week, it can be frozen and eaten one-to-two days after being defrosted.
How to use up leftovers
If you can’t eat your leftovers within three or four days, it’s better to find alternative ways to make the most of them. The best freezers (opens in new tab) act as great storage options for meal prepping, and they will save you money by using every last bite of the food you’ve already prepared. Always reheat safely when eating leftovers - to do this, it’s best to use a microwave (opens in new tab) because you’re more likely to target any bacteria on your food thanks to the high temperature.
It can be easy to turn your leftovers into something yummy, too. Placing a turkey carcass and water in a slow cooker (opens in new tab) in high heat to simmer with some vegetable scraps (such as the ends of celery, tops of carrots, potato peel, and the scraps of onions) can make a delicious stock that can be used to make soups, risottos, or a great base for sauces.