Reader’s Question: How long are Leftovers Good for?

Photo by Melissambwilkins

Photo by Melissambwilkins

Hi Jenn,

Just wondering what your philosophy is on how long leftovers, etc. are still good for.

I notice you talk frequently about something defrosted in your fridge or, as in this post leftovers from Christmas, that you need to use up.

I’m all about the frugal and hate to see food wasted, but I’m also one of those people who won’t drink the milk once the sell by date arrives!*  I’m really trying to get over it, so I’m always curious on how others handle this kind of thing.

Right now I have some filet mignon leftover from dinner out Friday night.  It’s only Monday, but I haven’t used it yet and am already thinking it may just need to go!

Any tips or ideas?


Well Nancy, I am no food safety expert (and I don’t even play one on tv), so I have to turn to the big guns on this one-the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture).

According to the chart on the USDA Basics for Handling Food Safely factsheet (or this reproduction of the chart on the DuPage County Health Dept site-which is easier to read)  most leftovers should be used with 1-4 days. So if you had eaten the filet on Monday or Tuesday you would have been within the USDA guidelines.

As for me, well honestly, I’m playing a bit fast & easy with the rules here.  I cooked my turkey (which was already presmoked, vacuum sealed & frozen) on Christmas.  I didn’t get around to picking all the meat off the carcass for a couple of days, so then I reboiled the entire carcass to make stock and removed the meat at that point.  I feel comfortable that the meat is still good-but the USDA or most health departments guidelines would not agree with me.

Do I recommend that you follow my lead? No.  You need to read up and make your own informed decisions. As I said at the start-I am not a food safety expert by any stretch of the imagination.

As far as tips or ideas, I’ve got a few that might help.

#1-Try using a weekly menu plan.  This will enable to you look at what you have in the fridge and use it up within the recommended timelines.

#2-Freeze it if you aren’t going to use it.  Freezing doesn’t have to be only for very long term storage-really, the freezer police won’t come and get you if you froze that leftover steak for only 5 days and then used it.   Just wrap it really well to prevent any freezer burn and don’t forget that it is in there! Again, a menu plan comes in handy for that.

#3-Look at your portion sizes.  If you are constantly throwing out food because you can’t use it all up in the right time frame, maybe you are making too much!  Should you cut the recipe in half, cook 1 less chicken breast, or even buy less at the store? If you are worried that by cooking less there won’t be enough food to go around make sure you have plenty of “filler” items, like pasta, rice or veggies.

So what do you all think? How do you meet the challenge of using up leftovers while keeping them safe?

*Note: Yankee Bill does that sell by thing too and it drives me nuts.  According to the Dairy Council of America, as long as it is refrigerated promptly and kept between 38-40 degrees Farenheit, milk lasts 5-7 days after the “Sell By” date. / CC BY-NC 2.0
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  1. says

    Milk also lasts longer when a pinch of salt is added upon opening. I am like you and go more by the food and how it appears/smells. I have yet to make any of us sick, because I will throw out something that I feel is past its prime.

  2. Catherine says

    I go buy smell/appearance, too. You probably don’t want to know that I have turkey from THANKSGIVING in my fridge that is going to make an appearance tonight at dinner (it’s been in the WAY BACK of the fridge and is probably a little frozen because of it). Nope, I won’t tell you that.

  3. says

    i only like to keep leftovers in the fridge for 3 days max. unless i have a plan for when i will eat the leftovers, i portion out the meal into single serving containers and freeze them so they’re like my own homemade lean cuisine freezer meals.

  4. Julie says

    These tips are great. I fought so long against making a menu plan, but I finally gave in. This area of my life has become so much easier once I did. I find I have a lot fewer leftovers because I have a plan to deal with them the next day or two. An added benefit: when I do find that container of something in the back of the fridge, I can check my menu plan and find out how old it is. Now I know if I should just hold my nose and dump the container in the garbage or not.

  5. Holly says

    Old milk can be used for baking or making cheese. Look up recipes on the net using soured milk. I use our ‘off’ milk for pancakes, biscuits, queen of puddings, cakes and general cooking. I’ve made some yummy cottage cheese from old milk as well. Read up on old-time recipes, esp war time, as those ladies were experts at getting the most out of food, even the least desirable. Research; trust your sense of smell,taste and sight; use your common sense; and open your mind.

  6. says

    Like you, I have two sets of guidelines. One is my official advice that I research, those are the guidelines I post and the ones I use when serving anyone outside of my immediate family. I push those guidelines frequently to avoid waste when it comes to personal use. I’m a healthy adult, everyone in my family has a healthy immune system.
    That said, I do NOT stretch any of the guidelines when it comes to home preservation aka canning. Botulism is quite different than your run of the mill gastro-intestinal bug.

  7. RONI707 says

    Thanks for the tips.
    Coincidentally,I came upon an ULTIMATE SHELF LIFE guide about leftover food.
    I have not had a chance to look at it all yet. But I’ll be going again .Defintly worth a look.
    It’s called StllTasty.It’s online,don’t have the link

  8. anonymous says

    Great post, Jenn!

    I really don’t like ‘off’ milk at all. I like the fresh taste, so for me it’s 1 week after opening the container. But milk freezes and thaws nicely, so now I buy quarts and thaw only what I’ll use in a few days.

    For most leftovers that are deeply cooked, I don’t think twice until it is over a week old. For less-cooked items (sushi anyone?), it can be a much shorter period.

    Also, if you’re on medications that decrease stomach acids or suppress your immune system, you need to be even more careful.

  9. Nancy says

    Wow! You made my question a post! I love all the information and ideas you gave, as well as what the other commenters had to offer. I got some great ideas. Thank you!! But I have to be honest, I still need to work on my milk issues! Maybe if they just didn’t make that darn sell by date so big and bold! 😉

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