photo of take out box
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Fact: Refrigerate Leftovers Within 2 Hours

The bacteria that cause food poisoning grow quickly at room temperature. To make sure it’s safe, put food in the fridge or freezer in the 2 hours after it’s cooked or taken off a heat source, such as a warming tray. If it’s hot outside (above 90 F), do this within 1 hour. One in 3 people admit to eating pizza left out overnight. If those slices have been sitting out for hours, throw them away.

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photo of person storing pot in fridge
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Myth: Cool Hot Foods Before Refrigerating

You don’t need to wait until leftovers are room temperature. You can put hot foods directly into the fridge. Large amounts, such as a pot of soup or a whole chicken, can take too long to cool. If you’d like to chill them quickly, you can divide them into smaller, shallow portions or put them in a leak-proof container in a large bowl of ice and a little water.

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photo of thermometer in fridge
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Fact: Set Your Fridge to 40 F or Below

More than a third of Americans have too-warm refrigerators. This can lead to bacteria growth. Check that your fridge is set to 40 degrees or below; the freezer should be 0 F or below. If the control doesn’t show the exact temperature, you may need an appliance thermometer. And it’s best to leave room between items. This helps the cold air circulate and cool down food.

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photo of leftovers in fridge
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Myth: Leftovers Are Safe Until They Smell

You can’t see, smell, or taste the bacteria that can make you sick. To protect against food poisoning, toss out food after 3 to 4 days in the fridge or move it to the freezer. While frozen leftovers are safe for a long time, they lose flavor and texture after 3 to 4 months. Always use airtight packaging or containers, and write down the date.

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photo of oven set to 165 degrees
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Myth: It’s OK to Eat Cold Leftovers

To kill dangerous bacteria, you need to heat food to 165 F. The best way to tell if it has reached that temperature is with a food thermometer. Put it in different places, especially the thickest or deepest part, because dishes can cook unevenly.

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Fact: Don’t Use Hot Water to Thaw Frozen Foods

Putting frozen foods in hot water or leaving them on the counter to thaw can make bacteria grow faster. Instead, thaw them in the fridge. It’ll take 24 hours to thaw every 1 to 5 pounds of food. Need a faster way? Put a leak-proof bag or container in a bowl of cold water, and replace the water every half hour. You can also defrost frozen leftovers in the microwave, oven, or stove.

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photo of frozen foods
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Myth: Freezing Food Destroys Bacteria

While freezing can slow the growth of bacteria, it doesn’t kill them. When you thaw leftovers, the bacteria may start growing again and make you sick. That’s why it’s important to reheat thawed leftovers the right way.

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photo of noodles in slow cooker
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Myth: It’s OK to Reheat Leftovers in a Slow Cooker

Slow cookers and chafing dishes can take a while to warm up. That means your leftovers may stay between 40 and 140 F for too long. Instead, microwave them, bake them at 325 F or higher, or bring sauces, soups, and gravies to a rolling boil. No matter what method you choose, always check the temperature with a thermometer before serving.

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photo of storing food in freezer
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Fact: You Can Freeze Leftovers More Than Once

Didn’t finish all those leftovers? Don’t toss them out. Put them back in the freezer and save them for another meal. Just make sure that you heated them to 165 F first. You don’t want to refreeze thawed foods that haven’t been cooked.

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Myth: Microwaves Kill All the Bacteria

Microwaves cook food from the outside in. This leaves cold spots where bacteria can grow. One study found that simply zapping a dish for 5 minutes didn’t kill salmonella. To microwave safely, cover leftovers with a lid or vented plastic wrap. Halfway through cooking, stir, rotate, or turn the food upside down. Let stand for a few minutes, and put a thermometer in different places to check the temperature.

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photo of family eating dinner
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Myth: Eat Leftovers Right Away After Reheating

If you’ve microwaved leftovers, you’ll need to wait a few minutes before digging in. Microwaves work by making food molecules vibrate quickly. Even afterward, they continue to create heat and cook that dish, so the temperature can rise by several degrees. To make sure your leftovers are safe to eat, let them stand for 3 minutes.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 03/12/2019 Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on March 12, 2019

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SOURCES:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Tips for Reheating Leftovers.”

Epidemiology and Infection: “Salmonella Outbreak from Microwaved Food.”

Foodsafety.gov: “Handle Leftovers with Care.”

Food Research International: “The Effect of Freezing on the Survival of Escheria Coli 0157:H7 on Beef Trimmings.”

Food Science: “Fate of Listeria Monocyogenes During Freezing and Frozen Storage.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “Microwave Cooking and Nutrition.”

Journal of Food Protection: “Effects of Freezing and Storage on Microorganisms in Frozen Foods: A Review.”

Journal of Food Science: “Influence of Cooking Methods on Antioxidant Activity of Vegetables.”

University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service: “Your Microwave Oven: A Real Time Saver.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Leftovers and Food Safety,” “Microwave Ovens and Food Safety,” “Safe Handling of Take-Out Foods,” “The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers.”

FDA: “Refrigerator Thermometers: Cold Facts About Food Safety,” “Are You Storing Food Safely?”

Washington State Department of Health: “Food Safety Myths.”

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on March 12, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.