Leftover foods can be a boon to both your budget and your time. They’re also a great way to diminish food waste.
While it’s smart to be thrifty, eating leftover food that has sat too long in or out of the refrigerator could pose a hazard to your health.
You may wonder just how long these foods may safely keep.
This article examines how long it’s safe to eat leftovers, including how to tell whether a food has spoiled.
Types of leftover foods
How long foods stay safe depends on a few factors, including safe preparation, proper storage, and the type of food (1).
Whether your leftovers are sautéed vegetables or fish cakes affects how long they can safely keep in your refrigerator.
This is because some foods are more prone to harboring pathogens like bacteria or toxins that could make you sick.
However, leftovers often mix food groups. In these instances, a good rule of thumb is to go off what ingredient in the dish spoils first. For instance, a seafood rice would last only as long as its seafood — which is a higher risk item than rice, as described below.
If you’re ever unsure, it’s safest to toss leftovers within 3 days.
Lower risk foods
Fruits and vegetables
All raw fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed in clean water before consumption — and the sooner you can eat these, the better.
Thoroughly washed and cut fresh fruit will generally keep for about 3–5 days before it starts to lose its freshness.
When cooked, leftover vegetables stored in an airtight container will usually keep up to 3–7 days in the refrigerator. Cooked canned vegetables like beans or other legumes generally last 7–10 days with proper storage (2).
Fruits and vegetables with higher water contents, such as tomatoes, cucumber, and strawberries, lose their freshness quicker than those with a lower water content like kale, potatoes, and bananas.
This may speed or slow the clock regarding how long you may want to store the food before eating it.
Another lower risk item is bread.
Homemade bread can last about 3 days at room temperature, while store-bought bread will be safe to eat for about 5–7 days — unless you see mold. Moldy bread should never be eaten.
Storing breads in the fridge will help extend their shelf life by about 3–5 days, though they lose quality the longer they sit there.
Medium risk foods
Cooked pasta and grains like barley and quinoa will keep for up to 3 days when properly stored.
If you freeze these after cooking them, they’ll generally last 3 months before they start to lose their freshness.
Desserts and sweets usually last about 3–4 days in the refrigerator (3).
Higher risk foods
Foods that carry a higher risk of food poisoning are those that are higher in protein and moisture content, two characteristics that allow certain microbes to grow.
One exception to this rule described above is rice, which can carry spores of Bacillus cereus. This bacterium produces toxins that can cause foodborne illness (4).
Store and cool rice within 1 hour of cooking it, and consume it within 3 days.
Meat and poultry
Ground meat and poultry that has been cooked to a safe temperature can last in the fridge about 1–2 days as long as they’re stored at or below 41°F (5°C) (1).
Other meat and poultry, such as steaks, fillets, chops, and roasts, last 3–4 days in the refrigerator. If you thaw these before cooking them, be sure to do so in the refrigerator — never on the counter. After thawing, cook within 2 days (3).
You may also thaw using the microwave, but be sure to use the food right away.
Opened deli meat should be consumed within 3–5 days of opening. Likewise, cold deli salads, such as egg, tuna, or chicken salad, should be consumed within 3–5 days (3).
Shellfish, eggs, soups, and stews
Shellfish and fish are delicate, as these can harbor many pathogens or toxins like histamine that could make you sick. Consume leftovers that include seafood within 3 days (
Soups and stews, with or without meats or fish, will generally last 3–4 days in the refrigerator.
Restaurant vs. home-cooked meals
You should consider that when dealing with leftovers from restaurants, you won’t know how fresh the ingredients were before their use.
You should eat these leftovers sooner than you might consume their homemade equivalents — within 3–4 days.
However, if the leftover meal contains raw ingredients like raw fish or vegetables consume it within 24 hours.
Some leftovers are riskier to store than others and won’t keep as long in the fridge. When in doubt, toss leftovers within 3 days. Restaurant leftovers with raw fish or veggies should be consumed within 24 hours.
How to tell whether food has gone bad
You should inspect your food by observing it for signs of spoilage and smelling it.
First, look for changes in texture or the appearance of mold, which can come in a variety of colors, including white, green, orange-red, pink, or black fuzz. This indicates that food has gone bad and should be discarded.
If you see mold, don’t smell it, as doing so could cause respiratory issues.
Foods like deli meats that develop a slimy film should also be thrown out.
If your leftovers smell rancid, they’re no longer good to eat. Likewise, if food is discolored, it may no longer be safe or enjoyable to eat.
However, if you take a bite of your leftovers and realize the flavor is off somehow — toss them immediately and, if possible, spit out whatever you haven’t swallowed.
Be mindful that food can spoil even before you can tell by looking at it or smelling it — so follow the guidelines above.
First, look at your leftovers and note any changes in texture or appearance. If you see mold, don’t smell the food — toss it. Food that smells rancid or tastes strange should be trashed.
Tips for proper storage
Bacteria thrive between 40°F (4°C) and 140°F (60°C). This temperature range is known as the “danger zone” (1).
To keep foods out of the danger zone, refrigerate or freeze leftovers within 2 hours. If you’re outdoors and temperatures are above 90°F (32°C), you should refrigerate or freeze within 1 hour (7).
It’s better to store hot foods in smaller, shallower containers that are airtight. This will allow foods to cool quicker and more evenly.
While refrigeration slows the growth of most bacteria, it’s important to keep in mind that certain microbes like Listeria monocytogenes can still grow in refrigerated temperatures.
For this reason, it’s important to keep in mind how long you have stored a certain item in your refrigerator. It could be helpful to label your food with the date and time you first prepared the dish when you store it, along with the date it should be tossed by.
Another useful tip is to consider the order in which you’re storing items in your refrigerator.
Store ready-to-eat foods on the top shelf, as well as raw foods. Meanwhile, store uncooked meats toward the bottom of the refrigerator. This will prevent uncooked meat or poultry from dripping juices that could cross-contaminate your leftovers.
Reheat foods to at least 165°F (74°C) to take them out of the danger zone. Gravies and sauces should be reheated until they reach a rolling boil.
Storing leftovers properly can extend their shelf life and prevent you from getting sick. Good practices include prompt refrigeration, labeling, and reheating foods to at least 165°F (74°C) when you’re ready to eat them.
Risks of eating spoiled food
Many types of pathogens can be found in common foods and cause food poisoning, including:
- Listeria monocytogenes: deli meats, undercooked eggs, poorly washed fruits and vegetables, smoked seafood (
- Ciguatoxin: tropical and subtropical fish, like grouper and red snapper (
- Bacillus cereus: rice, beans, potatoes, pastas, meats, vegetables, and fish (
- Staphylococcus aureus: deli meats, cold salads, pastry filling, puddings, sandwiches (
- Salmonella: eggs, fruits, vegetables, nut butters, meats and poultry (
- Escherichia coli: undercooked meats, poorly washed fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens), unpasteurized dairy (
However, leftovers are especially at risk of these pathogens, as their spores float freely in the air and land on food. This allows for the development of mold, which can produce mycotoxins that may cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or a combination of these symptoms (13,
Those at higher risk
People who are pregnant should be especially vigilant about properly cooking, storing, and reheating foods. They’re especially vulnerable to food poisoning, particularly from Listeria. Listeria can cross the placenta and harm a developing baby (
People over the age of 65 or those who are immunocompromised should also be very careful about preparing and storing food safely. This includes those living with the following conditions:
- multiple sclerosis
- Crohn’s disease
Pathogens can grow in all kinds of foods and put you at risk of food poisoning. Those who are pregnant or have weakened immune systems should be especially careful.
The bottom line
How long a food can keep depends on a few factors, including its preparation, storage, and how easily it spoils.
Aim to store your leftover food within 1–2 hours of its preparation. Reheat it until steaming hot, or over 165°F (74°C).
Those who are pregnant, over the age of 65, or with compromised immune systems should be especially vigilant about their leftovers, as they’re most at risk of developing food poisoning.
If you’re ever in doubt, toss your leftovers within 3 days — or even sooner, if they look or smell off.