How Long to Keep Leftovers: How to Know When to Keep Your Food or Trash It

Everyone has eaten that questionable take-out from the fridge at one point or another, even though parents would cringe at the thought. Mom and Dad were right; there are some things you just should not eat, period! We’ll take you through some scenarios in your kitchen to help you decide what’s safe and what has to go in the trash.

I remember being told snitching a little cookie dough batter was bad for you…
Hey, I do it, too! Despite the fact that we do it even though we’ve been told not to, there is some truth behind the matter. The reason people consider it a health hazard is due to salmonella. The bacteria Salmonella spp. can be found in poultry and eggs. By baking the cookies at a high temperature, the bacteria are killed, but when you’re snitching the dough, you’re missing the heat-killing step. While only some eggs carry the bacteria, there’s always the possibility of getting sick.

You went to Panera…two weeks ago, but that sandwich is still good, right?
Time to toss the Turkey Bacon Bravo, girl. Two weeks is too long. According to the ServSafe manual, a food safety guide, you can contract Listeriosis from bacteria that loves to live in cool moist environments like deli meat. How to prevent it? You have to toss any product that is past its use-by or expiration date. The rule of thumb for leftovers is seven days tops. It’s gotta go.
I never wash my produce.  Why bother to waste water?
Even though you may trust your grocer, you can’t trust the field in which the produce was grown. When farmers use fertilizer in the soil that comes in contact with the plants, what that really means is usually: cow feces mixed with other compounds touch your food. Even if the produce grows on a bush or a plant structure that would keep it off the ground, sh** happens (no pun intended). Maybe it got dropped on the ground, and then it could touch other pieces of the produce. Trust us, you’re not wasting water. Wash the vegetables to rinse off all dirt and compost.

You got home from the grocery…just in time to catch the season finale of Lost.  Two hours later, the groceries, including the milk are still out. Did you just waste your money?
Food that needs to be refrigerated must be consumed within six hours of taking it out of the cool temperature area.  For example, a cold pasta salad can stay out for six hours at a party, and then it has to be tossed. The other condition is that the food must not exceed 70 degrees Fahrenheit during that time. Why 70 degrees? At this point, you’re reaching the prime zone for bacteria to reproduce enough to make you feel ill. Why six hours? In six hours, bacteria have multiplied to levels high enough to make you sick. Don’t give your milk a ‘license to ill’ as the Beastie Boys would say. The sooner your haul goes in the fridge, the better off you are. Two hours and the milk is under 70 degrees? You’re in the clear.
Mmm, fresh strawberry season! But they just go moldy so quickly. One has mold, but can I eat the rest?
Toss them ASAP. Mold has spores and can travel very easily. Even when you move the box, you’re helping the spores spread around the kitchen. When a few berries have mold and the others don’t have visible growth, you may actually be wrong. Spores are microscopic and may be on the other berries. According to the USDA, soft fruits and vegetables with high moisture content, like berries, can become contaminated below the surface. You have to discard any foods like this that contain signs of mold. Even though that’s totally frustrating to have to toss a whole container of berries, here are some tips to keep the berries at their best longer:

  1. Don’t wash them until immediately before you need them. When you wash, you’re giving a moist environment that mold loves.
  2. Store them in the fridge.
  3. And if you just don’t think you can finish them before they go bad, freeze them for smoothies.

I’m having a cook-out, and I formed some hamburgers on one side of my cutting board and used the other half to chop the tomatoes to go on top. Should I be doing something different?
Even though you may not see the patties touch the veggies, cross contamination is totally possible, especially with meat juices. Occasionally ground beef contains a bacteria we know as E.coli, which is fine in small levels since the meat gets cooked and the bacteria is killed. But those veggies aren’t going on the grill too! By sharing a cutting board or knife, you are transferring the bacteria directly to something you will eat ‘as is’ which can make your evening…well, unpleasant. Always use a separate cutting board for produce and meat. After you’re done using your cutting board, here’s what you can do to keep it clean:

  • Wash with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.
  • If you choose, sanitize with one T chlorine bleach in one gallon of water.
  • Allow the cutting board to soak.
  • Rinse with water and pat dry.

The girls and I are having a sushi night. We want to try “sashimi,” which is raw fish like we see when we go out. What should we know?
What you’re seeing when you’re at a restaurant are trained chefs using a particular type of fish. People can get very sick from eating raw or undercooked fish, but if chefs plan on sashimi, they are using sushi-grade fish. Sushi-grade fish has very strict freezing time and temperature requirements that prevent illness when consumed raw. Avoid the do-it-yourself sashimi and stick to some delicious sushi rolls. If you’re looking to add some fish to the dish, cook some tilapia or salmon and add it to your rolls. Similar effect, without the sickening side effects.

Just remember, when it comes to food safety, go with your gut. If something looks suspicious, don’t eat it, and throw it away. Better safe than sorry!
USDA, Food Safety
ServSafe Instructor Manual, Food Safety Education


Carlene Helble is a senior dietetics major and family studies minor at James Madison University. She is the '10-'11 President of JMU's student dietetics association and the school's student council liaison to the American Dietetics Association. Carlene is also the weekend food blogger for All Access Internships and writes for Balanced Health and Nutrition, the Elite Nutrition blog. Originally from Loudoun County, Virginia, she has a passion for cooking (especially French Macarons), entertaining, pilates, and enjoying the beautiful outdoors. Classic fashions are her favorite and she never goes anywhere without a monogram. After graduation Carlene hopes to obtain a spot in a dietetic internship to learn more about clinical dietetics, pediatrics, and continue writing about food.

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