Whether you’ve cooked too much for the night or have just finished meal prepping for the week ahead, leftovers are an excellent way to get the most out of your food. However, if you aren’t storing your leftovers properly you could be putting yourself and others at risk of food poisoning.

So, if you use leftovers, it’s important to learn the proper way to store them and enjoy your favourite meals without worrying about getting sick. In this article, we’re going to learn about the risks of leftovers and how to mitigate these risks with proper leftover storage tips.

What’s the risk of storing leftovers incorrectly?

Leftovers, when stored incorrectly, can create an environment where foodborne illnesses thrive. If you handle or ingest any food that’s contaminated with a pathogen, then there’s a strong chance that you’ll end up with some form of food poisoning. It can sometimes be difficult to know whether or not food is contaminated, as it doesn’t always give off a foul odour or strange look. This is why mitigating the risk of food contamination is so important with leftovers.

You’ll almost certainly know if you’re dealing with food poisoning as you’ll experience a range of symptoms that might include abdominal cramps, vomiting, headaches or diarrhoea. Thankfully in most cases, food poisoning isn’t a serious illness and will go away with time, but if you have a weakened immune system, are elderly or pregnant, you’re at a higher risk of feeling much worse due to food poisoning.

What causes food poisoning in leftovers?

Food poisoning happens with leftovers when bacteria are present in the food. This is either due to bacteria surviving the cooking process or through improper handling of the leftovers, allowing bacteria to cultivate. Bacteria will stop multiplying when food reaches temperatures under five degrees celsius, which is why refrigerating your leftovers quickly is vital.

Once you take leftovers out of the fridge or freezer for reheating, it creates another opportunity for bacteria to grow. This is because the food reaches temperatures above five-degree celsius again – which is the ideal environment for bacteria to thrive. So to counteract this, it’s important to quickly reheat leftovers rather than letting the food sit for extended periods.

Top tips for safely storing leftovers

To help you get the most out of your leftover food without risking food poisoning, take a look at our top tips for safely storing leftovers below:

Refrigerate or freeze leftovers as soon as you can

It’s important that you give bacteria as small a window as possible to make their way into your leftover food, so make sure that you refrigerate or freeze food as quickly as possible. This ensures that your leftovers aren’t a suitable environment for bacteria to thrive. Ideally, food should drop from temperatures of around 60 degrees celsius when cooked to around 20 degrees celsius when left to cool. This process takes around two hours, so try to store leftovers around two hours after they’ve finished cooking to avoid bacterial growth.

Use labels to identify leftovers

It’s also helpful to know what your leftovers are when storing them in a fridge or freezer, so make sure that you label leftovers. Jot down the date that you cooked the food so that you have a good idea about how old they are. Then, when it comes time to reheat the leftovers you have a good idea of how long they’ve been in storage. Refrigerated leftovers last around three to four days and frozen leftovers can last indefinitely.

Store your leftovers the right way

There are a few ways to properly store leftovers so they don’t create an environment that encourages bacterial growth. Make sure you portion out leftovers in small amounts so the food can cool properly. If you have a big batch of leftovers, storing them in a single container means it will take some time to cool and reheat – which creates an opening for bacteria to thrive.

Separate raw and cooked foods at all times

One of the biggest causes of food poisoning stems from cross-contamination, which happens when raw and cooked food items come into contact. So avoid this at all costs by keeping them in different containers and on other shelves in the refrigerator. It doesn’t take much to cause cross-contamination – even a single drop of raw chicken juice is enough to let bacteria thrive on your leftovers.

To learn more about proper food handling and food safety, take a look at the resources available at the Australian Institute of Accreditation. Or, get in touch with the team at the Australian Institute of Accreditation by calling on 1300 662 750.