There’s something incredibly convenient about reaching into the fridge and pulling out two-day-old pizza or yesterday’s leftover dinner. In our busy schedules, being able to just reach into the fridge for some quick and easy leftovers is a blessing in disguise. Before the invention of refrigerators, people would buy their groceries often and eat their food fresh. But who has time for that these days? Meal prepping and reheating food has become a staple of many households. But when it comes down to it, is leaving food in the fridge for days a food safety hazard?

What happens to food left too long in the fridge?

When food has been left in the fridge for too long, it starts to go bad. Bacteria that was present on the food, even after the cooking process has started multiplying and reproducing on the food in increasingly high numbers. As the numbers of bacteria increase, they begin to eat your food, triggering a decomposition process that releases chemicals into the food. It’s these chemicals that make the food smell bad when it has started to go off.

Bacteria grow fastest at room temperature, which is between approximately 5 and 60 degrees Celsius. Most refrigerators operate at below 4 degrees. While keeping your leftovers at cool temperatures will slow down the bacterial process, it won’t halt it completely.

What can it do to us?

The bacteria that grow in our cooked and reheated foods can make us sick. Bacteria and pathogens such as salmonella, E.coli and listeria are the most common foodborne bacteria that can cause us to get sick. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell if your food is contaminated with any of these bacteria, so rather than chancing getting ill for the next several days, you should refrain from eating food that has been in the fridge for too long. Food poisoning can be severe. Sometimes that last piece of chicken just isn’t worth the agony.

Taking care with certain foods

Foods such as leftover meat, cooked rice and pasta and seafood has a much shorter fridge life than other types of food. This is due to the fact that bacteria grows on these kinds of leftovers much faster than on other foods.

A lot of people are unaware of how bacteria affect different foods. Bacteria love high protein foods and will reproduce on them swiftly. If possible, avoid leaving high-protein foods such as meat in the fridge for too long. Carbohydrate-heavy food, however, can last a bit longer before it becomes unsafe to eat.

It all comes down to knowing the safety range for the types of food you’re storing in your fridge.

How to store food safely

A great rule of thumb is to try and get your leftovers into the fridge within two hours of cooking them. This is because after approximately two hours, food is now at room temperature. Bacteria multiplies incredibly fast at room temperature and can become unsafe to eat before you have even managed to store it in the fridge. Do yourself a favour and throw it away next time you forget about it and leave it on the bench overnight. You want to reduce the length of time that a portion of food is within the danger zone. The less time spent at room temperature, the better.

It’s also imperative that you seal your food correctly. Storing food in an airtight container or sealing it in good packaging can help slow the reproduction of harmful bacteria.

Avoid cross-contamination. Store your higher-risk food such as cooked meat and seafood away from the other food in your fridge. This will reduce the chance that you can become sick due to cross-contamination.

How long is too long?

Leftovers can generally be kept for two to four days in the fridge. After that, you’re entering dangerous territory and risk getting sick. Food-borne illnesses can’t always be detected by taste or smell. Rather than risk getting sick because it smells fine, throw it away.

If you don’t think you’ll be able to finish your leftovers in the next few days, why not see if you can freeze them instead? A lot of foods can be frozen after cooking and will keep for up to several months in the freezer. Just be sure that you reheat them properly when you do decide to eat them to ensure the temperatures are high enough to kill off any bacteria.

Chucking last night’s leftovers in the microwave after a long day at work makes our day just a little bit easier. It’s easy to see why so many people reply on leftovers and prepped meals to get through their hectic weeks. Rather than leave things to chance, however, take some time to think about whether or not your leftovers are safe to eat.

The golden rule…

If in any doubt about whether or not the food is still okay, it’s best to throw it out.