Whether you’ve cooked at home or dined at a restaurant, it’s often nice to have leftovers to enjoy at another time. Many dishes may not keep well (salad that has already been dressed, for example), but others can last for several days and be repurposed into delicious follow-up meals—as long as they are stored safely. Follow the 2–2–4 Rule for leftovers, below.
Memorize the 2-2-4 Rule for Leftovers:
• 2 Hours: Move the meal from the oven to the refrigerator within two hours or less.
• 2 Inches: It’s best to store refrigerated leftovers at a shallow depth—about two inches—to speed chilling.
• 4 Days: Eat refrigerated leftovers in four days or less. Freeze leftovers to keep them longer.
A surprising number of people get sick every year from properly cooked food that is simply left out too long. Although that is more common at restaurants, because they are preparing large batches of food, it can also happen at your house.
Whether you are feeding a big group or just yourself, keeping cooked and prepared foods at the right temperature is critical to preventing the growth of bacteria. Don’t let foods sit at room temperature for more than two hours— or one hour if it is a very hot day and the food is outside. Once a hot food is cooked, you should keep it at a minimum 140˚F, as checked with an instant-read thermometer. After two hours, throw it out. Stir food every once in a while to make sure the heat is evenly distributed, but otherwise keep it covered to keep the heat in.
For cold foods that are staying out (say, on a buffet), keep them well-chilled by resting serving dishes on ice or ice packs.
When it comes time to refrigerate leftovers, you want them to cool rapidly. That means packing them no more than two inches deep. Place them in the coldest parts of the refrigerator, deep inside away from the door. Unless you are packing the fridge full of piping-hot leftovers, having a few warm dishes won’t heat the interior above 40˚F. But if you are cooking large quantities, bump the thermostat down to 36˚F until everything has cooled off.
Consider investing in food-grade container labels (which are microwave- and dishwasher-safe) to label leftovers with the name of the food and the date on which it was cooked. That helps you remember the last part of the 2–2–4 Rule: you have four days to enjoy leftovers before they need to be frozen or thrown out. Exceptions to that rule: sauces like Hollandaise and gravy made with meat (like turkey gravy) last only two days in the fridge, so freeze them promptly or throw them out. Keep fresh-sliced deli meat for just three days, and keep prepackaged deli meat only three days after it is opened.
Other relevant links:
- Here are a few things to consider before diving into the salad bar. See: Food Safety at the Salad Bar
- Learn how to clean and reorganize your refrigerator. See: Read These Important Food Safety Tips for Cleaning Your Refrigerator
- What’s the difference between “sell-by,” “best if used by,” and “use-by” labels? See: Food Safety: What do Expiration Dates Really Mean?