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When to Throw It Out: Leftovers

When to Throw Out Leftovers Infographic

When things in the fridge start to mold, ooze, or smell, you know it’s time to throw them out. But how do you avoid getting to that point?

How long do leftovers last?

When it comes to leftovers, follow the 7 day rule: perishable foods that are opened or prepared should be thrown out after 7 days. No leftovers should survive in your fridge for longer than that. Some foods should be even be thrown away before the 7 day mark. Refer to expiration dates and food safety guidelines to know how to handle specific foods. The chart below from Foodsafety.gov is a useful guide for food in the fridge.

How to make leftover food last longer

If you want your leftovers to last longer, freeze them. Just be sure to keep track of how long you had it in the fridge before you put it in the freezer. Freezing stops bacterial growth in its tracks like a car at a red light. When you thaw your food, however, the light turns green and bacterial growth continues from where it left off. So, according to the chart below, steak that was in the fridge for 3 days before it was frozen will be good for 1 to 2 days after it is thawed. Remember that frozen foods are safe indefinitely, so the following guidelines for freezer food refer to food quality, not safety.

Check out our chart to see if there’s any food in your fridge or freezer that needs to be thrown out.

Category Food Refrigerator
(40 °F or below)
Freezer
(0 °F or below)
Salads Egg, chicken, ham, tuna, & macaroni salads 3 to 5 days Does not freeze well
Hot dogs Opened package 1 week 1 to 2 months
  Unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Lunch meat Opened package or deli sliced 3 to 5 days 1 to 2 months
  Unopened package 2 weeks 1 to 2 months
Bacon & sausage Raw bacon 7 days 1 month
  Raw sausage made from chicken, turkey, pork, or beef 1 to 2 days 1 to 2 months
Hamburger & other ground meats Raw hamburger, ground beef, turkey, veal, pork, lamb, & mixtures of them 1 to 2 days 3 to 4 months
Raw beef, veal, lamb, & pork Steaks 3 to 5 days 6 to 12 months
  Chops 3 to 5 days 4 to 6 months
  Roasts 3 to 5 days 4 to 12 months
Raw poultry Chicken or turkey, whole 1 to 2 days 1 year
  Chicken or turkey, pieces 1 to 2 days 9 months
Soups & Stews Vegetable or meat added 3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
Leftovers Cooked meat or poultry 3 to 4 days 2 to 6 months
  Chicken nuggets or patties 3 to 4 days 1 to 3 months
  Pizza 3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months

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Learn about this and more in the StateFoodSafety Food Handler Course.

— Suzanna Sandridge

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January 2014 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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