Leftovers & Food Safety: How Long Do Leftovers Last?

Leftovers can be an easy quick thing to pull out of the fridge, microwave, and then your meal is ready.  Or a lovely money saving thing to pack for lunch the next day.  Did you know that leftovers don’t really last that long in the fridge?  And though there may be nothing wrong with the smell, look or taste of the food, it could actually have bacteria growing on it that can cause food poisoning.   Most of the time sticking to about 3 to 4 days then pitching the leftovers seems simple enough.  But it isn’t always that easy.  There are some things that you need to eat within the first 24 hours.  Freezing leftovers, though an option, doesn’t always work for all foods. 


Signs To Watch For

Signs of spoilage differ between foods.  Sometimes you can tell mold is growing, when you see fuzzy spots, or on bread it gets green spots covering part of it.  Other times you may see a slimy film over the top, especially on lunch meat.  If the smell or flavor of the food is off, throw it away immediately.  These signs can be present sometimes, but other times they aren’t. Some bacteria won’t change the taste, smell or the look of some foods.  And that bacteria can cause food poisoning.  Inspecting your leftovers is important, but sometimes can be misleading. 


Food Risk

There are some foods that are at a higher risk of growing bacteria, while other foods have a low risk.  The low risk foods include fruits and vegetables.  While fresh fruit and vegetables should be washed and put in the fridge they usually can last up to five days or even longer depending on the food and keep their freshness.  Fruit that is chopped and put into an airtight container can keep fresh for up to seven days.  Cooked vegetables that are appropriately stored can last between seven and ten days in the fridge.  Another food that has a low risk is bread.  It can last longer than a week as well, but if you spot some mold spots on your bread throw the entire loaf away.  

Medium risk foods include foods such as pasta, grains, quinoa.  These foods can only last three days.  Other medium risk foods are desserts or sweets when kept in the fridge can last only about three days.  

There are lots of foods that fall in the high risk category.  The risk is to get food poisoning from these foods.  Meaning they do not last long until bacteria starts to grow.  Higher risk foods usually have a higher protein and moisture content.  These two things cause microbes to grow more rapidly.  One food that isn’t high in protein or water is rice.  Rice can carry Bacillus cereus, which is a bacteria that produces toxins that can cause foodborne illness.  With rice you will want to store and cool within one hour of cooking, then consume before the third day.  Meat and poultry also are breeding grounds for bacteria.  At first you will want to make sure your meat or poultry is cooked all the way through before storing in the fridge.  Shellfish, eggs, soups and stews are also high risk foods.  All should be consumed in three days if not sooner. 


Restaurant Leftovers

You will want to be cautious of restaurant leftovers.  You can’t be certain on how fresh the ingredients are when you get them at the restaurant.  Meaning you don’t know how long the food is able to be saved.  If it contains raw ingredients, such as sushi, you will want to consume in 24hours of ordering your food.  Otherwise you will want to eat restaurant leftovers sooner than you would eat a homemade version of the food.  


Containers & Temperatures

When in doubt, throw it out.  If you have any concerns or cannot remember when you cooked something left in your fridge, toss it out.  It could end up doing more harm.  Make sure you are storing food appropriately in the fridge.  This means storing things in zip lock bags, or airtight containers.  Also checking the temperature of your fridge can make sure things don’t spoil too quickly.  Fridge temperature should be between 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit.  Labeling leftovers can be a good thing to do to help keep track of when things were cooked and when things shouldn’t be eaten any longer.  If you want to keep leftovers longer, you can always freeze them.  Some foods don’t freeze well so you will want to make sure that whatever you want to freeze can be.  Freezing food stops bacteria growth, as soon as you unfreeze the food though, bacteria restarts from when you froze it.  Meaning if it was on day three in the fridge when you froze it, when it comes out of the freezer you are on day three.  So if it is a food that starts to spoil in five days, you have two days to eat.  


Let’s take a look at other foods and how long they last in the fridge.  


Only last 1-2 days: fresh ground meats, stew meats, fresh poultry, fresh fish, shrimp, crayfish, scallops, squid, shucked clams, mussels, and oysters. 

Only last 3-4 days: fully cooked ham slices, cooked meat and meat casseroles, cooked chicken and chicken casseroles, pizza, cooked fish, and cooked shellfish. 

Lasts 5 days:  opened deli meats, fully cooked ham, fresh meat, steaks, chops, and roasts. 

Longer than 5 days: fresh eggs, hard boiled eggs, soft cheese, yogurt, store bought mayonnaise, opened hard cheese.  Some of these can last up to a week, while others can last up to months in the fridge.  



Keep an eye on best by dates on items such as cheese, yogurt, and mayonnaise.  As soon as you open something though the freshness starts to decline and bacteria can start growing.  Even unopened things can have bacteria growth as well.  Don’t just rely on seeing mold, fuzz, or a smell when you look for food to be spoiled.  Spoiled food can cause food poisoning and other food borne illnesses.  It is not as easy as having one rule for all leftovers.  Each food reacts differently and can grow different types of bacteria.  If you don’t have a reaction after eating questionable leftovers this can be due to your strong immune system.  This does not mean you should try to eat questionable leftovers until you have a reaction.  It can still be harmful to your body, even if you don’t end up with food poisoning symptoms.  Don’t forget if you have any pause at all, throw the leftovers away instead of testing your luck.  


READ MORE:  7 Signs You Are Suffering From Food Poisoning



Some bacteria won’t change the taste, smell or the look of some foods.  And that bacteria can cause food poisoning.


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