Leftover foods can be a boon to both your budget and your time. They’re also a great way to diminish food waste.
While it’s smart to be thrifty, eating leftover food that has sat too long in or out of the refrigerator could pose a hazard to your health.
You may wonder just how long these foods may safely keep.
This article examines how long it’s safe to eat leftovers, including how to tell whether a food has spoiled.
Types of leftover foods
How long foods stay safe depends on a few factors, including safe preparation, proper storage, and the type of food.
Whether your leftovers are sautéed vegetables or fish cakes affects how long they can safely keep in your refrigerator.
This is because some foods are more prone to harboring pathogens like bacteria or toxins that could make you sick.
However, leftovers often mix food groups. In these instances, a good rule of thumb is to go off what ingredient in the dish spoils first. For instance, a seafood rice would last only as long as its seafood — which is a higher risk item than rice, as described below.
If you’re ever unsure, it’s safest to toss leftovers within 3 days.
Lower risk foods
Fruits and vegetables
All raw fruits and vegetables should be thoroughly washed in clean water before consumption — and the sooner you can eat these, the better.
Thoroughly washed and cut fresh fruit will generally keep for about 3–5 days before it starts to lose its freshness.
When cooked, leftover vegetables stored in an airtight container will usually keep up to 3–7 days in the refrigerator. Cooked canned vegetables like beans or other legumes generally last 7–10 days with proper storage (2).
Fruits and vegetables with higher water contents, such as tomatoes, cucumber, and strawberries, lose their freshness quicker than those with a lower water content like kale, potatoes, and bananas.
This may speed or slow the clock regarding how long you may want to store the food before eating it.
Another lower risk item is bread.
Homemade bread can last about 3 days at room temperature, while store-bought bread will be safe to eat for about 5–7 days — unless you see mold. Moldy bread should never be eaten.
Storing breads in the fridge will help extend their shelf life by about 3–5 days, though they lose quality the longer they sit there.
Medium risk foods
Cooked pasta and grains like barley and quinoa will keep for up to 3 days when properly stored.
If you freeze these after cooking them, they’ll generally last 3 months before they start to lose their freshness.
Desserts and sweets usually last about 3–4 days in the refrigerator.
Higher risk foods
Foods that carry a higher risk of food poisoning are those that are higher in protein and moisture content, two characteristics that allow certain microbes to grow.
One exception to this rule described above is rice, which can carry spores of Bacillus cereus. This bacterium produces toxins that can cause foodborne illness.
Store and cool rice within 1 hour of cooking it, and consume it within 3 days.
Meat and poultry
Ground meat and poultry that has been cooked to a safe temperature can last in the fridge about 1–2 days as long as they’re stored at or below 5°C.
Other meat and poultry, such as steaks, fillets, chops, and roasts, last 3–4 days in the refrigerator. If you thaw these before cooking them, be sure to do so in the refrigerator — never on the counter. After thawing, cook within 2 days.
You may also thaw using the microwave, but be sure to use the food right away.
Opened deli meat should be consumed within 3–5 days of opening. Likewise, cold deli salads, such as egg, tuna, or chicken salad, should be consumed within 3–5 days.
Shellfish, eggs, soups, and stews
Eggs are another higher risk food, as they could transmit the bacterium Salmonella. Shelled hard-boiled eggs should be consumed within 7 days of being cooked and refrigerated.
Shellfish and fish are delicate, as these can harbor many pathogens or toxins like histamine that could make you sick. Consume leftovers that include seafood within 3 days.
Soups and stews, with or without meat or fish, will generally last 3–4 days in the refrigerator.
The bottom line
How long a food can keep depends on a few factors, including its preparation, storage, and how easily it spoils.
Aim to store your leftover food within 1–2 hours of its preparation. Reheat it until steaming hot, or over 74°C.
Those who are pregnant, over the age of 65, or with compromised immune systems should be especially vigilant about their leftovers, as they’re most at risk of developing food poisoning.
If you’re ever in doubt, toss your leftovers within 3 days — or even sooner, if they look or smell off.