Safety Rules for Leftover Food

— Written By Eleanor Summers and last updated by

Leftovers can be a great late night snack, next day lunch or even be used to make a quick meal for your hungry family. It is a myth that leftovers are safe to eat until they smell bad. The types of bacteria that cause illness do not affect the taste, smell, or appearance of food. If you are unsure of how long your leftovers have been sitting in the refrigerator, don’t take the risk—throw it out. Practical information and tips from the experts to help you and your family stay food safe can be found at

Seal leftovers in a clean, airtight container, and refrigerate at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below within 2 hours. Large amounts of stew/soup should be stored in shallow, smaller containers to cool faster.

Create a “leftovers” or “to use up list” and to post it on the fridge. This can significantly reduce the amount of food you have to toss. Not only will it save money, but also will allow you to eat more home-cooked food and less pre-packaged meals.

To reduce the risk of food poisoning, it’s important to reheat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a food thermometer to make sure food reaches the safe minimum internal temperature before you eat.

So how long do you keep refrigerated leftovers and be safe? Here are general guidelines:

Soups & Stew                                                    3-4 days
Gravy & Meat Broth                                           1-2 days
Cooked Meat, Meat Dishes, Casseroles           3-4 days
Luncheon/Deli Meat (Opened Package)           3-5 days
Luncheon/Deli Meat (Unopened Package)       2 weeks or “use by” date
Pasta & Potato Salads                                       3-5 days

If you’d like to watch an Extension professional give advice on how long to keep leftover food items, view selected videos on “How to Tell If Your Food has Gone Bad” from Iowa State University and Outreach website: