The Danger Zone: Safely Reheating Leftovers

The Danger Zone: Safely Reheating Leftovers

By Sara Moffett, Deli Manager, Beer & Wine Buyer, Co-op Owner

With our lives constantly on the go, we might not always have time to make a meal for our family each night, but we can bring our leftovers safely back to life with some simple tips and tricks. We will be exploring the benefits of reheating food on the stove top, in the oven, and warming in the microwave while following food safety guidelines.

If you worry about eating leftover dinners because you feel like they are unsafe to eat after the initial meal, as a rule, most leftovers are safe to eat again as long as they were cooked thoroughly and then stored properly. Cooked food shouldn’t be left out for longer than 2 hours at room temperature and refrigerated leftovers should be thrown out after three or four days. The longer food stays in the “danger zone” between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the more quickly bacteria will grow in it. At-risk groups, such as the elderly and young children, are more likely to get a food-borne illness and could be sick for a longer period of time. If you ever have a reason to doubt whether something’s safe to eat or not, it’s usually better to just throw it out and find something fresh to eat instead.

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

To get the best results when reheating leftovers, heat them in a similar way to how they were cooked in the first place. For example, if it’s a soup, reheat it over low to medium heat in a pot on the stove until boiling; if it’s a roast, reheat it in the oven; and so on. If you cover it with a lid (or, if it’s on a plate in the microwave, a damp paper towel), it will retain its moisture better. If food is spread out over a wider area and you stir it throughout the process (even when microwaving), it will reheat more evenly.

It is crucial for leftovers to be reheated to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit, regardless of what ingredients they include. In the oven, this means heating food for at least 30 to 60 minutes at 350 degrees, depending on portion size; in a microwave, it should take about 5 minutes on high heat but could take longer with larger portions. It’s not recommended to reheat multiple items all at once in the microwave for this reason. For example, if you’re reheating meat and vegetables, reheat the meat first, then the vegetables, to make sure they each heat evenly and fully. When using a food thermometer, insert the probe into the middle of the thickest area to get an accurate read. If the dial comes to a stop before reaching 165 degrees, you’ll need to reheat the food further.

It’s best to eat any meal, leftovers or otherwise, as close as possible to when it was originally cooked. That’s when it will taste the freshest and be safest to eat. If you don’t plan on consuming your leftovers within a few days you should freeze them right away instead of storing them in the refrigerator. The more times something has been reheated and then cooled, the higher the risk it will pose for food poisoning (because that would mean it is in the “danger zone” of 40-140 degrees for longer than if it were simply reheated once and then eaten right away). Therefore, make sure to only reheat what you need at any given time and keep the rest refrigerated for later.

Interested in learning more about reheating meals safely?

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