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How to store leftovers

Somewhere in your refrigerator is a place where leftovers lurk, slowly turning into science experiments. Use these tips to use those leftovers safely and stretch your food dollar.

improperly stored leftovers in crowded refrigerator

Step 1: Containers count

Setting half a can of cream of mushroom soup on a shelf in your refrigerator is just asking for trouble. All leftovers should be removed from their original containers and placed in food-safe storage containers — preferably clear ones.

Storage bags are not a great idea for very many foods because they can be hard to store efficiently. Choose a variety of plastic or glass containers with airtight lids.

Step 2: Label, label, label

Don’t put any leftovers in the refrigerator without labeling them with both the name of the food and the date. Use small address labels from the store or, if you want to use a professional approach, you can get color-coded labels at a restaurant supply store very inexpensively. Each color represents a day of the week so you can see right away which containers need to be used or tossed.

Step 3: Put away promptly

Food should never sit out for more than an hour or two before it is put away. Always deal with leftover foods promptly. If they are hot it is best to allow them to cool to room temperature before placing in the refrigerator, but even this won’t take longer than an hour or so.

Don’t let your leftovers stack up, either. An overcrowded refrigerator is not a good thing.

Step 4: Timing is everything

Leftovers are on borrowed time. Be sure to use them up within the recommended time to avoid any possible foodborne illnesses or spoilage.

Meat should be used, frozen or thrown out within three days. You have a bit more time with other types of leftovers, but five days is usually tops. If you aren’t sure how old something is or if it seems suspicious in some way, throw it out.

Step 5: Have a plan

Think of leftover foods as a contingency plan. Don’t just leave them in the refrigerator and use them randomly — keep leftovers in your meal plan for the most efficient use of your food dollar.

  • Add leftover, cooked meat to salads or use in casseroles.
  • Leftover vegetables and pasta can be used in soups.
  • Use leftover fruits in smoothies and desserts.

When you are reheating leftovers, it is important that you heat them to 165 degrees F to kill any bacteria that may have formed during storage. Bring liquids to a boil and stir casseroles to ensure that the whole dish reaches a safe temperature.

More ideas for an organized home

How to keep your produce fresh
5 Dinners for less than $10

5 Ways to stretch the family budget

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