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Food safety and healthy eating – How long can we keep leftovers?

Written by Emily Webb, Dietitian with integratedliving

If you are someone who never lets any food go to waste, it is likely there are leftovers sitting in your fridge right now. But remember, healthy eating must be come first when considering what to do with leftovers.

Follow these basic food safety tips and the best ways to store leftover foods to ensure they remain safe to eat.

Basics of food safety

Food poisoning can affect anyone throughout their lives, but seniors can be more susceptible to developing foodborne illnesses caused by bacteria, viruses or toxins that can grow in the foods we eat.

Older adults are at higher risk due to less robust immune systems, chronic illness, or more sensitive stomach linings. Therefore, it is important to be aware of these risks and learn how you can manage food safety and nutrition effectively.

Some of the main causes of food poisoning are not cooking food to the right temperature, incorrect storage methods and insufficient reheating. Safe handling of leftovers is extremely important in reducing foodborne illness and the serious side effects it can cause.

Some common food poisoning symptoms include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Flu-like symptoms

How to prevent contamination

Here are some food safety tips to help minimise the risk of getting sick from eating leftovers.


  • Defrost frozen food in the fridge, not on the kitchen bench.
  • Avoid cross contamination by preparing and cooking raw food with separate utensils (cutting boards, knives, tongs etc) to those you’re using to prepare other parts of the meal, e.g. meat and vegetables to be prepared separately.
  • Wash and dry your hands and equipment before and during food preparation as well as:
    • after touching raw meat, fish, eggs or soiled vegetables
    • after using the toilet, blowing your nose, touching an animal or touching sores or cuts.


  • Cook food properly and to the right temperature – cook meat all the way through until the juices run clear, ensuring there is no pink left in mince, sausages or chicken.
  • Keep food steaming hot until you serve it. Don’t leave food to cool down in the oven and eat it later.


  • Reheat leftovers until they’re steaming hot and don’t reheat food more than once. When reheating in the microwave, cover and rotate the food for even heating.
  • Reheat dense foods such as chicken roast or whole turkey longer than less-dense foods such as bread or vegetables.
  • It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing.


How to manage leftovers

Most leftovers can be stored for up to three days in the fridge or frozen for three months. However, they do lose flavour and moisture over time. Different types of food also react differently to different storage methods. Ensure you store leftover foods within 2 hours of cooking.

Here are some handy food storage safety tips to help you keep some of the most common leftovers fresh and safe for consumption:


Cover leftovers well - you can wrap them in glad wrap and seal them in airtight containers before storing them in the fridge. This helps to keep bacteria out and prevent leakages. Consume the food within 1 to 3 days. Refrigerate food that needs to be kept cold as soon as possible after purchase at or below 5 °C.


Freezing is the best way to preserve the quality of bread – it slows down the staling process and keeps it crusty. Wrap it in sealed plastic before freezing and you can store it for up to three months. Tip: slice the bread before freezing so you don’t need to defrost and re-freeze the entire loaf.


Pasta should be stored separately from sauce where possible to prevent the noodles from soaking up the liquids and making them soggy. Seal them in airtight containers and eat within three days.


Due to its moisture levels, it is important to cool cooked rice down as quickly as possible to prevent bacteria from growing – preferably within an hour. Storing it in the fridge will not kill bacteria but it will slow their growth. This is why it is good practice to throw out leftover rice after five days.


Undressed salads should be sealed in airtight containers and refrigerated. You can add a paper towel in the container to help absorb the extra moisture to keep the greens from wilting. Salads that are already dressed should be consumed on that day because the acidity in the dressing will wilt the greens, causing them to become slimy.

Soups and stews

Always refrigerate soups and stews within two hours of cooking. Divide them into portions before storing in airtight containers and they can last up to four days in the fridge. You can extend their shelf life up to six months when you freeze them. You can thaw the stew by keeping it in the fridge overnight or using a microwave. Soup or stew that has been thawed in a microwave should be consumed immediately.

Keep in mind that bacteria do not always change the taste, smell or look of food. It can be difficult to tell if a food has gone off. If you are in doubt about a food’s safety, always err on the safe side and throw it out.

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