NC State Extension Publications

Strategies for Planned-Overs

Making extra of an entrée or side dish and planning on having it for another meal is a great way to save time and money. If you have unplanned leftovers, don’t throw them away. Instead plan to use them for another meal.

Use these three strategies to turn your leftovers into planned-overs:

1. Think of the leftover food as an ingredient, not the same food a second time around. Tonight’s roasted chicken can be reinvented into chicken quesadillas tomorrow night. An alternative is to add the chicken to a green salad for lunch the next day. Chopping the meat up and mixing with fat-free mayonnaise, celery, walnuts and grapes for chicken salad is another option.

2. Some foods taste better after the flavors have had a chance to marry and develop. Foods like lasagna and soup often taste better the next day, especially if you freshen them up. Pour extra pasta sauce over a piece of lasagna when you reheat it so it stays nice and moist. Add fresh parsley and toppings, such as nuts, sour cream, or crackers, to soup.

3. Freezing foods allows you to have prepared meals that you can pull out on a busy weeknight and feed your family a healthy meal. If a recipe makes eight servings and you are only feeding a family of four, prepare the full recipe and freeze half of it for later in the month. Place the frozen food in the refrigerator to thaw the night before and then reheat it for a quick dinner. Consider freezing individual portions in freezer bags or freezer safe containers to control portion sizes.

Keep Your Planned-Overs and Leftovers Safe

The safety of leftovers starts with the preparation and handling of the initial meal. Making sure that meat, poultry, fish and eggs have achieved a safe internal temperature is a critical step in reducing the risk of foodborne illness in your meal. Using a tip-sensitive digital thermometer is the only way to know whether food has been cooked to a safe temperature.

Leftover safety

  • Refrigerate to 40°F as soon as possible or within 2 hours

  • Reheat to 165°F

  • Don’t rely on your senses to know if leftovers are safe

  • Eat leftovers within 3-5 days.

  • Clean and sanitize utensils and work surfaces

  • Bring leftover sauces, soups, and gravies to a boil before serving.

  • Use a tip sensitive digital thermometer

Recommended safe minimum internal temperatures:

  • Steaks and roasts: 145°F
  • Fish: 145°F
  • Pork: 160°F
  • Ground beef: 160°F
  • Egg dishes: 160°F
  • Poultry: 165°F

Cool Safely

If you are cooking food in advance and anticipate lots of leftovers, it’s best break the food into smaller portions to cool (like a 1 quart ziploc bag) instead of filling up large casserole dishes. Laying the ziploc bags at on the shelf will allow the food to cool safely. Reducing food into smaller portions speeds up the cooling and reduces the likelihood of bacterial growth. Cooling foods safely is not only important with meats, but also with other foods like rice and pasta that can be problematic if cooled too slowly. It’s best to get the food in the refrigerator as soon as possible to start the cooling process (at least within 2 hours after being removed from heat).

Safe Storage

Generally, the bacteria that can contaminate food thrive at temperatures between 40°F and 140°F , so leftovers should always be stored in a refrigerator set at 40°F degrees or below. If you have cold leftovers that were kept at less than 40°F, make sure they stay at this temperature. For the best quality, it’s best to eat all leftovers within 3 to 5 days.

Reheating to Reduce Risk

Relying on the senses to determine the safety of leftovers is not a good idea. Pathogens that you can’t see or smell may be lurking in the meal. The final step in reducing the risk of foodborne illness is to reheat leftovers to 165°F and measure the temperature with a digital, tip-sensitive thermometer.

Publication date: March 1, 2009
Last updated: Oct. 3, 2017
FCS-529-13

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