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How Long Can You Keep Those Holiday Leftovers?

We offer advice for packing, storing and re-heating food from your holiday feasts.

Between the holiday parties, family dinners and New Year's parties, there's a lot of food in cartons and containers, wrapped in plastic and foil. But what is safe to keep and for how long? 

There are some common-sense practices that will allow you to package, store and re-heat those leftovers properly so the days that follow can be cooking-free.

According to FoodSafety.gov, a website with information provided by government agencies, the following advice should be heeded:

• Put leftovers in shallow containers (no more than two inches deep) to cool quickly to prevent any bacteria from growing in the warm center of a dish.

• Refrigerate leftovers within two hours because it will slow the growth of bacteria. They say the recommended temperature for your fridge is 40 °F or below.

• With restaurant leftovers, consider the travel time home and how long the food has been out.

• When re-heating food in the microwave, FoodSafety.gov advises thoroughly mixing of food while heating to make sure all parts reach a temperature of 165 °F before being eaten.

Nutrition Educator Dawn Reda of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County said food should generally not stay out for more than two hours and recommends that while serving or setting out food for guests, remember to keep hot foods hot enough and cold foods refrigerated until needed.

And while food may lose some nutritional value from re-heating, it is healthier and safer to kill any of the harmful bacteria that could cause a foodborne illness, Reda added. “Leftover food that was handled correctly should be used within three to four days and re-heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

How about freezing food that you will not get to within those four days? The nutrition educator said that frozen leftovers will have the best quality if used within two to four months and if properly sealed—in portion-sized airtight containers or airless bags if possible.

So when New Year’s Day rolls around and that holiday casserole looks like it can work for another night’s dinner, Reda offered the most basic advice: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

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