When being thrifty, or cooking for one, keeping leftovers can be quite beneficial! Most meals are able to be preserved several days in the fridge or freezer, giving you more meals out of a single cooking endeavour. However, storing leftovers can become a disaster if not done properly, or if the food is not eaten in time. Like cooking, there are few simple tricks to getting the most out of your meals, ranging from when to eat your food and how to store your food properly.
When to Store Food
It is important to know the difference between having some food leftover and having leftovers. If you only have enough leftovers to maybe fulfill half a serving, you may consider saving your dishware, and valuable refrigerator and freezer space, for more larger servings that are more likely to be returned to. We don’t want food to go to waste, but we do want to store our food wisely. If there is enough food for another whole meal, whether for one person or the whole family, that is when it is a good idea to store food. However, do not feel pressured to store all the leftovers from every breakfast, lunch, and dinner that is made. It is important to know what keeps well, and what can be tossed.
Which Food Should I Store?
Although you can store most foods as leftovers, there are some foods that simply do not hold up well in the fridge or freezer, as well as leftovers that are less likely to be eaten. Foods such as cereal (in milk), cooked oatmeal, french fries, and fried foods are often not very good to eat when kept in the refrigerator or freezer after cooking. It is best to simply throw these foods out after cooking, or find someone in the family to eat that last chicken nugget!
How to Store Leftovers
Some leftovers are fine being stored in the refrigerator, while others must be stored in the freezer. If your goal is to preserve leftovers for four or more days after initial cooking, you will want to store that food in the freezer. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends storing food in plastic wrap, freezer bags, or BPA-free, plastic containers. When reaching for plastic containers, it is important to know the risks associated with all of them. With most plastic ware, dangerous chemicals are found inside, such as BPA, lead, and PVC. These toxins have been linked with a plethora of illnesses and sicknesses such as autoimmune disorders, early-onset puberty (for children), heart disease, diabetes, and birthing abnormalities. With continued use of plastics that contain these toxins, the risk of developing one of these illnesses increases. Instead, reach for different products that can safely hold food, such as:
- Toxin-free plastics: affordable, reusable, and safely store food in both the refrigerator and the freezer
- Stainless-steel dishes and containers: keep food fresh longer while also providing a toxin-free environment for the food
- BPA-free wraps and foils: can tightly wrap around foods to keep them fresh longer and keep the smells away from other food (garlic, for example, is nicely wrapped in these products)
Once you have decided on a product to use, and which foods to store, it is time to get packing! Choose a container that the food actually fits into–if the lid is hard to close, it is too small for the amount of food. For soups or liquids, use circular containers with a lid. For oddly shaped food, such as tortilla-shells or chicken fingers, use foil or (if you have it) an especially large container, so as to not break or crush the foods you are saving. Place the food into the container and put in the appropriate space (fridge or freezer).
Where Should I Store Certain Leftovers?
Certain foods require different storage solutions. First, it depends on how long you wish to keep the food, and how soon you wish to eat it. If the bread from lunch is going to be saved for dinner, placing it in a container and slipping it into the refrigerator is appropriate. If the meat from Sunday would fit well in the soup for Thursday, the freezer would be the safest place to keep food. If the food is going to be reheated and eaten within three to four days the refrigerator is sufficient; however, anything that will be eaten more than four day later needs to be frozen. When food is in the refrigerator, especially after being cooked, bacteria that can survive the semi-chilly environment will begin to grow on the food approximately four days after placement. This bacteria is known to cause foodborne illnesses.
To avoid this “food poisoning” it is important to practice safe storing etiquette, such as:
Know when to pitch the food: If you are unsure of when the food was placed for storing, there are certain signs to see if the food is still good. First, look for signs of discoloration or mold. If any is spotted, the food must be thrown out immediately. If there are no visible signs of aging, check the smell and texture. If the soup is coagulated and slimey, it is best to throw it away. If the beef smells oddly like eggs, it, too, is ready to be thrown out. When in doubt, throw it out! It is better to waste food than to risk your health.
Do not mix foods: Say it is taco night and the remaining food is ground beef, refried beans, and lettuce. All of this food can saved…. Just not in the same container. All foods “go bad’ at different rates, so it is important to keep foods separated. Lettuce goes bad much more quickly than refried beans. However, if these foods are kept together in container, the bacteria from the lettuce could spread to the beans, even if it is not entirely visible! It is best to keep each food group in their own containers. Meats need to be separated out entirely: do not put chicken with beef or pork with turkey. Keep it all separated, as each of these foods spoil at different rates.
How Soon Should I Eat/Reheat Certain Foods?
Pasta: One of the best foods to keep in the fridge, pasta can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week! Be on the lookout for extra moisture in the container; this may make the pasta slimy and unappetizing to some.
Sauces: Sauces are known to withstand time! Condiments like ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauce can all be kept for weeks, maybe even months! Sauces like pasta sauce, pizza sauce, or alfredo can only be kept for about ten days (if not in the original packaging, usually a sealed jar).
Meats: After being cooked, meats are best kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days. If using the meat later on in the week, storing in the freezer is best–be sure to use freezer-safe bags or containers, as freezer burn can make any meal taste awful.
Soups: Soups are best frozen and thawed for later! If the soup will be eaten five days later or more, storing in the freezer is a great way to keep the flavor and the freshness sealed in! Again, be sure to use the correct products when storing it.
Eggs: Cooked eggs can be kept in the fridge for four to five days. Eggs are risky, so it is best not to keep these past that allotted amount of time.
Most other foods, including pizza, beans, cheeses, salad, and vegetables, can all be kept about four to five days. If the food will not be consumed within that amount of time, freezing is always an option. However, keep in mind that food can only be frozen once. If you wish to save the leftover spinach from lunch for next week, the freezer will do; however, once that spinach is thawed, it must be used and not refrozen for later. Freezing, thawing, and then freezing again is known to boost bacteria growth and make food taste bad.
Best Practices for Reheating Food
The microwave is a great option for reheating food. However, if you are using unsafe plastic products, microwaving can be bad for your health. Rather, invest in toxin-free plastics or simply use the oven or stove top, if you are unsure about the safety of your plasticware. It is a good idea to reheat the food in the same way you cooked it: if you grilled chicken, grill it again to reheat. If the pizza was baked in the oven, place it back in the oven to warm it. If the meat was cooked on a stove, return it to the stovetop to keep the flavor in. Generally, if you want the food to taste like it did the first time around, prepare it the same way as before.
Overall, storing food is all about knowing what containers are safe to use and how to maximize the life of the food while in storage. Be cognizant of these rules and tips, and your food will stay fresher longer and your wallet will thank you!