How Long Are Leftovers Good for in the Fridge or Freezer?

In general, most leftovers last 3 to 4 days, but different types of food have different lifespans.
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The holiday season, time spent meal-prepping and ordering too much takeout can all lead to having delicious leftovers for days. But how long are leftovers good for?

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Ideally, you should be freezing your leftovers in order to keep them fresh-tasting for a long time. In fact, frozen leftovers could be safe to eat almost indefinitely, according to the USDA.

But you may not always get around to properly storing and freezing them, leaving you to eat refrigerated leftovers past their prime. Here's how long refrigerated leftovers are good for and what to keep in mind before you eat them, especially if you can't remember how long they've been in there.

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Factors like the type of food, preparation and the proper storage all affect how long you're leftovers are good for.

Your leftovers can generally last for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator before the risk of food poisoning increases, per the Mayo Clinic.

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Before you dig into that seafood dish that's been hanging out in the refrigerator for a week, keep in mind that shellfish is more prone to harboring bacteria that could make you sick. Some foods are more associated with foodborne illnesses and food poisoning than others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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It's important to think about the ingredients in your leftovers because certain ones might cause your food to spoil faster.

Fruits and Vegetables

Produce should be cleaned under running water and stored in a clean refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, per guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Cooked potatoes and other vegetables can be safely kept in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, per the USDA.

Some fruits give off ethylene gas which can make other produce spoil faster, according to the American Heart Association. They recommend storing apples away from other produce.

Purdue University advises eating refrigerated fruit within 1 to 3 days for maximum flavor and freshness.

Dairy and Eggs

Raw eggs can be kept safely for 3 to 5 weeks from the time that they are placed in the refrigerator. And hard-boiled eggs can be stored for a week, per the USDA. You should be storing eggs and dairy products at 40 degrees F or a little below.

Dairy products vary in how long they last, and it depends on the type of product. According to the USDA, here's how long different types of dairy products last in the refrigerator:

  • Yogurt​ can be stored for 1 to 2 weeks.
  • Soft cheeses​ like ricotta, Brie and cottage cheese can be stored for one week.
  • Hard cheeses​ like cheddar and parmesan can be stored for 3 to 4 weeks after opening the package.
  • Milk​ can be stored for one week.

Baked Dishes

Baked dishes that contain eggs like quiche, casseroles and pies (pumpkin, pecan and custard) can last between 3 and 5 days in the fridge.

Meat and Poultry

Cooked meat and poultry and more processed meat like chicken nuggets or patties can last for 3 to 4 days, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Here's how long other types of meat leftovers can last when stored at 40 F:

  • Luncheon meat​ that is packaged and deli-sliced and opened can last for 3 to 5 days.
  • Ham​ that is cooked and store-wrapped whole can last for one week, or 3 to 5 days if sliced.

Fish and Shellfish

Cooked fish will last for 3 to 4 days and smoked fish will last for up to 14 days, per the FDA.

While shucked shellfish should keep for up to 3 days and cooked shellfish with their shells should last for up to 2 days in the fridge, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Bread

Commercially baked bread and rolls can be stored in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 weeks, according to the USDA. Don't eat bread that appears to have mold.

Deli Salads

Deli salads (such as egg, chicken, ham, tuna and macaroni salad) can be safely stored in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Cooked Rice

You can enjoy reheated cooked rice for 3 to 5 days, per the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Soups and Stews

Soups and stews with meat and/or vegetables are good for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Desserts

The lifespan of refrigerated desserts varies. According to the USDA, store-bought or homemade cookies can last up to 2 months in the refrigerator and moist desserts like cheesecakes and lemon bars are good for one week.

Does the Type of Storage Container Matter?

You should store your leftovers in covered, airtight packaging or sealed in storage containers in order to help keep out bacteria, retain moisture and prevent them from picking up odors from other food in your refrigerator, per the USDA.

Potential Risks of Eating Spoiled Leftovers

Three to 4 days is the general rule for how long leftovers last and eating leftovers past their prime or that are under-heated can put you at risk for food poisoning, per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Food poisoning is illness caused by eating contaminated food, per the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramps or pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever

Of course, you shouldn't eat visibly spoiled food, but if your weeks-old leftovers look and smell OK, that doesn't necessarily mean they're safe. The types of bacteria that cause illness don't affect the taste, smell or appearance of food, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Not everyone who eats spoiled or expired food will get sick from it. According to the CDC, the following groups are more at risk for food poisoning:

  • Adults ages 65 and older
  • Children under the age of 5
  • Pregnant people
  • People who have health problems or take medicines that lower the body's ability to fight germs and sickness (weakened immune system) — for example, people with diabetes, liver or kidney disease, HIV or cancer

Also keep in mind that certain foods like undercooked animal products (meat, chicken, turkey, eggs and seafood) have a greater chance of containing bacteria that can cause illness, according to the CDC.

Tip

Reheating leftovers to 165 F (measure with a food thermometer) and storing them safely can help you reduce your risk of food poisoning, per the USDA.

How Long Leftovers Last in the Freezer

If you want to extend your meals' life, pop them into your freezer, where they'll last the longest. Here's a guide on how long different items last in the icebox.

If you've defrosted a meal and aren't sure if it's OK to eat, throw it out — you're better safe than sorry.

Type of Food

Months It Can Last Frozen

Casseroles

2 to 3

Egg whites or egg substitutes

12

Frozen dinners and entrees

3 to 4

Gravy, meat or poultry

2 to 3

Soups and stews

2 to 3

Pizza

1 to 2

Lean fish (flounder, haddock, halibut, etc.)

6 to 8

Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, etc.)

2 to 3

Bacon and sausage

1 to 2

Ham, hot dogs and lunch meats

1 to 2

Cooked meat

2 to 3

Cooked poultry

4

Chicken nuggets or patties

1 to 3

Source: USDA

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