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Learn the Limits for Your Leftovers

Leftovers make handy, quick dinners – especially this time of year when holiday commitments keep us hopping. But bacteria in those leftovers start to break down food quickly, making leftovers, if not handled properly, potentially dangerous well before any visible signs of mold or decay.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 6 Americans, or 48 million people, get food poisoning, also called foodborne illness, each year. While few cases are serious enough to require hospitalization, the symptoms can be uncomfortable and painful, quickly ruining a festive event.

Know how to prepare food and handle the leftovers safely to prevent food poisoning, and what to do if you get a foodborne illness.

Prepare Food Safely

Meat, poultry, seafood and eggs carry germs that can make people sick. Handle these foods with special care while preparing and cooking, using separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry and seafood and by thoroughly washing utensils and work surfaces to keep the germs from spreading throughout the kitchen. When cooking, ensure that meats, poultry, seafood and egg dishes are cooked thoroughly by using a food thermometer to know when the food has reached a safe internal temperature.

Eating raw flour can also cause illness, so refrain from licking the bowl or spoons while making sweet treats, and only enjoy the food item after baking.

Timely Refrigerate Leftovers

After the meal, keep your leftovers safe and ready to eat by following these USDA recommendations:

  • Follow the Two-hour Rule. Refrigerate perishable foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and items that contain them, within two hours of cooking or removing them from the refrigerator. After two hours, these foods enter the “danger zone” between 40 F and 140 F, a range of temperatures in which bacteria thrive. While the tendency can be to allow a dish to cool to room temperature before going into the fridge, it’s the time in the danger zone that matters more. If a food item has been sitting on the counter or table for two hours or exposed to temperatures above 90 F for one hour, throw it out.
  • Freeze or Eat Within Four Days. Leftover food should be eaten or frozen within four days. Even food that has been refrigerated for a day or two can still be put into the freezer. Once in the freezer, most foods can last indefinitely, although quality and taste may be affected. Eating frozen food within six months is a good guideline. 
  • Reheat to 165 F. Reheated leftovers should reach 165 F, which you can check with a food thermometer. In general, sauces, soups and gravies should reach a rolling boil to get the temperature high enough to kill the germs that can make you sick. However, some foodborne bacteria produce poisons or toxins that are not destroyed by high cooking temperatures if the food is left out at room temperature for an extended period of time.

What to Do If You Get Sick

Despite our best intentions, sometimes we end up with a foodborne illness. What can you do if you get sick?

“Food poisoning symptoms can range between mild to very serious, depending on your physical condition and the type of bacteria you’ve ingested,” said Physician Assistant Mike Cruise of Samaritan Medical Group Urgent Care – Newport. “There are some pretty common symptoms that come on shortly after eating, usually from within 30 minutes to several hours, such as upset stomach or nausea, stomach cramping, diarrhea, vomiting and fever.”

While anyone can develop food poisoning, the CDC notes that some are more susceptible than others, such as older adults, those who are pregnant, young children, and people with weakened immune systems.

“There isn’t a lot that can be done to treat the typical symptoms of food poisoning, other than get plenty of rest and let nature run its course,” said Cruise. “However, it does help to rehydrate your body as soon as you can tolerate liquids such as water, broth or an electrolyte solution.”

When you do feel ready to eat, take it slow, he added.

“Start with something small and bland like crackers, toast, or rice,” he said. “It’s a good idea to avoid dairy products, spicy or fatty foods, alcohol and caffeine until you feel like yourself again.”

Most cases of food poisoning will resolve within a day or two, Cruise noted.

“If your symptoms last longer than two days, you have a high fever of 102 or higher, are unable to keep liquids down, or show signs of dehydration, I recommend you see your health care professional,” Cruise said.

Mike Cruise, PA, sees patients of all ages at Samaritan Medical Group Urgent Care – Newport. The clinic is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. No appointment needed. For more information, call 541-574-4860.