After spending a long day at work, enjoying a home-cooked meal sounds appealing; however, not everyone has the time and energy to sweat over a hot stove every night. One solution is to prepare meals over the weekend and reheat them during the week. The question is, how far in advance can meals be prepared while still being safe to eat?
Quiz: How long do leftovers keep in the refrigerator?
A: One to two days
B: Three to four days
C: One to two weeks
Although one to two weeks may seem like a reasonable response, the answer is B. Most leftovers, such as cooked beef, pork, seafood or chicken, chili, soups, pizza, casseroles and stew can be safely kept for three to four days. Potato salads or any style of potatoes will last three to five days, cooked vegetables last three to four days and fresh salads last one to two days for maximum flavor and freshness.
Shop on Saturday. Cook on Sunday.
Planning and then preparing a couple of meals on the weekend provides quick dinners or lunches at work for the week. Bake chicken breasts or make a tuna casserole. Baked potatoes, rice and even pasta can be made in advance. At dinner time, add a packaged salad or microwave fresh veggies for a complete meal.
Keep Food at Peak Quality
When cooking in bulk, don't let food sit in large containers at room temperature to cool before putting them in the refrigerator. Immediately portion into smaller containers and refrigerate. If food is stored in large containers, it takes a while for the food to cool down. During that time, bacteria can grow and make food unsafe to eat.
Reheat Leftovers Properly
Instead of reheating an entire dish, only reheat portions for that night's meal. After reheating food in the microwave or the oven, use a thermometer to ensure leftovers reach a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cook in Bulk
If eating the same food day after day gets boring or you made more pasta sauce than you can eat in three to four days, portion into meals and freeze for later. Frozen food will stay safe for a lot longer. Foods that do not freeze well include eggs in the shell, lettuce, cottage cheese and mayonnaise. Foods that do freeze well include soups, casseroles, breads and some vegetables.
When In Doubt, Toss It Out
Remember, leftovers don't last forever. Obviously, do not eat leftovers that are green and fuzzy or smell like a pair of old sneakers. But what if it's been in the refrigerator for a week and looks fine? Harmful bacteria, causing a foodborne illness, cannot be seen or smelled. Err with caution and eat or freeze all leftovers before the three to four day time frame.
Preparing dinners in advance and safely reheating them leaves time in the evening to relax and unwind. Use the extra time to learn a new hobby, read to the kids or go for a walk around the neighborhood.
Ruth Frechman, MA, RDN, CPT, is an ACE certified personal trainer, author and past spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
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