Skip to main content

Cook Once, Eat Safely throughout the Week

Contributors: Ruth Frechman, MA, RDN, CPT

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: August 14, 2020

Reviewed: April 22, 2024

family meal prep
Thinkstock/Creatas/Creatas Images

After spending a long day at work, enjoying a home-cooked meal may sound appealing; however, not everyone has the time and energy to cook from scratch 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. Pasta salads, potato salads, other styles of potatoes and cooked rice will last three to five days, and cooked vegetables last three to four days.

Shop on Saturday. Cook on Sunday.

Planning and then preparing a couple of meals on the weekend provides quick dinners or lunches 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 vegetables 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 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 that can cause foodborne illness cannot be seen or smelled. Err on the side of 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 your kids or go for a walk around the neighborhood.

Find a Nutrition Expert

Looking for credible nutrition information and recommendations? The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' network of credentialed food and nutrition practitioners are ready to help!