Doggy bag safety and advice for other leftovers

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I love doggy bags. We don’t have a dog and most of the time those leftovers are for me.
With the size of many restaurant portions these days, it is only wise to bring part of your food home for another meal or possibly two. Have you ever thought about the safety of this food? Here’s a quick one-question quiz to see what you know about doggy bag safety.
The last time you took home a doggy bag from a restaurant, how long did it stay in your refrigerator before eating it?
A: One day.
B: Two days.
C: Three to four days.
D: More than four days.
E: Threw it out because I forgot about it.
F: Don’t know; it might still be there.
If you answered C, you’re right. The general rule-of-thumb for keeping leftovers is four days. The storage temperature of the leftovers is another key component. Temperatures between 40 degrees and 135 degrees, which is room temperature, allow bacteria (germs) to grow rapidly. In food safety lingo, this is called “time and temperature abuse” and needs to be avoided. Remember that you can’t always see, taste or smell the bacteria in food that may make you sick.
When talking about doggy bags, this four-day rule only counts if you’ve done a good job of keeping the food cold and placed it in the refrigerator quickly after leaving the restaurant.
You shouldn’t take a doggy bag if you aren’t planning on getting home within the next two hours. If you plan to go to a movie and do a little more shopping, it’s not safe to just leave the food sit in the car without some provision for keeping it cold. It might be safest just to leave it at the restaurant.
Here are a couple tips to ensure leftover safety the second time around:
Discard perishable food if it has been left at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if it’s higher than 90 degrees).
Discard any leftovers that were mistakenly left out of the refrigerator overnight. This includes pizza.
Wrap items well. Those foam boxes provided by many restaurants may not be airtight. Rewrapping will help keep bacteria out, retain moisture and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other foods in the refrigerator.
Heat leftovers to 165 degrees before serving. Use a food thermometer to check.
Bring leftover gravies and sauces to a rolling boil before serving.
Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures food will heat all the way through.
When reheating in the microwave, cover with lid or vented plastic to promote even heating. Beware of “cold spots” where bacteria can survive. Rotate and stir food and allow it to “stand” for a few minutes before eating so the temperature can unify.
Make sure your refrigerator is keeping food less than 40 degrees. You may need to get a thermometer to check this.
If you can’t eat leftovers within the four-day throw away guidelines, many items can be frozen. For best quality, frozen leftovers should be used within three to four months.
The folks at the University of Nebraska Extension have a safe leftover campaign called “Four Day Throw Away” that promotes the safety of all types of leftovers. Its website at www.4daythrowaway.org has some fun YouTube videos that emphasize the four-day rule. This website also has some tools you can use to help manage leftovers, including printable labels and an iPhone app on food storage.
Sources: USDA Kitchen Companion: Your Safe Food Handbook; the Partnership for Food Safety Education and the University of Nebraska Extension.
Cheryle Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science staff member and can be reached at NC Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, at 253-2610.