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Enjoy leftovers, but not for long

By Linda Breazeale

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Eating leftovers is a typical holiday tradition, but proper food handling is the key to good health in the following days.

Melissa Mixon, human nutritionist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said flu-like symptoms during the holidays could be the result of poorly handled leftovers.

"Holiday activities often encourage people to leave food out at room temperature much longer than they should. The general rule of thumb is to not leave it out longer than two hours," Mixon said. "When the food is delicious, it's hard for people to throw it out."

Assuming food is handled properly in the first phases of preparation, there are many considerations to ensure the leftovers will not make people sick. Mixon said food that is prepared well in advance of the meal should be chilled quickly and refrigerated or frozen. The hottest dishes, such as casseroles, may need to be placed on ice to help cool them before placing them in a refrigerator. Debone turkey, slice meat and spread it across a plate so it will cool faster.

"Smaller dishes cool faster than larger containers, so it might be wise to divide some portions before refrigerating them," Mixon said. "Never thaw frozen dishes by leaving them on the counter. The best options are to move them to the refrigerator section a couple days ahead of time or to defrost in a microwave in a microwave-safe container."

Refrigerate hot foods as soon as possible after cooking. Don't keep food that has been sitting out at room temperature for more than two hours.

"If you value the food and your health, watch the clock and refrigerate food before it has been out too long. It can be depressing to throw out food you enjoyed that still may seem fine," Mixon said. "But you cannot rely on taste, so don't even try the food if you have doubts. Foods may taste fine and still make you sick days later. Even a small amount of contaminated food can cause illness."

Mixon recommended that food handlers date leftovers so they can be used within a safe time. Generally, they remain safe when refrigerated for three to five days. Gravy and sauces should not be kept more than 24 hours. To keep them longer, consider freezing in small portions to thaw and heat when they are needed.

While food safety considerations are important for all people, Mixon said the need increases when the foods will be consumed by senior adults, children, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems or others in poor health.

"Someone at an increased risk of getting a food-borne illness is around just about every holiday table. They have to be your priority, not the food," Mixon said.

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Released: Nov. 25, 2003
Contact: Dr. Melissa Mixon, (662) 325-3080

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