"When it comes to leftovers in the summertime, chilling out is critical," says Shelley Feist, of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Va. "Leftover food that has been out in temperatures above 90 [degrees] Fahrenheit for more than one hour should be tossed."
Here's why: "Incidences of food-borne illness do tend to spike in the summer," says Feist, in part because the season's warm, humid conditions are right for harmful bacteria to thrive. "Bacteria love to thrive in the zone between 40 Fahrenheit and 140 Fahrenheit."
So once food is cooked, refrigerate it as soon as possible or, for the interim, place it in a cooler with adequate freezer packs. If freezer packs in the cooler are liquid by the time you get them home, says Feist, then you weren't keeping something cool and you should toss perishable leftovers.
But, she adds, if perishable foods have been cooked correctly (use a thermometer) and the extras chilled right away (within an hour), "then there is no reason they could not be used for another meal. But remember to eat or freeze perishable leftovers within two to three days."
Leftover shredded or sliced chicken, pork, or beef can serve as a salad topper or sandwich filling. Consider mixing shredded chicken or pork with a favorite barbecue sauce, packing a bun separately, then heating the barbecue mix thoroughly (to 165 degrees F.) in the microwave before spooning onto a bun. Pack a serving of potato salad, baked beans, or marinated vegetables as a side.
Don't forget to pack such a lunch with a freezer pack and keep well chilled.
Those grilled vegetables? Pack slices separate from bread or a bun, then assemble a sandwich at work. Or dice and mix vegetables with a cooked grain (barley, rice, quinoa), moisten with a vinaigrette, then chill until lunch.
And remember, prepared foods that have been purchased (salads, desserts, etc.) need the same amount of care.
"If there is someone in your household who's at particular risk," says Feist, citing very young children, older adults, or anyone whose immune system may be compromised, "you might want to be extra careful about how you serve them foods if you aren't sure how it was prepared."
Never put cooked food on a plate that held raw food; wash plate with hot, soapy water first or use a different plate.
Pack one cooler with beverages, another with perishable foods. Guests can get to beverages without disturbing perishable foods that need to maintain a consistent cold temperature.
Keep raw meat and poultry wrapped separately from foods eaten raw (fruits and veggies).
Reheat properly stored leftovers thoroughly in the microwave. Stir at least once during heating; after heating, let stand a few minutes.
For more, go to www.fightbac.org or www.foodsafety.gov.