/ Food & Drink

Waste not, want not – do you love your leftovers?

It’s Food Safety Week this week, so we’ve invited the Food Standards Agency to come along and give us some top tips on food safety. They tell us how to make sure there’s nothing lurking in your leftovers.

Most of us will have seen our weekly shopping bills increase during the past few years, and tucking into the leftovers is a simple way to make meals go further. But at the Food Standards Agency, we’ve also seen an increase in people taking risks with their health by not storing or handling food safely.

This week is Food Safety Week, and it’s the perfect time to remind ourselves of some common sense advice for food safety for the whole year (and also how we can save some pennies on our weekly food budget).

Research carried out on behalf of the Food Standards Agency found 98% of people believe the cost of their typical shopping basket has gone up in the past three years, and half of us are trying to make better use of leftover food.

Mythbusting: smelling for safety

But the research also found that some people are keeping leftover food for longer than the recommended two days in the fridge, while others are more likely to judge the safety of their food on smell and look rather than by its ‘use by’ date.

This is one of the biggest myths that we regularly have to dispel – it’s tempting just to give your food a sniff to see if you think it’s off, but food bugs like E. coli and salmonella don’t cause food to smell ‘off’. So food could look and smell fine but still harm you. We advise you stick to either the ‘use by’ date (eat, cook with or freeze by this date), or if they’re leftovers, eat them within two days.

Top 5 tips for leftovers

  • Allow leftovers to cool as quickly as possible, cover them well, get them in the fridge (ideally within 90 minutes) and eat them within two days.
  • If you are going to freeze leftovers, cool them before putting them in your freezer, to minimise temperature fluctuation in the freezer. Once food is in the freezer, it can be safely stored there forever, but the quality will deteriorate so it’s best to eat it within 3 months.
  • Make sure you defrost leftovers properly first – overnight in the fridge is best, or in the microwave if you’re going to cook them straightaway.
  • Eat leftovers within 24 hours of defrosting and do not refreeze. The only exception to this is if you are defrosting raw food, such as meat or poultry, which can be refrozen after it’s been cooked.
  • Cook leftovers until steaming hot throughout.

We want people to make better use of leftovers, reduce waste and save money. To get you started, here’s a recipe we published to make use of some of your chicken leftovers – so with this in mind, take a look in your fridge and let us know what creative dishes you can rustle up from what’s lurking in there. How do you make the most of your leftovers?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Lorna Rowswell, Food Safety Expert at the Food Standards Agency – all opinions expressed here are their own, not necessarily those of Which?


These are great tips, Lorna. It is really important to distinguish between safety and quality.

It is safe to re-freeze food provided that it has been properly heated, but it makes a lot more sense to freeze smaller portions to avoid leftovers.

I have to admit, I’m really bad at using up my leftovers. I always wrap things in cling-film and put them in the fridge, with good intentions to cook them the next day, then end up going out to eat instead and missing my chance. Having said that, if I cook something like a pasta bake or a casserole, I’ll always have far too much so will freeze it straight away. There’s nothing quite like the excitement of coming home and realising – aha! I’ve got something in the freezer! – so I don’t need to cook.

I hate wasting food! I always try as hard as I can to shoehorn a meal out of random leftovers. This means that I possibly still eat food that has passed its ‘used by’ date – naughty me. I have performed the ‘sniff test’ many a time, thinking this was fool proof. But I shall no longer rely on the pungent nature of the food to determine its usability.

Sophie Gilbert says:
14 June 2012

My stews, lasagne, chillis, soups, etc, always taste better reheated the next day (like everybody else’s). I always make enough for at least four (more often six) even if there are only two of us, and if my husband hasn’t wolfed three portions (sometimes in complete concentrated silence, a great compliment) I keep a couple of portions to eat the next day preferably, or to freeze. Like Nikki I think it’s great when you come home and don’t need to cook, maybe add a couple of vegetables to pad out the left-over and feel as if you’re eating something a bit different, have nice green salad with it, whatever. (It’s also more economical in several ways to cook “too much” and freeze what you don’t eat straight away, but that’s another story.) I therefore don’t tend to have food in the fridge that’s been lying for too long. I also keep an eye on what’s in the freezer so as not to keep it for too long, for taste’s sake like Lorna says.

I’ll have a go at the citrus chicken recipe, it sounds delicious.

I’m amused by the recipe for Citrus Chicken. The quantities of ingredients are vague (e.g. chicken breast), yet the fat and sugar content of a serving are given to three significant figures. This recipe is published by the Food Standards Agency. Maybe they should employ someone with a GCSE in science.

I’m irritated by the packets of raw meat (or ham) which you decide you’ll have some today and then finish it the day after tomorrow only to find that despite the long use by date on the outside that on the inside of the packaging not visible until opened it says eat within 24 hours.

The long use by date is only possible when the package is sealed. Assume the same applies to all packets of raw meat. Tesco sells diced chicken in packets with two separate sections, which is helpful.

I don’t have left overs – I only cook what I want or can eat – any scraps are given to the dogs. So never store my own pre-cooked food. At boarding school years ago we were allowed to eat as much as we wanted BUT were caned if we subsequently left any – It was war time and an excellent lesson on wasting nothing. I do have problems with the current obsession about freshness. I have only once had a stomach ache in 80 years – this from eating a restaurant meal (my fellow diners also suffered)

I have eaten everything from very old road kill to green moving mince during camping without effect. Interesting story – at school I was invited to my friend’s parents grand shooting dinner – He extolled the virtues of the taste and quality of the meat – I went in great anticipation. I had to leave the table because I couldn’t stop laughing – It tasted exactly like road kill I had to eat in very dire circumstances.

Also at camp I never had a fridge – food was often a week or so old – never had problems – nor did the children who regularly went camping. So sorry I’m very sceptical – I don’t bother about sell/ eat by dates (except when buying) as freezing makes them totally inaccurate. I have to speculate that the problem is actually bad cooking.