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Handle leftover food with care

Most busy moms rely heavily on two things, leftovers and the microwave. How else would you heat up a quick lunch at work or re-heat a missed dinner at home?

Still, despite feeling crunched for time, you should take care to treat food in a way that protects your family from foodborne illness. There’s much more to the safe handling of leftovers than most people realize. Knowing a few simple tips can save you and your loved ones from illness.

Dr. Jennifer Cleveland McEntire, senior staff scientist and director of science and technology projects at the Institute of Food Technologies recommends following a few simple steps.

— Put leftovers in shallow containers to cool quickly.

The center of that big pot of chili you stick in the fridge isn’t going to cool down within two hours, and that warm spot in the middle can allow bacteria to grow. The smaller the portion size, the faster it will cool in the refrigerator. When you heat it up in the microwave, it will heat much more quickly and evenly. (USDA recommends packing leftovers so that they are less than 2 inches deep.)

— Refrigerate within two hours.

Bacteria grow rapidly at warm temperatures, and after just a few hours can cause illness. Refrigeration slows the growth of bacteria. The recommended temperature for your refrigerator is 41 degrees F or below (use an appliance thermometer to see how cold it is).

Foods should be refrigerated within two hours of preparation. Even though it may seem energy efficient to let foods cool down on the counter before sticking them in the fridge, there can be a risk if they are left out too long.

It’s important to remember that the clock starts ticking the moment your food is done cooking. When dining out, consider the time the food is at the restaurant and the time you travel home.

— Reheat leftovers thoroughly.

The microwave is just another way to heat food. The microwaves bounce around and literally “excite” the food. However, the microwaves may not hit every part of the food evenly. In foods with multiple ingredients (like a casserole) some ingredients may get more “heated” than others.

It’s really important that all parts of reheated food reach 165 degrees F before they are eaten. There are a few ways to ensure this happens.

— Stir the food in the middle of heating.

— Let the food sit for a few minutes after it finishes in the microwave to ensure the food cooks evenly. During this “standing time,” the cold parts of the food will absorb some heat from the hotter portions. Many microwave meals recommend this, so pay attention to microwave instructions.

— After the “standing time,” check the food with a food thermometer.

More helpful information may be found at www.foodsafety.gov.

Clark County Health Department provides programs for the entire family, including WIC, HANDS, family planning, well child care/immunizations, and home health care. For more information, call 744-4482 or visit our website at www.clarkhealthdept.org. You can also “like” us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Clark-County-Health-Department.