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Published September 17, 2009, 02:25 PM

Prairie Fare: Leftovers belong in the fridge

Mom, may I have the last piece of apple pie in the fridge?” my 14-year-old son asked one evening.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU, The Dickinson Press

Mom, may I have the last piece of apple pie in the fridge?” my 14-year-old son asked one evening.

“Sure, that would be fine,” I answered.

The next morning my husband asked me, “Did you already take your lunch out of the fridge? It’s on the counter. The container is kind of warm.”

“No, I didn’t. Has anyone been in the fridge this morning?” I asked.

“I haven’t seen anyone near the fridge,” he said.

My growing, ever-hungry son entered the kitchen and was hovering near the fridge.

“By any chance did you take my lunch out of the fridge when you were getting your piece of pie last night?” I asked.

He didn’t reply, but quickly left the scene. I think I had my answer. Unfortunately, now my lunch was no longer safe. I had been looking forward to having leftover casserole for lunch at work.

As a food safety specialist, I would have a hard time explaining making myself sick by eating food left on the counter overnight. As much as I dislike throwing away food, I just didn’t want to run the risk of getting sick.

After 10 hours at 70 degrees, my casserole was no longer safe to eat. Bacteria multiply rapidly in the temperature danger zone between 40 degrees F and 140 F.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, leftover perishable foods should be refrigerated in shallow containers within two hours of preparation. At a picnic on a warm day (temperature above 90 F), perishable food should spend no more than one hour on the serving table.

While we might think that boiling food will destroy anything that could make us sick, that isn’t the case. Some bacteria produce toxins (“poisons”) that are heat-stable. Eating food that contains toxins can make you sick within an hour or two. Since the toxins have no odor or color, you do not know they are present.

Keep track of time and temperature during food storage. You can store leftover food in the refrigerator at 40 F for up to four days as long as the food was prepared and handled safely. Leftovers should be heated to an internal temperature of at least 165 F. Use a food thermometer to measure the temperature in more than one place. Heat gravy to a rolling boil.

The quality of food decreases each time food is reheated, so just reheat the amount you need. If you will not eat the leftovers within four days, freeze them for longer storage.

Cleaning your refrigerator regularly is another important step in keeping your food safe. Once a week, make it a habit to throw out spoiled foods.

Wipe up refrigerator spills immediately and clean surfaces thoroughly with hot, soapy water and then rinse. Avoid using solvent cleaning agents, abrasives and all cleansers that may impart taste to food or cause damage to the interior finish of your refrigerator.

Here’s a casserole recipe very similar to my lost lunch. Be sure to refrigerate the leftovers.

Bean Bake

1 pound lean ground beef

1 c. ketchup

1 package dry onion soup mix

1/2 c. water

1 Tbsp. vinegar

1 Tbsp. prepared mustard

1 (15.5-ounce) can pork and beans

1 (15.5-ounce) can kidney or pinto beans, drained and rinsed

Brown the beef and drain the fat. Combine the beef with the rest of the ingredients. Put in a large casserole. Bake at 350 F for one to 1 1/2 hours.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 320 calories, 30 grams (g) of carbohydrate, 12 g of fat and 6 g of fiber.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)

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