How to Freeze and Thaw Leftovers to Reduce Waste (2023)

Have you ever been left with so many leftovers after a party or a big dinner that there's no way you'd ever be able to eat them all before they go bad? (Or before you got sick of eating the same thing over and over again?)

You can greatly the extend the life of your food — even food that's already been cooked — by storing it in the freezer. You just need to make sure you're packaging it right and that you thaw and reheat it fully before eating it again. Here's some tips on how to safely freeze, thaw, and reheat foods.

Freezing Leftovers 101

First off, you want to make sure your freezer temperature remains consistently below 0°F. Fluctuating temperatures can affect the quality of frozen foods.

Leftovers that you originally bought raw and frozen (for example, fresh chicken, beefor pork that comes packaged and frozen)that you've since cooked can be refrozen to be thawed and reheated again.

You need to let any hot food cool to room temperaturebefore you can package it for freezing, but don't let it sit around more than 30 minutes.Freeze it as soon as it reaches room temperature (to hasten the process, you can refrigerate it uncovered in a shallow container until cooled, then package and freeze it).

Cut meat into slices (3 inches thick or less) and remove all the stuffing from turkey and chicken and store separately.

Sealing and Storing Frozen Food

You'll want to seal your food in containers with as little air as possible unless you're freezing liquid or semi-liquid foods that expand when frozen — in which case, you'd want to leave a 1 1/2-inch space below the rim to allow for expansion. When you're freezing non-liquids incasserole dishes or containers with empty space between the food and lid, fill any "dead spaces" with crumpled wax paper.

Don't freeze tomato-based or other acidic foods in aluminum baking pans or cover them with aluminum foil. The acidity of the tomato sauce interacts with the foil and can result in tiny holes in the foil. Your food might also take on ametallic taste. Not good.

Supermarket wrappings are safe for most foods frozen for 1 to 2 months, but for the best quality, overwrap packages with heavy-duty freezer materials or store in plastic freezer bags. For food you're packaging yourself, use 1-gallon freezer bags. Press out all the air and seal tightly so the bags can be stacked on top of each other.

You also want to make sure not to overload your freezer. Avoid storing more than 2 to 3 pounds of food per cubic foot of freezer capacity so that air can circulate for proper freezing. Leave space between packages so the air can circulate around them.

If you're new to freezing and unsure about the quality of certain foods after you thaw and reheat, try freezing a small amount the first time as a quality test. Label all foods in your freezer with the recipe name, date you made it and date you froze it, number of servings, thawing and reheating directions, and "use by" date.

How to Prevent Freezer Burn

How to Freeze and Thaw Leftovers to Reduce Waste (1)

Freezer burn happens when foods are frozen for along time or haven't been properly wrapped and sealed. Even though these foods don't pose any health risks, the freezer-burned areas will be dried out and tasteless. If that happens, cut away freezer-burned portions before or after cooking.

To avoid freezer burn, get as much air out as possible when you're wrapping the food for freezing to prevent moisture from getting in. Use moisture- and vapor-resistant packaging that can be sealed tightly. Vacuum-packing in FoodSaver® bags, for example, removes the air and keeps moisture out so food can be frozen longer without freezer burn.

Thawing Food Safely

Thawing food right way is vital to food safety. Precooked foods low in moisture content (breads, cakes, cookies) can be thawed at room temperature, but precooked foods higher in moisture content and/or containing dairy or egg products should be thawed in the refrigerator.

Never defrost perishable foods (meat, poultry, fish/seafood, dairy, eggs) outdoors, in a cold room in the house, or on the kitchen counter. Thaw meat/poultry/seafood and casseroles in the refrigerator for 24 to 48 hours or until completely thawed. You generally want to allow 8 hours per pound of meat, 4 hours per pound of poultry, and 6 hours per pound of fruit or vegetables. Foods thawed in the refrigerator can usually be safely refrozen without changing the taste or quality.

If you're in more of a rush, you can thaw things faster by placing your frozen packages in a watertight, sealed bag and covering them with cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes until the food is completely thawed.

To thaw out food in the microwave, remove the food from any store wrapping (foam trays or plastic wrap) that may release chemicals into food. Thaw on low heat for 6 to 8 minutes per pound of food. Once the food is defrosted, you can reheat it on high heat.

Reheating Frozen Food

You'll want to make sure that all previously cooked food is reheated to an internal temperature of at least 165°F. Use a clean meat thermometer to check the internal food temperature. The food also has to reach 165°F within 2 hours. Ifit won't, reheat it in smaller batches to shorten the reheating time.

To reheat frozen food without thawing it first, bake at 300°F to 350°F for almost double the original cooking time. Though thatmight feel really slow, cooking it a higher temperature will not result in a faster cooking time. The higher temperatures will just cook (and burn) the outside before the inside is completely thawed.

To reheat foods in the microwave, first cover them with microwave-safe wrap and vent to prevent steam buildup. Microwave the food until it's steaming and hot (again, at least 165°F), stirring partway through from the outside in to encourage even heating.

WARNING: Be careful when opening microwaved plastic bags.Steam can build up and cause burns when you open the bag.

What "Use By" and "Sell By" Labels Really Mean

Use by, sell by, best if used by ...they're all confusing. And do they really mean you need to throw something away once it's past its date? Here's a general guide for interpreting those dates:

  • Use By: Food is no longer good to eat after the given date.
  • Date of Pack or Date of Manufacture: This date tells youwhen the food was packed or processed. Freeze any food that will not be used within 3 to 5 days of purchase.
  • Fresh Until, Pull By, or Sell By: This date is the last day that a particular food should be sold, but it can be safely used for 1 week past the "sell by" date (i.e., for dairy and fresh bakery products).
  • Use Before or Best If Used By: Beyone thisdatefood may begin to lose quality, but itcan still be used safely (i.e., for frozen foods, cereals, canned food, pasta, rice).

Top Timesavers

Now that you're a freezing and reheating guru, you can really start saving some time by planning ahead. Buy fresh fruits and veggies, then cut them up, pack themand throw them in the freezer. Then you'll have them all presliced and ready to eat when you need them later.

You can also cook meat in advance and thaw and reheat when you need it. For a handy guide on how long different foods can be stored in the fridge or freezer, take a look at Safe Storage Times for Refrigerated or Frozen Foods.

Thank you for your feedback.


How do you freeze and thaw leftovers? ›

Safe ways to thaw leftovers include the refrigerator, cold water and the microwave oven. Refrigerator thawing takes the longest but the leftovers stay safe the entire time. After thawing, the food should be used within 3 to 4 days or can be refrozen.

How can freezing food reduce food waste? ›

Buying frozen foods can help you, your supermarket, and the whole supply chain waste less. It can also make it easier to land healthy foods on your plate on a lazy night. Less food goes to waste when it's shipped frozen, since it's not as perishable on the journey from the farm to your refrigerator.

What is the best way to freeze leftovers? ›

What's the best way to freeze food?
  1. Keep things cold: Make sure your freezer is 0°F. ...
  2. Don't put hot food in the freezer: If cooked, allow food to cool completely. ...
  3. Wrap and seal food tightly: Foil, plastic wrap and plastic freezer bags help protect food from freezer burn.
Nov 3, 2020

How can we reduce the leftovers? ›

Here are 7 ways you can reduce food waste in your kitchen:
  1. Take an inventory. Take stock of your pantry, refrigerator and freezer before going to the store to prevent overbuying.
  2. Create a meal plan. ...
  3. Save and eat leftovers safely. ...
  4. Store food appropriately. ...
  5. Buy "ugly" foods. ...
  6. Compost. ...
  7. Use leftovers creatively.
Jun 4, 2021

How do you freeze and reheat leftovers? ›

Using containers: Divide cooled leftovers among plastic containers, leaving enough room at the top for swelling. Cover with plastic wrap (this helps prevent freezer burner), then the lid. Label and date top and side of container. Using sealable bags: Place sealable place in a bowl to help stabilise.

What are the 4 methods of properly defrosting frozen foods? ›

There are four ways in which to defrost food safely - in the refrigerator, in the microwave, as part of the cooking process or under cold running water.

What is the best way to reduce food waste? ›

Pickling, drying, canning, fermenting, freezing and curing are all methods you can use to make food last longer, thus reducing waste. Not only will these methods shrink your carbon footprint, they will save you money as well. What's more, most preservation techniques are simple and can be fun.

How would you reduce food waste? ›

Tips for reducing food waste
  1. Check what you've already got in your cupboards and fridge before you shop. It won't just help you reduce your food waste – it will save you money too.
  2. Always check the use-by dates of food when you buy it. ...
  3. Planning is key! ...
  4. Check your fridge temperature. ...
  5. Freeze it!

What is the best way to store leftover food? ›

Cover leftovers, wrap them in airtight packaging, or seal them in storage containers. These practices help keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator. Immediately refrigerate or freeze the wrapped leftovers for rapid cooling.

What are 3 tips with regards to storing leftovers? ›

Storing leftovers

Always use a clean container to hold the leftovers, or wrap the leftovers in leak-proof plastic bags to prevent cross-contamination. Keep different types of leftovers separate. Eat refrigerated leftovers within 2 to 3 days, or freeze them for later use.

Why should you freeze leftovers? ›

If you want your leftovers to last longer, freeze them. Just be sure to keep track of how long you had it in the fridge before you put it in the freezer. Freezing stops bacterial growth in its tracks like a car at a red light.

How do I reduce food waste in my fridge? ›

Buy in bulk, and freeze additional leftovers, pasta sauce, meat, and more in your primary or secondary freezer. Freezing additional items is a great economical way to extend your food supply and avoid food waste.

Why is it important to reduce food waste? ›

Resources could be conserved for more productive uses

When food is wasted, so too is the land, water, labor, energy, and other inputs that are used in producing, processing, transporting, preparing, storing, and disposing of the discarded food.

What is the best way to reheat leftovers? ›

The toaster or toaster oven is usually my go-to reheating appliance because it provides even, gentle heating. If you're worried that food will dry out, just cover it with foil. Aim for a low-temperature oven (no more than 350°F), and check on your food once in a while until it's heated through.

Should leftovers be cooled before freezing? ›

Food should be completely cooled before freezing – actually, it is even better if you allow it to fully cool down in the fridge first and then freeze. If you store a bag or container with hot food along with an already frozen one, it might defrost slightly, creating a safety breach.

How long should you freeze leftovers? ›

Freezing leftovers is a great way to extend the life of your food. But you might be wondering: how long can leftovers last in the freezer without losing quality? To maintain the quality of your food, the longest you should keep frozen leftovers is 3–4 months.

What is the only method to thaw food that allows you to refreeze the food without cooking it first? ›

Foods thawed inside the refrigerator are safe to refreeze even without subjecting them to any cooking method. These foods were not exposed to the danger zone. On the other hand, foods thawed in water or using the microwave must first be cooked before refreezing.

Which of the following thawing methods is the easiest to apply? ›

In the refrigerator: This is the easiest method but it takes a long time, so you must plan ahead. (A pound of meat can take a entire day to thaw.) Advantages to this method are that it's hands-off and the refrigerator keeps food at a safe temperature.

Which thawing method is considered appropriate according to the food code? ›

You can thaw frozen foods safely in three ways: refrigerator thawing, cold water thawing and microwave thawing. In the process of thawing, never keep food in the “Danger Zone,” between 40 °F and 140 °F.

How can we reduce food waste in the workplace? ›

With the aim of reducing this type of waste in mind:
  1. Ditch cafeteria trays. Trays make it a bit too easy for people to carry much more than they'll actually eat. ...
  2. Serve smaller portions and allow free second helpings. ...
  3. Charge for leftovers. ...
  4. Optimise your menu. ...
  5. School Pack Lunch Items. ...
  6. Leftover Food Collection Options.
Mar 9, 2016

Can you put leftovers in the freezer? ›

Keep in mind that the FDA states that leftovers can be safely stored in the freezer indefinitely, but “can lose moisture and flavor” when stored for too long. They suggest freezing leftovers for a maximum of three to four months for freshness, but we've noticed that some items start to degrade a bit quicker.

What types of containers should you store your leftovers in? ›

The Best Food Storage Containers for Leftovers, Meal Prep, and...
  • For meat, fish, and pasta: glass containers. ...
  • For freezing soups and stocks: plastic deli containers. ...
  • For maximizing refrigerator space: square deli containers. ...
  • For dressings, grains, and sauces: glass jars.
Jan 11, 2022

What are the five methods in proper storage of food? ›

Food safety and storage
  • Keep high-risk food at 5 °C or below or above 60 °C to avoid the temperature danger zone and food poisoning.
  • Store raw foods below cooked foods.
  • Store food in suitable, covered containers.
  • Avoid refreezing thawed foods.
  • Check and observe the use-by dates on food products.

What are the golden rules for storing food? ›

If you must prepare foods in advance or want to keep leftovers, be sure to store them under either hot (near or above 60 °C) or cool (near or below 10 °C) conditions. This rule is of vital importance if you plan to store foods for more than four or five hours. Foods for infants should preferably not be stored at all.

What are 5 rules to follow when storing food safely? ›

Storage Basics
  • Refrigerate or freeze perishables right away. ...
  • Keep your appliances at the proper temperatures. ...
  • Check storage directions on labels. ...
  • Use ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible. ...
  • Be alert for spoiled food. ...
  • Be aware that food can make you very sick even when it doesn't look, smell, or taste spoiled.
Jan 18, 2023

Why it is important to store leftovers properly? ›

Proper food storage helps to preserve the quality and nutritional value of the foods you purchase, and also helps make the most of your food dollar by preventing spoilage. Additionally, proper food storage can help prevent foodborne illnesses caused by harmful bacteria.

What is the difference between freezing and thawing? ›

Thawing is the process of taking a frozen product from frozen to a temperature (usually above 0°C) where there is no residual ice, i.e. “defrosting”. Thawing is often considered as simply the reversal of the freezing process. However, inherent in thawing is a major problem that does not occur in the freezing operation.

Is it OK to put leftovers in the freezer? ›

Keep in mind that the FDA states that leftovers can be safely stored in the freezer indefinitely, but “can lose moisture and flavor” when stored for too long. They suggest freezing leftovers for a maximum of three to four months for freshness, but we've noticed that some items start to degrade a bit quicker.

Can you freeze leftovers from the fridge? ›

Freeze Within the 4-Day Window

If you've put several portions worth of, say, stuffing in the refrigerator and later realize there's no way your family is going to get through them all before the four-day fridge limit, you can still freeze them. If a food is safe to eat, it's safe to freeze, Andress says.

What containers are best for freezing food? ›

Rigid containers and flexible bags or wrapping are two general types of packaging materials that are safe for freezing. Rigid containers made of plastic or glass are suitable for all packs and are especially good for liquid packs. Straight sides on rigid containers make the frozen food much easier to remove.

How long should you leave food to cool before freezing? ›

It's much better to allow food to cool before putting it in the freezer. You could do this by leaving food at room temperature while it cools, although make sure not to leave it out for longer than two hours, as this is when bacteria will start to multiply, and you could risk food poisoning.

Why should you not put hot leftovers in the fridge? ›

Myth: You shouldn't put hot foods in the refrigerator.

Fact: Hot food can be placed in the refrigerator. Large amounts of food should be divided into small portions and put in shallow containers for quicker cooling in the refrigerator.

Should freezing leftovers be cooled within 4 hours? ›

Any leftover food should be put in the freezer or fridge within two hours of being cooked. This is to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria. In what? All leftovers should be stored in sealable, shallow containers as this will help them to cool quicker.

What food Cannot be frozen? ›

But even properly wrapped, the following foods can be problematic to freeze and thaw:
  • Leafy Greens. ...
  • Sauces or Gravies. ...
  • Pudding. ...
  • Cream-Based Soups. ...
  • Non-Fatty Fish. ...
  • Cooked Pasta or Rice. ...
  • Cooked Egg Whites. ...
  • Mayonnaise or Mayo-Based Dressings.
Feb 10, 2022

What is the healthiest way to store food in the freezer? ›

Top tips for using your freezer
  1. Cool the food before you freeze it. ...
  2. Wrap the food properly or put it in sealed containers. ...
  3. Freeze food in realistically sized portions. ...
  4. Label everything you freeze. ...
  5. Check the use-by date. ...
  6. Don't let ice build up. ...
  7. If in doubt, throw it out. ...
  8. Follow these steps to freeze fresh vegetables.

Does freezing cooked food destroy nutrients? ›

The freezing process itself does not destroy nutrients. In meat and poultry products, there is little change in nutrient value during freezer storage.

Why is leftover food stored in fridges and freezers? ›

The basic idea behind refrigeration is to slow down the activity of bacteria (which all food contains) so that it takes longer for the bacteria to spoil the food.

What container material should never put in the freezer? ›

Liquids in glass containers, cans, and plastic containers are also susceptible to exploding in the freezer, according to Murphy. Certain dairy products like milk and sour cream do not freeze well, said Murphy.

Are Ziploc containers good for freezing? ›

Zip-top bags are especially good for freezing food because you can more easily get all the air out of them than out of rigid containers. You can use them for everything from blanched spinach to chicken thighs and, after laying them flat to freeze, stack them to economize space.

Are Ziploc plastic containers freezable? ›

Ziploc® Containers with lids feature easy-to-use, leakproof Smart Snap technology. They are BPA free and safe for use in the microwave, dishwasher, freezer and fridge (when used as directed). Use them to store food, organize supplies, or while on the go. Reusable and recyclable.


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Duane Harber

Last Updated: 12/14/2023

Views: 5567

Rating: 4 / 5 (51 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Duane Harber

Birthday: 1999-10-17

Address: Apt. 404 9899 Magnolia Roads, Port Royceville, ID 78186

Phone: +186911129794335

Job: Human Hospitality Planner

Hobby: Listening to music, Orienteering, Knapping, Dance, Mountain biking, Fishing, Pottery

Introduction: My name is Duane Harber, I am a modern, clever, handsome, fair, agreeable, inexpensive, beautiful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.