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Eating your leftovers is one of many great waste-reducing steps you can take toward a greener Christmas — but if you don't want to end up seeing green, you gotta avoid food poisoning. Here's what you really need to know about leftover safety.

It’s not just Santa — climate change is coming to town, too. As rising numbers of people are waking up to the fact that our old ways of life are fast becoming unsustainable, the flood of holiday-related waste should go on our very own naughty list, too. 

Nope, the small changes you and your family make to slash your carbon footprints aren’t going to save the Earth on their own, but they really do make a difference. Reducing food waste is one of the easiest ways to do your bit for the planet, and making sure you actually eat any holiday leftovers you end up with is one of many ways to start “dreaming of a greener Christmas”.

If you’ve committed to a low-waste holiday period, though, you leftover safety also needs to be on your radar — or you’ll be taking your environmental consciousness to the bathroom, and perhaps the overcrowded and understaffed doctor’s office during this no-longer-so-wonderful time of the year. 

‘Tis the season to the wasteful: Why more food isn’t merrier this holiday period

Tackling food waste should definitely be part of all our New Year’s resolutions for 2020 — the 30 to 40 percent of the total US food supply that’s simply lost has a colossal environmental impact. 

A good portion of that food is, of course, wasted before people like you and me ever get anywhere near it; during production, transport, and as it’s waiting for you on shelves. But private citizens also do a lot of damage, with the US Department of Agriculture estimating that we’re responsible for over one-fifth of all food waste. 

It often happens because we just buy more than we can handle, and that’s especially true during the holiday period, when we want to show our loved ones we care by putting a special feast on the table. 

This time of reflection and new beginnings also offers a prime opportunity to change our ways. Saying no to food waste is the right thing to do when you consider the water, energy, fuel, and labor that melts into the abyss and think of the 820 million people across the globe who are estimated to endure chronic hunger. It’s also, of course, easy on the wallet.

Food for thought: How can you reduce food waste this holiday season?

You bet that saying no to an overstocked fridge and freezer and actually not buying heaps more food than you can ever eat is the very best way to reduce food waste this Christmas and New Year — and all year round, for that matter. 

If that’s not happening, the USDA’s food waste pyramid can serve as a handy guide. It warns that the landfill is the very worst destination for your leftovers. Feeding hungry animals and composting are both better choices, but "feed hungry people" takes the silver medal. 

While homeless shelters and food pantries are now highly unlikely to accept your home-cooked food (they have no idea whether it was prepared safely, after all), you can, of course, always invite your friends, relatives, or lonely neighbors to share your holiday meals. Failing that, if you eat your leftovers, the "hungry people" you feed can absolutely be you and your family. 

Be careful, though — leftovers can easily go from environmentally-conscious choice to a “gift that keeps on giving”, as you end up with food poisoning and the resulting diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, chills, headache, vomiting, and sometimes quite severe feelings of general weakness. 

The many paths to food poisoning include:

  • Eating improperly prepared foods — from meats to salads
  • Using unsafe water to wash your food
  • When people fail to wash their hands properly before handling food, and contaminate your delicious meal with bacteria

Leftovers are definitely on the danger list. Though food poisoning is most dangerous for vulnerable people with weaker immune systems — including the very young, old, and people with chronic diseases — it is no fun for anyone, especially during the festive season!

The SC Department of Health and Environmental Control warns that food poisoning is shockingly common — so how can you steer clear this year? 

1 in 6 Americans suffer from food poisoning each year. Most foodborne illnesses can be prevented with proper food storage. Help bust common food myths this holiday season by following this helpful guide. @USDA pic.twitter.com/DuxiHIHQmt

— SCDHEC (@scdhec) December 16, 2019

All I want for Christmas is… wait, definitely not food poisoning: How to eat leftovers the safe way

You may remember the curious case of a 20-year-old Belgian student who tragically — but also somewhat stupidly — succumbed to five-day old spaghetti with tomato sauce. The pasta, which he'd left out at room temperature the entire time, was unsurprisingly crawling with pathogens. 

Most people won’t end up like him, because they’re not quite that ignorant of food safety. But are you completely sure that you know everything you need to to safely enjoy holiday leftovers — so you can stay healthy while you look after the environment? If you can’t answer “yes” with absolute confidence, keep reading.

Safe leftovers begin with safe cooking

Red meat needs to be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145° F/ 63° C, throughout. Feathered things require a temperature of at least 160° F/72° C, while ground meat should be cooked to 165° F/74° C. Take extra care with microwave meals, which can harbor germ-ridden "cold spots" if you don’t follow instructions properly. Don’t just guess at the temperature either — use a food thermometer to be sure. 

The US Department for Agriculture has some tips on which part of your poultry you should never forget to check:

Don’t forget! When cooking your holiday main dishes, turkey, chicken, duck, & goose are safe to eat when they reach 165°F in 3 places:

(1) thickest part of the breast
(2) innermost part of the wing
(3) innermost part of the thigh pic.twitter.com/Gewg6Mzhx2

— USDA Food Safety (@USDAFoodSafety) December 16, 2019

Use different cutting boards for different categories of food

Take extra care not to prepare finger foods like cheeses, fruits, and deviled eggs, or anything else you’re serving raw, on the same surface you just contaminated with raw meat. This is a prime way to spread pathogens. You can also, of course, wash your cutting boards thoroughly between uses. 

Germs love your cozy home, too

Did you know that temperatures of 40° F (4-ish° C) to 140° F (60° C) represent a "just right" Goldilocks zone for germs? That basically means that anything we’d consider room temperature is heaven to bacteria. Do not leave any foods you are planning on finishing later out any longer than two hours, and ideally no longer than one.

If you want to cut down on your food waste by saving leftovers, take this seriously — any perishables left out beyond this time frame really do need to go bye-bye. 

Skip this important step and you may just, as FoodSaety.gov tweeted, end up missing a really cool party:

Don’t miss holiday parties because of food poisoning! Cook meat to the recommended temperature to kill germs and refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours of cooking. Find the recommended temperatures for each meat: https://t.co/J4CFcd14U8 pic.twitter.com/qElqVC2MZK

— foodsafety.gov (@foodsafetygov) December 12, 2019

Cool leftovers quickly

So, it’s best to get leftovers into the fridge or freezer as soon as possible — but foods also first need to reach a safe temperature of 40° F (4° C). To speed the cooling process up and avoid coming anywhere close to that two-hour window, divide leftovers into small and shallow freezer containers as soon as possible. 

It’s also best to choose airtight packaging that will ensure your leftovers won’t leak and contaminate each other. 

Getting leftovers ready to eat safely

How can you reheat and eat leftovers safely? Keep these important steps in mind:

  • Foods that should not be reheated at all include nitrate-rich ones like spinach and beetroot.
  • The CDC warns that "leftovers should be reheated to at least 165°F before serving. This includes leftovers warmed up in the microwave." For our European readers, that’s just under 74° Celsius. 
  • Refrigerated leftovers shouldn’t be kept any longer than four days, while frozen ones can stay good for up to four months. 

Don’t forget to wash your hands often and properly — not just before eating, but also before you get in the kitchen, as you prepare food, and when you’re done. 

As long as you keep these important safety steps in mind, you can do your bit to reduce food waste and still avoid the ER this Christmas and New Year. Happy holidays!

  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth.com