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How Long Should Cooked Food be Refrigerated?

Food spoils occurs fastest when food is cooked. This is because the nutrients are exposed to more of the spoilage bacteria in this state.

The rate of food spoilage is however not the same in all foods and is instead affected by different factors such as the type of food, environment, mode of cooking and preparation and duration since preparation.

To minimize the rate of spoilage, we often rely on various storage methods depending on the duration we intend to preserve the food.

For food that we don’t intend to preserve for long (a couple of hours or so), we can prevent food spoilage in the short-term by:

  • covering the food properly after cooking to prevent it from contamination
  • using clean utensils for storing and serving the food
  • storing utensils to be used in clean dry places

While not a storage method, cooking food amounts that will be finished at a specified meal time goes a long way in preventing spoilage and the wastage that comes with it.

On the other hand, we often have to rely on the refrigerator for food that has to be stored for a couple of days or weeks.

However, we often forget that food in the fridge is not entirely safe from spoilage and thus we end up storing it for longer than it should.

Duration that Food is Supposed to Stay in the Fridge


The refrigerator provides a low temperature environment below the room temperature. This however does not kill the food spoilage bacteria but merely slows the rate at which they grow.

The colder it is the better at curbing this growth explaining why the freezer preserves the food for longer than the lower compartment. This lengthened duration may however come at the price of  affecting the quality of the food.

Food is likely to go bad if its stored in the fridge for more than four days. Some shorten this down to two days in the case of leftover foods.

The problem however is that many of us are not able to tell whether the food has spoiled. The assumption is that, if it looks good and doesn’t smell, then it’s safe to be consumed.

This explains why sometimes we observe the leftover food is spoiled only after warming or putting the food in a room temperature for a short while.

Therefore, consider disposing leftovers if they have been refrigerated for longer than four days. Fresh foods that haven’t been cooked can stay for longer.

Disposing seems like too drastic a measure, however it’s necessary if one is to avoid the potential food poisoning or food intoxication.

The difference between these two is that, food poisoning occurs when we eat food with the bacteria while intoxications occurs when the food has toxins released by the bacteria.

Their effects however vary across individuals and will ultimately depend on factors such as one’s immunity, age and the bacterial load (extent of contaminated food consumed).

With that said, the duration of storage is just one of many factors that contribute to food spoilage in the fridge. Other things to consider are:

  • keep your fridge hygienic by cleaning it regularly
  • store food in clean containers that are well covered
  • don’t re-refrigerate/refreeze reheated food (i.e. reheat foods only once)
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