How Many Times Can You Reheat Leftovers?

And how can you know when to stop?

reheating leftovers in a microwave

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You've enjoyed a restaurant dinner, made too much lasagna, or are meal planning with leftovers. After packing the extras in the fridge or freezer, you think ahead to the week's meals and wonder what you can make with those leftovers—plus how long they’re good for. Considering how many times you can reheat those leftover is crucial, too.

To get to the bottom of food safety rules (and that lasagna pan), we went to the sources for food safety guidance: the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both departments pointed to and follow the USDA guidelines for storing and reheating leftovers. 

As always in food safety, the best rule is "If in doubt, throw it out.” If you aren’t sure of the leftover’s food quality or age, don't reheat or eat it. 

What To Know When You Reheat Leftovers

The first time you reheat

The USDA safety guidelines have these specific recommendations for reheating and storing unused leftovers for the first time:

"Leftover cooked food may be stored in the refrigerator for up to three to four days. During this time, you can reheat the leftovers to 165°F. Be sure to return any unused portion to the refrigerator within two hours to remain safe."

The second time you reheat

What should you do after you’ve reheated leftover foods once? Can you do it again, or is that flirting with danger?

The USDA has the following guidance for reheating leftovers that have already been warmed in the oven or microwave once:

"After each reheating, leftovers will be safe in the fridge for an additional three to four days. Because the quality decreases each time food is reheated, it is best to reheat only the amount needed. Cooked foods that cannot be used within four days should be frozen for longer, safe storage. Leftovers are safe in the freezer indefinitely, but they are at best quality for a few months." 

The bottom line

In short, you can reheat your leftovers more than once, but they might not taste as good or have the original texture.

Try to only reheat the leftovers you need for each specific meal to cut down on reduced food quality and potential food waste.

The Best Method for Reheating Leftovers

While putting leftovers in the microwave for a quick reheating may seem like the best option, food quality can be best preserved during reheating if you simply use the original cooking method.

Reheat lasagna is best done in the oven if you want to preserve more of the dish's melty, cheesy quality. French fries from a deep fryer will return closer to their original texture with a quick re-fry or oven bake to crisp. Chicken pot pie initially cooked in the oven? Rebake it to heat not only the interior but return the crust closest to its original texture.

Remember any reheated leftovers that you’ve put in the freezer will take longer to cook from frozen, or they will require thawing.

So the Microwave Is Out?

No, dishes like soups, vegetables like corn on the cob, and beans can be easily reheated in a microwave without losing as much quality. However, be cautious in reheating liquid leftovers in the microwave due to potential splattering and isolated hot spots—remember to stir any reheated leftover liquids to disperse heat throughout.

You can also reheat leftover liquid or soup dishes on the stove; simply simmer in a saucepan to reheat thoroughly.

What leftovers don't reheat well in the microwave?

Some foods don’t reheat as well in the microwave as they do in other appliances.

Leftovers with breading or eggs in them will not reheat well in the microwave. Focusing on texture, think about where breading comes from (bread). Breading reacts like bread—reheating will either make the leftovers dry or soggy.

Leftover egg dishes like quiche also may lose their textural qualities in the microwave—eggs can get rubbery and quiche crusts will dry out. Reheating those holiday appetizer quiche on a cookie sheet in the oven can make them feel like they’ve just been served.

Fish and meat leftovers can also lose their textural qualities or quickly become overcooked in the microwave, especially if a breading is included. Boiling, baking, grilling, or cooking in the oven are usually the best methods for reheating proteins; check out our articles on how to reheat leftover crawfish, prime rib, chicken wings, brisket, crab legs, ribs, shrimp, and steak.

Starchy leftovers like rice, potato, grits, pasta, or mac and cheese can also be difficult to reheat in the microwave because they may dry out or get gummy. For best results, separate the noodles before reheating, and add extra liquid like water or marinara sauce to keep the dish from drying out.

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