Here's how to safely store tomorrow's lunch.

Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

You take a food storage container out from the back of the refrigerator, open, and sniff cautiously. Seems to smell OK, so it probably hasn’t gone bad, right? Not so fast. Just because food doesn’t smell spoiled doesn’t mean you’re safe from foodborne illnesses.

Wait, what? According the FDA, foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogenic bacteria—think: salmonella, E. coli—and those are different from the bacteria that spoil food.

Regular spoilage, if you will, is caused by various factors, including exposure to light, oxygen, heat, humidity, temperature, and microorganisms like non-pathogenic bacteria, molds, and yeast.

The last thing anybody wants is to come down with a fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramping. Luckily, there’s a simple trick to help you avoid riding the porcelain bus. The 2-2-4 rule is an easy way to consume those leftovers safely.

To follow the 2-2-4 rule, refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking, store food in dishes no more than two inches deep, and eat it all up within four days. This minimizes the risk of a food breeding pathogens because it keeps your leftovers out of the “danger zone” (between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, when bacteria can proliferate) and decreases the surface size those bugs can infect.

food saftey storage freshness woman health wellbeing fridge
Credit: Health

Storage tips

Make sure your fridge is set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less, and seal your leftovers tightly, in containers or airtight packaging, to prevent the growth of bacteria.

Can I freeze leftovers?

Yes! Just make sure your freezer is set to 0 degrees Fahrenheit or less. And keep in mind that once you thaw leftovers you’ve stored in the freezer, the bacterial growth ramps up again. If your leftover steak was in the fridge for two days before you froze it, you only have one to two days after it’s thawed to safely eat it.

In the freezer, soups, stews, sauces, and cooked meat can last up to three months. You can freeze your cooked poultry leftovers for up to four months, while cooked fish leftovers can stay frozen for up to six months.

What about these brownies I just baked?

Unlike perishable leftovers, baked goods can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for five to seven days, says Jen Pattap, owner of Piece of Love Pastries. If you have so many brownies that a week won’t be enough time to enjoy all your treats, wrap them tightly in plastic and then in a plastic bag, and store in the freezer. They should be good for at least six months, Pattap says.

To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter