With the holidays around the corner, there comes an intricate balance of cooking and storing food. Cooking large quantities of food may mean you are low on fridge space, and struggling to figure out how to get all your perishable goods into a cool environment.
Storing food can be another challenge as you attempt to stack Tupperware containers on top of each other in a crowded fridge. With these struggles, it may be tempting to leave food sitting on the counter while figuring out the rest of your meal. Or perhaps food can get left out while everyone is enjoying the festivities.
Proper food storage is important for the safety of you, your family, and your holiday guests. To reduce illness incidents, you should always store food properly, and avoid eating expired or spoiled foods.
Let’s take a holiday favorite dish for example – mac and cheese. Here are some quick facts on how long can mac and cheese sit out.
How Long Can Mac and Cheese Sit Out on the Counter?
Typically, mac and cheese should only be left out at room temperature for 2 hours or less. After 2 hours, the food can become dangerous to consume. If you are having an outdoor cookout, or live in a hot climate, you should note that any temperature above 90° is much more dangerous for mac and cheese.
In that case, it should not be left out for more than one hour. To avoid unintentionally leaving the mac and cheese out, have a plan for it. Set a timer for when you intend to put it back in the refrigerator.
Leaving the mac and cheese out for more than 2 hours means it can be exposed to more bacteria as it sits out. According to the CDC, any temperature between 41° F and 135 ° F is unsafe for foods. It makes them susceptible to growing bacteria that could lead to food poisoning.
This would not be an ideal way to spend a holiday as food poisoning can cause several unwanted symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, lightheadedness, and even more severe complications in severe cases.
How Long Can Mac and Cheese Sit in the Fridge?
In the refrigerator, your food stands a much better chance. Since microorganisms do not grow well in the cold, it can take longer for your food to go bad. Therefore, you can store the leftover mac and cheese in the fridge for a little longer.
Typically, you could leave it in the fridge for 3 to 5 days before throwing it out. There are a couple of reasons why refrigerators do a better job of keeping food fresh:
- Bacteria struggle to grow in the cold.
- Refrigerators can maintain a consistent humidity level.
- Food is less likely to rot quickly in the cold.
- Foods typically have a rotting process related to enzymatic activity and other biological processes. Cold temperatures can slow this down and prevent rot.
Your food is not entirely safe though in the refrigerator. It’s important to know that many factors can cause your food to go bad quickly, so you should keep an eye on it. Refrigerators often have different settings, so what works for one refrigerator may not work for yours.
Always check for spoilage before eating leftovers. And if you are unsure, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
How Long Can Mac and Cheese Sit in the Freezer?
The freezer provides a lot more opportunities for your food. Bacteria cannot grow in freezing temperatures, so your food will generally be safe in a freezer. In a freezer, your mac and cheese could last indefinitely.
However, this doesn’t mean it will taste good indefinitely. Eventually, food may lose its flavor or quality after being in the freezer for a long time. Usually, 1 to 2 months is the sweet spot for freezer food that was originally made fresh.
Also note that freezing temperatures could change the texture or consistency of the food, making it less desirable. However, after freezing you will need to thaw the food before you can eat it. There are a couple of methods to thaw frozen mac and cheese.
- Put it in the fridge overnight.
- Use the defrost setting in a microwave.
- Place the mac and cheese in a waterproof or sealed bag and place the bag in cold water.
- You could also reheat it on the stovetop or in the oven.
After it has been thawed, you’ll want to eat it and not refreeze it again. Refreezing it could be less effective and cause more bacterial growth. Since there is typically dairy or dairy substitutes in mac and cheese, refreezing it can cause unfavorable textural alterations.
How to Tell When It’s Spoiled
Food will give you a few warning signs when it begins to spoil. Be sure to pay attention to these warning signs, and don’t brush them off. If your gut is telling you something may be wrong with your food, be sure to listen. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
If the food has a rotting smell or something unusual, it might have gone bad. Since there is typically dairy and mac and cheese, the smell could be sour like spoiled milk, rotten smells like meat, or even something that is just “off”.
Food that has gone bad can discolor as well. It can lose some of its bright yellow or orange color that your mac and cheese may have had originally. It could turn green, gray, or any number of colors. Usually, this means that there could be some mold on the food. This brings us to the next sign.
If the color or texture has changed, there could also be mold growth. Mold could look like fuzz on the surface of the food, green spots, white spots, or another alteration to the appearance of the food.
It’s very important not to consume mold because it can make you sick. This is especially true if you have a weak immune system or underlying gastrointestinal issues.
Sometimes you may not notice any signs that something’s wrong with your food until you taste it. If you take a bite and the food tastes sour, or there has been a change in the consistency of the cheese or pasta, it may have gone bad.
Boxed Mac and Cheese
Boxed mac and cheese will likely last a long time. This is because the ingredients are dehydrated and no water particles can assist in bacteria growth. However, this may be different if you live in a humid area, so check in on your boxed goods regularly.
As far as using boxed mac and cheese before it expires, be sure to follow the expiration label that you can find on the box. That is generally the safest way to ensure you are consuming food that is still in date.
Why You Shouldn’t Eat Expired Foods
Eating expired food may seem low risk, but it could actually have some dangerous consequences. There is always the risk of food poisoning when you eat food past its date. This is due to a buildup of large amounts of harmful bacteria such as Bacteroides and E. coli.
After food poisoning symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain occur, you can suffer from other conditions related to food poisoning. For example, food poisoning can cause severe dehydration which can be strenuous on your kidneys and heart.
Not to mention that expired or out-of-date food is not as nutritious as fresh food, since it continues to break down after being cooked.
However, knowing the different dates associated with your food is important. If you’re buying mac and cheese that is boxed, you’ll know that it has a different shelf life than buying mac and cheese that is frozen or fresh. This will also be different if you make mac and cheese from scratch.
The different dates you should know are:
- The “best if used by” date, provides the ideal time frame to eat the food.
- The “sell by” date is for stores to know when to sell the food.
- The “use by” date could be considered the actual expiration date that you should regard when deciding whether or not to eat something that could potentially be spoiled.
Ways to Integrate Leftovers into Your Meals Before They Go Bad
Rest assured that leftovers are not the end of the line. You can transform mac and cheese into a few different dishes to use it up before it goes bad. Try some of these variations for mac and cheese:
- Try mac and cheese balls. You can bake them, fry them, air fry them, or grill them.
- Make a mac and cheese bake by adding some other leftover ingredients.
- Or, of course, just eat it plain!
Stay Safe Instead of Sorry
As you can see, there are many important things to consider regarding food safety. How long can mac and cheese sit out? The answer depends on the factors mentioned above. Don’t let spoiled food ruin your holiday season!