Can I Still Eat This? | How Long Can I Leave Food Out?

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Have you ever forgotten your lunch in your car on a hot summer day? When lunchtime rolled around you finally realized your lunch was missing, and wandered out to your car to find your lunch sitting in the passenger seat, staring up at you. Don’t lie, I know you wondered whether or not you could eat it. We all have! Heck, some of you may have even popped the lid, did the sniff test and took and bite. Guilty! 


Well, question no longer! Let's get some clarity around, "Can I still eat this?".


The 411

If the is food is shelf stable, you don't have to worry about leaving it out. So that means that Cup of Noodles in your passenger seat is fine. However, anything that requires refrigeration has a very different set of rules that should be followed, unless you want to run the risk of a serious case of food poisoning.


Like I said, any shelf stable item that is unopened will be fine, so that half melted candy bar from last week, or the bag of Cheez-it’s you found in-between your drivers seat and center console (score!) are still good. But, what about the sandwich, salad, pasta or whatever else you may have carted with you for lunch? The rule to follow is, if it requires refrigeration to stay fresh, then it should be eaten before it reached the 2+ hours (out of refrigeration, that is) mark.  




Because bacteria exists all around us. They are literally everywhere. Heck, even your skin is an ecosystem containing millions of bacteria. If you have taken microbiology, or even biology, you probably know that bacteria begin to multiply and grow rapidly given the right conditions. Do you know what those conditions are? Do you know why your refrigerator stays a constant, cool 40 degrees, if not cooler? It’s because bacteria grow and multiple rapidly between 40F - 140F. 


That means leaving food out on the counter, not even in your car, but on your counter on a hot day can cause bacteria to grow to dangerous levels within hours. That’s why you shouldn’t consume any food that has been left out, whether on the counter or in your car, for more than 2 hours. If it’s an especially hot day, we are talking 90 degrees plus, food shouldn’t be left out for more than an hour.  Once that food item reaches a temperature of 41F +, you've entered optimal growing conditions for many types of bacteria. This can quickly lead to an overnight stay on the porcelain thrown, if not worse. 


What about leftovers and properly cooling food?


I bet you thought you were fine putting your hot leftovers immediately in the fridge. It's okay. I've done it too. However, you have to be just as aware when your storing leftovers to ensure food safety.


Even after cooking, bacteria can be reintroduced to cooked food and start to grow if not handled properly. So, you don’t want to throw your just cooked meal directly in the refrigerator or freezer because the hot food can raise the temperature of your refrigerator, thus compromising  the safety of all your food! Phew! It’s a lot to think about. 


So, what you should do?


If you’ve made dinner, you should transfer it to shallow dishes  (like Tupperware containers) when done (helps it cools faster) and let it rest on the counter. Don’t let it rest for longer than 2 hours, though. Once cooled, it doesn’t have to be completely room temperature, place it in the fridge. 


Properly Heating Leftovers


When you go to eat your leftovers, you should warm  up your food (even though, cold pizza is delicious), and warm it up so that the food is hot all throughout. Remember, bacteria grow and multiply rapidly given the right conditions. Not warming your food properly or consuming it in a reasonable amount of time increases your risk of being exposed to harmful levels of bacteria. If you warm your food up, remember, the same rules apply. You want to eat it soon.



I hope this helps you if you ever have the question, "can I still eat this?"! Now it's time to share your stories! Have you ever eaten something that sat out too long? What happened? Share your story in the comments below.