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Can you put hot leftovers in the fridge? Here’s what the experts say

Woman holding plastic container of food in fridge.
A TikTok creator who specializes in home health and body hygiene is assuring her followers that they can put warm leftovers in the fridge -- it's actually better that they do.

Chill out!

A TikTok creator who specializes in home health and body hygiene is assuring her followers that they can put warm leftovers in the fridge — and it’s actually better that they do.

“My mother-in-law always said, ‘Leave the food out, let it cool down before you put it in the fridge otherwise it’ll grow bacteria,'” Mary Futher, who goes by Madame Sweat online, started last month’s trending TikTok.

“Well, guess what? She was wrong. Doesn’t happen very often, but she was,” quipped Futher, who boasts 763,400 TikTok followers.

Do not leave uneaten food out to cool, she argued, furthering the debate about proper storage methods for leftovers.

A TikTok creator who specializes in home health and body hygiene is assuring her followers that they can put warm leftovers in the fridge — and it’s actually better that they do. TikTok / @ madamesweat
A TikTok creator who specializes in home health and body hygiene is assuring her followers that they can put warm leftovers in the fridge — and it’s actually better that they do. TikTok / @ madamesweat

“If you’ve left it out for more than two hours, you might as well throw it in the garbage,” she noted. “The sooner you get it in there, the better.”

She added that the “only trick” is to make sure the leftovers are stored in a shallow dish since bigger containers take longer to cool in the fridge.

Leaving leftovers out for too long can lead to a type of food poisoning called fried rice syndrome, named for initial cases stemming from unrefrigerated cooked white rice, according to the Philippines’ National Nutrition Council.

The bacteria Bacillus cereus causes fried rice syndrome.

Per the US Department of Agriculture, perishable foods should be stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below to curb the proliferation of harmful bacteria.

When it comes to hot foods, the USDA noted that small amounts of hot food can be directly placed into the refrigerator, or they can be chilled in ice or cold water beforehand.

Larger portions of hot food should be divided into smaller portions and placed in shallow containers before going into the fridge.

“Except during cooking, food must not be out of the refrigerator for more than two hours,” the USDA wrote.

Do not leave uneaten food out to cool, argued Mary Futher — who goes by Madame Sweat online — furthering the debate about proper storage methods for leftovers. TikTok / @ madamesweat
Do not leave uneaten food out to cool, argued Mary Futher — who goes by Madame Sweat online — furthering the debate about proper storage methods for leftovers. TikTok / @ madamesweat

TikTokers who commented on Futher’s video seemed divided on the topic as they shared what they do in their own homes.

“I always leave hot or warm food on the counter for about 30 minutes so it doesn’t impact the temp inside the fridge,” one person wrote.

“I learned to let it cool not due to bacteria but because the temp fluctuation can negatively impact other food in the fridge,” another added.

“Grew up with my mom leaving all the food in the pots overnight and we ate it the next day. No one ever got sick,” someone admitted.

“Not me thinking about all the pizzas I’ve eaten the next morning that sat out all night,” a user commented.

“Longer food is in danger zone..the more risk.. danger zone=room temps. U must cool food faster the better,” another said.

“I think it was true back in the day because the refrigerators were different. But our refrigerators now can handle cooling warm food,” one person mused.

Leaving leftovers out for too long can lead to a type of food poisoning called fried rice syndrome. hedgehog94 – stock.adobe.com
Leaving leftovers out for too long can lead to a type of food poisoning called fried rice syndrome. hedgehog94 – stock.adobe.com

In 2008, a 20-year-old Belgium student died after consuming five-day-old pasta that had been stored at room temperature and heated before eating.

Shortly thereafter, he attempted a workout but ended up returning home after a mere 30 minutes due to nausea, abdominal pain and headaches.

He later experienced diarrhea and vomiting. He drank water and attempted to sleep off the pain — but he was found dead the next day.

Samples of the sauce and leftover pasta that he’d eaten were sent to the National Reference Laboratory for Foodborne Outbreaks for evaluation, where lab technicians discovered large amounts of Bacillus cereus.

This bacteria produces a toxin in starchy foods that is heat-resistant and won’t necessarily die in foods that are cooked or heated.

It can cause food poisoning or more serious health problems, like liver failure, according to the Cleveland Clinic.