By Molly Patrick
Jan 19, 2019,
Have you ever accidentally left food out overnight and wondered the next day if it’s still good? Maybe it was tofu in your tofu press, a batch of beans in your Instant Pot, or a pot of soup on your stove. You smell it, and it passes the smell test, but you’re still not sure.
Your gut says nope, toss it out, babe, but your head says don’t you dare throw that away; it cost you time and money, and mama’s HANGRY! Besides, it’s plant based. Why are you overthinking this? Just eat!
You go back and forth about eating food that has been left out all night.
You put it in your fridge. You take it out. You almost throw it away. You put it back on your counter. You look online. And then you finally post in our private Facebook group asking for help with your dilemma.
You read the comments on your post, and you become even more conflicted. Some people say to toss it out NOW. Others say they leave food out all the time, and they’ve never gotten sick. Some people suggest giving it the smell test and if it smells fine, then chow down.
Now, you still don’t know what to do, so you decide to put the left out food in the fridge, eat something else and make the decision another time. A week goes by, and you’re relieved because now you can finally justify throwing it out. If it wasn’t bad then, it’s surely bad now, right? It finally meets its destiny in the compost bin.
I get it. I’ve been there too. In the past, I’ve always gone with the smell test. If it doesn’t smell bad, then I eat it. However, Dirty Girl Leslie Bienz posted something in our Facebook group a while back that made me rethink my stance on this. It was more than a post; it was a PSA that described her horrific experience from eating some rice, beans, and spinach that were left out.
It was a powerful testimony, and hundreds of people chimed in to thank her for posting it.
When I decided to do a blog post about whether or not it’s safe to eat food that has been left out overnight, I knew I wanted to include Leslie’s post. Here’s what she said:
I say this with a heart full of love, Dirties. You can take this to heart or ignore it. But I hope it will help someone avoid going through something I went through several years ago. I recently saw a post about whether it’s fine to eat a meal that sat out all night. I saw lots of people give information that has been shown to be incorrect through stringent scientific processes. For everyone who says, “I’ve done it, and I was fine”…That’s great except for when a person takes that advice and it’s not fine.
If food has a harmful pathogen in it, and you leave it out too long, you will become violently ill if you eat it. It’s not something to fuck around with. It can damage your kidneys and/or your liver. For all the times someone ate something that has been left out for too long and the food didn’t happen to have a pathogen in it, all it takes is one time when it does.
I truly cannot describe how sick I became from this happening AND it was a plant based meal. I could not walk for over a month. I could barely sit up and only for short periods of time. After 2 weeks of extremely high fevers and anguish, I was literally sobbing and crying, unable to believe I’d been that sick for so long without the slightest relief.
Portions of my liver died and I peed it out, turning my pee a very funky color. It was fucking terrifying. I turned yellow. I came close to needing a liver transplant, but got lucky. My liver numbers were quite high for a very long time afterward. To this day, several years later, my liver numbers can be touchy. It took over 6 months to feel mostly better. I was in college at the time and missed a semester of school.
Plants can absolutely contain pathogens. Those fuckers get into the soil and can be drawn up into the plant. You can have it on your hands from something you touched without knowing it and then transfer it to food. Many things can go wrong that cause food to have harmful pathogens. If kept at a proper temperature, those pathogens can’t reproduce. If not, they can reproduce rapidly.
Even if you’ve done it before and it was fine, it only takes one time and the consequences can be severe. Please be safe, my beloved Dirties. It is not worth the risk. You may think “oh, life is all about risk.” Sure, but risking something so serious over a bowl of food is not a balanced risk. If food has sat out for too long, please discard it.
I’ve accidentally left food out overnight too and throwing it away sucks, but being sick and nearly needing a liver transplant sucks way worse. Food safety guidelines are there for a reason. Please take them seriously, they are based on scientific testing. If you break food safety guidelines, you may be fine but then again, you might not. The next time you leave food out overnight and you’re trying to decide whether or not to toss it out, I hope you will remember this and toss it!
Thank you, Leslie, we are so glad you are okay and shared your story with us.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start being really diligent about not leaving food out overnight. And if I do, I will toss it out.
Things to keep in mind when considering eating food that has been left out all night
- Pathogens like plants, too. This is not just an issue with meat and dairy, plants can absolutely have pathogens.
- Reheating food will not help. What makes you sick is not the actual pathogen but a toxin(s) that the pathogen may release when it reproduces. Pathogens reproduce rapidly at room temperature and heat does not destroy those toxins. Once they’re there, they’re there.
- Food that has an overgrowth of pathogens will not necessarily taste or smell bad. These pathogens and what they release into the food are oftentimes completely tasteless and you will not know you are eating something contaminated.
- All about bacteria. Bacteria need a certain amount of moisture to grow, so things like cooked pasta and rice are very susceptible to bacteria when not cooled properly. Baked goods, like bread and cookies, that are often stored at room temperature, are safer because they are dry.
- If food has been left at room temperature for longer than 2 hours it should be discarded. That is when the bacteria has had enough time to produce toxins that can make you sick.
- The faster food cools, the better. Cooling food to 70° F (21° C) within 2 hours, and then from 70° F (21° C) to 45° F (7° C) in the next 4 hours is the correct and safest way to cool food. To do this, you can move cooked food directly to the fridge, uncovered, and give it a stir after 30 minutes, so that anything warm on the inside cools to the outer temperature of the food. Once fully cooled, seal the container with a lid. Alternatively, you can cool food on the counter for 1 – 1 1/2 hours, uncovered, and then store in the fridge with a loose fitting lid and then seal the lid on the container once the food has cooled completely.
- Utilizing your freezer & fridge. There is an argument that moving hot food immediately to the fridge is not a good idea because it will increase the temperature of the refrigerator and lead to spoiling of other foods. Here’s the thing: your refrigerator is designed to cool and when the temperature raises it will kick on and do its job. If your fridge is working properly and everything else in the fridge is already cold, a few heated batch items are not going to be enough to overcome the cooling system and raise the temperature of other items in your fridge fast enough and high enough to spoil them. It’s a good idea to not overpack your fridge so that air can circulate and cool food efficiently. When you add hot batched items to your fridge, place them in different spots so they aren’t all together and, ideally, separate large volumes into shallower containers for cooling. An entire pot of soup will cool much more quickly if it’s poured into two smaller containers. I’ve even used my freezer to quick cool – but don’t forget or you’ll have a frozen batch item.
- Do not put hot food into a container and cover it with a lid. Whether you put it in the fridge right away or not, the sealed container will hold the heat inside the container at the perfect bacteria breeding danger zone temperature. Do not seal the container until the food is totally cool.
- What the USDA recommends. The United States Food and Drug Administration (USDA) recommends your fridge be kept at 40° F (4° C) and your freezer should hold steady at 0° F (-18° C). It’s a good idea to place a fridge thermometer in your refrigerator so that you can visually see that the temperature is holding right where it should. And, a thermometer will let you know sooner than later if your fridge is struggling to cool properly.
- Don’t let this scare you into not wanting to eat ever again. As long as you follow the guidelines above you should have nothing to worry about. I know I’m not going to stress over it, I’m just not going to eat food that has been left out too long. Easy peasy.
So tell me, have you changed your mind about eating food that has been left out overnight, or have you always been diligent about avoiding the potential risk?
Talk to me in the comments below!
- 2 medium-sized eggplant, washed and wiped dry
- 4 cloves of garlic, removed from bulb and left in their skin (alternately, you can roast a whole bulb of garlic)
- 3 tablespoons tahini
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Few turns of black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 400 °F (205 °C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
- Prick each eggplant with a fork a couple times on each side, then place the eggplants on the baking sheet. Wrap the unpeeled garlic cloves in foil and place them on the baking sheet next to the eggplant.
- Bake for 45-50 minutes or until the eggplants are super tender and the skin is all wrinkly. The eggplants should look deflated.
- Remove the baking sheet from the oven and using tongs, transfer the eggplants and the garlic to a plate and cool for about 10 minutes. When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, cut a slit down the side of each one and scoop out all of the flesh (discard the skin) and place the flesh into your food processor. Unwrap the garlic from the foil and remove and discard the outer skin. Add the roasted cloves to your food processor, along with the tahini, lemon juice, cumin, smoked paprika, salt and pepper.
- Pulse for about 30 seconds, scrape down the sides of the processor and pulse a few more times until the eggplant is smooth and all the ingredients are incorporated.
Wishing you a happy week. May it be filled with avoiding food poisoning.