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.
P.S. – Are you on a journey to eating more plants (sans-pathogens)? Check out our plant based Meal Plans or join our supportive Facebook Group!
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Holy shit. I thought I was just risking an unlikely case of diarrhea. Thank you for sharing.
I took some quinoa with veggies & some kind of cashew sauce on an airplane carry on. Ate half of it about 3 hours into the trip on a layover. On the plane I started to get really hot and felt icky but thought it was due to travel. Got to my destination 3 hours later, feeling better. Ate the rest of my food. About 2 hours later started feeling hot and awful again but this time WAY worse. Was violently sick for about 6 hours. Thought I’d die for sure. The next day was weak but much better. I’ll never eat anything that’s been out of the fridge like that again!!
I was one of those folks who thought, all my life, that it was fine to eat food that had been left out: hours, overnight, days – I didn’t care, as long as it looked okay and passed the smell test. This was true even of meat (back in the day when I ate meat). Ew! What scares me most about this is that my vegetarian 20-year-old daughter is worse than me. That kid will eat anything. I’ll definitely heed this warning going forward and I’ll share it with her. Regarding the “oh I do it all the time and I’ve never been sick” comments, after reading this, I now liken that to someone saying “I’ve been crossing the road without looking in either direction for 20 years and I’ve never been hit by a car.” I now get it: just because something bad hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. Thanks ladies. I’m officially a believer. *** Unrelated, I will be trying that baba ganoush THIS weekend. #boom ***
My hubby’s in charge of locking all the doors before bed. But he forgets and we wake up to the feeling of “Woah! we left the garage door wide open all night!” So now he has an alarm on his phone that goes off at 9pm every day. I use it to get up & check the kitchen for anything left out after dinner. We call it Securing the Perimeter.
Sigh. I left 5 beautiful roasted eggplants out all night to make Baba. I will now toss them and not risk harm to my family or myself ever again. You have awakened me. THANK YOU.
My views were also completely changed when I read Leslie’s post on Facebook. I immediately went from “If it looks ok & smells ok, it’s ok” to “If there’s doubt, throw it out”. There is no way $10 of cashews and half an hour of my time is worth what Leslie went through.
Thanks Leslie, for sharing your experience and helping a Dirty out!
Sounds horrendous, and well worth sharing. Growing up in Asia I was always taught that rice could harbour particularly horrible bugs, to always cool it quickly and never leave it out. I don’t think a lot of people in other countries necessarily know that.
Definitely changing some bad habits. And to think we always kept the delivery pizza in the oven overnight back in our non-WFPB days….saved space in fridge and supposedly tasted better. Yeeeesh! We got lucky! Thank you Leslie and Molly for bringing this topic to light.
I’m commenting on the baba ghanouj recipe: I can use my air fryer for the eggplant and the garlic. I am so excited to finally see a recipe that calls for no oil!
Please share your air fryer method!! I am so excited to read this. Wondering if the eggplant would get a char on the outside as when grilled. Would you still wrap the garlic in foil? We stay away from aluminum foil in our home since aluminum is linked to Alzheimer’s.
This is such agreat reminder of food safety! Thanks!
omg I too was one of those Thank you my angel Molly never again love to you and yours
As a server for the majority of my life, I have certifications in Safe Food Handling in several different states. I stick to the temperature and storage guidelines Molly shared as recommended by the FDA.
However! As a Colorado mountain hippy child in the 70’s, I’m quite sure I’ve seen “cooling” and “storage” tactics that would bring a tear to your eye! Want a sandwich? Well, the bread is about 15 feet up the Blue Spruce. Pull the rope (because bears can’t) and grab a few slices. Next stop, the cold river flowing at 10,000 feet. See that plastic bag, floating? (but not floating away because there is a circle of rocks around the cold food) Yep! It’s the ham! Or Spam! And the cheddar. Nice and cold!
Mayonnaise? Mustard? Hmmm… back up the hill. A mad search in various vehicles for a cardboard food box containing the missing sauces. Ah ha! Now to sit on a rock, build that sandwich, and eat!
Just let me know if you’d like to hear the “Tale of Cereal” ?
In had not heard about the rice and I think I’ve been cooling all wrong.
For some reason in my head the lid was the important part. No idea why! It’s the temperature drop that’s important and that’s slower with a lid. Now I know!
Thank you for all the times you break it down into such detailed steps and I finally get it. This one is really important.
I too was really shocked when I read the comments on FB. Shocked and thankful for the info but also extremely sorry she had to go through that.
I got very very sick after eating cut fruit right near the time people were dying from contaminated melons. I called the local health department. That was when I first learned fruit being left out more than 4 hours is dangerous too. The lady I talked with was shocked I didn’t know. She was like why would you eat it?? But I asked around no one at my work that ate the fruit that day knew either. I did let them know.
Thanks again for making it plain. Honestly sometimes it just doesn’t click but now it does.
Does this advice hold true for a pot of dried beans you leave to soak on the counter & forget about? I’ve soaked beans for up to 48 hrs – quite by accident. :s
Hi Lisa, This is a great question but we’d have to research it. I did some quick searching but was only able to confirm anecdotal knowledge that beans can make you sick if you soak them too long (more than a day or two) without changing the water rather than finding specific science that I can share to answer your question.
The longest I’ve soaked batches of beans was 10 days. What?! Yes. Both times I’ve done this, I used lupini beans. Lupini MUST be soaked at least that long (and sometimes longer) to make them edible because they contain high concentrations of alkaloids that are poisonous to humans and soaking reduces and removes them to levels that make the beans edible. However, I changed the water and rinsed them at least twice every day, and was sure to have the bowl covered and in a place that did not get sunlight or heat. This is standard practice for preparing lupini beans. However, it’s possible that the presence of those alkaloids makes lupini beans able to withstand long soaking moreso than other types of legumes, I just don’t know.
Regardless, I think soaking beans for 48 hours in the SAME water is too long and I would discard them. If you had changed the water every 12 hours or so and they were kept out of the sun/away from a heat source or refrigerated, I’m thinking they would be fine.
We were raised to just reheat the food if left out overnight. Either eat it for breakfast or let it cool and then put it away. Of course we always cover our food. If by chance we happen to leave out fruits or vegetables uncovered, then we toss those.
My grandparents lived an extremely long time and my mother and her 9 siblings used to play with MERCURY when they were children and they all survived eating food that happened to be left out over night. It’s not something that occurs often, but we aren’t going to lose sleep over it.
WOW…I’ve always considered myself a food safety guru, so this was enlightening! What about the plant based sauces and dressings? Since, most of the time, it is just me eating the food (I make the whole meal–not cut in half–JUST in case my family wants to join in), I tend to have a lot of food leftover. It’s okay because everything reheats just fine for lunches the next day. How long can soups and dressings sit in the fridge before I can freeze them for later?
The good thing about all this WFPB eating, is that if I have really been unsure about a food item, I know there is no oil, so everything goes into the compost if I feel it’s been in the fridge too long.
Carole in Tallahassee
Hi Carole – there isn’t a specific timeframe but my own rule of thumb is 5-6 days in the fridge max then freeze (with a masking tape note to eat right away upon thaw) or toss. Dressings / sauces with soaked nuts and cashews will start to ferment and the taste will change. We compost too and we love that it’s super easy to wash dishes because no oil coating. I guess that’s good for plumbing too. Thanks for stopping by! ~Karen
You know that was a good story of the severe illness she suffered from eating some leftover food. However, it does injustice to the real underlying CAUSE of her illness. It wasn’t the food. Based on Leslie’s description her misery was likely due to a viral Hepatitis A illness. Hep A as it’s typically called is transmitted by the fecal oral route (meaning it is shed into feces and enters via the mouth) . Someone handled food with poorly washed hands then the food becomes contaminated and is eaten by the unsuspecting victim. This can happen because the person who has not yet come down with symptoms of the disease or is recovering from the illness and feeling better (but still shedding virus in their stool) is “helping out in the kitchen”. The other important thing to know is that it takes from 15 to 50 days from the time the virus enters the mouth until the first symptoms appear. That’s a long time. In fact, so long that most people have forgotten what or where they have eaten during that time. It’s important to review detailed food and travel histories in order to try and determine the source of the illness and prevent further spread. Hep A is a serious illness for many and can have a very long recovery time, up to several months. Without boring you with further details, just keep in mind that for most viral & bacterial food borne illness it is often not the very last thing you ate just before getting sick that is the culprit. That said, if you have a blemish or infected area on your skin, beware as even “normal” skin bacteria like staphylococcus, when deposited onto food that is not refrigerated properly, can multiply quickly and release toxins which can make one violently ill. Cooking will not destroy toxin. Proper hygiene & handwashing is key when working with foods. Based on a thorough review of circumstances, symptoms of illness, and appropriate lab testing, a health care practitioner can determine the type of agent causing the illness and recommend measures to prevent its spread. The article raised our awareness of some important guidelines in relation to food handling and storage. Thank you.
Hi Denise, thanks for sharing this! A good friend of mine suffered with Hep A when we were in high school and it was debilitating for her. I would hope that the hospital would have picked that up when Leslie was under care but maybe they missed it. ~Karen
We used to live up in the North West of Australia which was known as part of the tropics, stinking hot and very torrential. Our milk was delivered frozen, as was our bread, meat etc. Since 1971 I’ve kept my bread in freezer, and all grains, rice etc, dried fruits, you name it, it’s kept in the fridge. I also keep my flours in the fridge, nothing escapes with little nasties. One thing I learnt was to always wash fruit and vegetables before putting it in the fridge, and wash again before you eat it, because mould is still in your fridge, it’ like a fungi and anywhere there is moisture those little fungi bugs will start to grow…I always wash rice, and grains before I use them. I don’t wash them before I put them in the fridge, but each item like red kidney beans, pintos’ etc are kept separately in their own container so as not to contaminate….even when I ate animal flesh which some many years ago, I never thawed it out on the kitchen bench, always in the refrigerator….I hope this advice helps. I never eat leftover food that has been left out. I contracted Hepatitis when I was 12 and it took me a year to get better. I was staying with my south west family while my Dad had surgery and the Dr’s asked had I eaten old food, or drunk dirty water which I couldn’t answer because those that cared for me while being looked after would have had to have been responsible, and in those days we didn’t have cafe’s like they do nowadays especially in a little port town of a few people? Obviously I ate something in the home I was staying in was off. Anyway I stayed three months in hospital, and lost half of my body weight so for me it’s “Once bitten twice shy…”
Would Japanese eggplants be okay for this recipe or is the taste too different?
Hi Becky, Japanese eggplants should work just fine. ~Karen
Just wow. It’s a wonder I’m still alive. I will never be complacent about this again. Why isn’t this talked about more often? May I share this article to other groups?
Any thoughts or substitutes for leaving out the tahini?
Thank you kindly.
Hi Adrienne, the tahini adds creaminess and fat and some flavor. You could use a different nut or seed butter instead – sunflower seed butter, or cashew butter should be neutral enough to work in this recipe. ~Karen
I happened to read this at a good time, as I was deciding how early I could start setting out a spread for visitors today! I KNOW correct food-handling rules, but it’s easy to get complacent when it’s plant-based. Sure wish I could get my carnivorous spouse to take this issue more seriously!!
Your visitors thank you, Heidi! ~Karen
Never gotten sick from eating food left out overnight. But I have gotten sick from food that had just been prepared: Spaghetti one time and Stuffing Dressing.
I’ve always been diligent but I just a steamed saucepan of broccoli and carrots on the stove overnight and I was wondering… so thanks for reminding me why I’ve always been diligent!
This was eye-opening and incredibly helpful of you to share– as a lifelong vegetarian, I thought that meant I was less likely to be harmed. Thank you for teaching me I was wrong.