Time's Up: Take Out Food Safety And That Two-Hour Window

If you like to get take out food and nibble on leftovers for the next couple of days, keep a close eye on the clock. Take out food, like all other perishable food you eat, has a time limit after which it has to be refrigerated or thrown out. What makes take out food so special is the fact that part of those two hours is taken up by transportation time -- and if you forget to count that time, you risk harming yourself and anyone else who eats the food.

Unknown Timing

Perishable food shouldn't be left out for more than two hours -- one hour if it's in a very hot environment over 90 degrees Fahrenheit -- and if you're cooking the food, that two hours is easy to count. With take out or delivery, however, it's harder to tell when that two hours begins, unless you can see the food being cooked and packaged up.

Obviously the germs in food aren't waiting around with stopwatches, ready to make the food spoil in the first minute past those two hours. The two-hour figure is a time frame in which the food is most likely to remain safe, and going outside that time frame is when safety can't be guaranteed. Remember, too, it really only takes one lucky bacterium to make you wish you hadn't eaten the food. And there is always the risk that that bacterium will be among the first to grow in the food.

Beating the Clock

When you order take out food for pick up, find out when it will be ready -- and then show up a bit early to pick it up. If you can catch the food being packaged right after it's been cooked, then you know when to start the two-hour time frame. If you can't, and the food is already waiting for you when you get to the restaurant, ask the staff about how long the food has been waiting. Count that time in the two hours, and then add in the transportation time to wherever you're bringing the food.

To prolong the shelf-life of the food, put the remainder of it in the refrigerator after you take what you plan to eat. Many people will leave the food out in its container or on a plate as they eat part of it, but that only adds to the time when the food is at unsafe temperatures. Keeping the rest of the food in the fridge keeps it in the proper temperature range for safety. That will let you get more of the food later, instead of having to throw it out. If you'd like more information on keeping take out food safe, talk to the restaurants that make the food you usually get.