How safe is it to eat leftover rice?

Brown rice and white rice contrasted. According to...
Brown rice and white rice contrasted. According to... / Roberto Machado Noa/GettyImages

The inside of your refrigerator is utterly bare, other than that half-empty takeout carton. The thought of fried rice, even cold, tempts your growling tummy, but is it safe to eat leftover rice?

The frustrating answer is it depends. In many cases, it’s less wasteful to eat up your leftovers, but no one enjoys praying to the “porcelain god” if they make a mistake. How can you determine whether you should smash or pass — and toss? How safe is it to eat leftover rice? Let’s take a closer look.

Is It Okay to Eat Leftover Rice? The Perks of Eating Leftovers 

A general rule of thumb is that it’s okay to eat the leftover rice from your last Popeye’s run for up to three to four days, assuming you placed it in the fridge after feeling full. However, there are exceptions to every rule. For example, the USDA suggests tossing any cold foods left out at room temperature for two hours or more, raising questions about party leftovers. Yet some foods pickled in vinegar or high in sugar, like preserves, have properties that extend shelf life. 

Further complicating the issue are recent reports of “fried rice syndrome.” What’s that? It’s caused by the food poisoning bacterium Bacillus Cereus, which multiplies in food left out at room temperature. For this reason, some doctors now advise placing leftovers in the refrigerator as soon as possible after eating, without waiting for them to cool. While doing so may increase moisture loss and affect texture, it keeps you safer.

Why should you eat leftovers? For one, it’s better for the planet. Food waste requires the presence of oxygen to break down into soil, and most of what America throws away ends up in landfills. Here, anaerobic conditions result in methane from all that organic waste, a greenhouse gas heavier than carbon dioxide. While composting is an option, few people take that step.

It’s also healthier for your waistline. Japanese people use this method, called hara hachi bun me, to control their weight without dieting. All you do is stop eating when you are 80% full, which requires mindfully tuning into your meal.

Fitness fanatics and young people are also turning to vegan foods to fuel workouts and use seeds, nuts, lentils, beans, and grains like rice as their primary energy sources. Rice is one of the most popular pre- and post-workout foods for lifters and other athletes who want to restore depleted glycogen stores due to intense exercise. In this case, understanding how to distinguish between good and bad leftover rice is crucial for athletes.

What Causes Food to Go Bad?

The answer is microbes. Bacteria like to eat, too, and they begin gnawing on food upon coming in contact with it. They quickly proliferate, and the wrong kind can make you sick. While many cases of food poisoning result in only temporary discomfort, such illnesses send 128,000 people to the hospital each year, 3,000 of whom die.

Indeed, fried rice syndrome recently trended on TikTok after news broke of a 20-year-old who died after eating leftover spaghetti. However, it’s crucial to note that he left the suspect food on the counter for five days instead of placing it in the refrigerator, giving B. cereus plenty of time to proliferate.

Which Foods Go Bad Most Quickly?

Fresh foods go bad most quickly if not properly stored. Freezing and drying can extend their life by removing most of the moisture and oils that foster bacterial growth. Keeping them in tightly sealed cans also works, although home canning is the number one cause of botulism poisoning.

Even uncooked dry foods like brown rice go bad after a while on shelves. If you’re a prepper, ensure you rotate through your stash every six months to keep it fresh. Brown goes bad more quickly than white because the nutritious bran remains, but that’s also where much of the oil and moisture lies.

Cons of Eating Day-Old Rice — How to Know When Leftovers Are No Longer Safe to Eat

The big question on everyone’s mind is: how do I know if food is bad? After all, the cons of eating day-old rice contaminated with bacteria sound pretty bad indeed. According to the USDA, signs of spoiled food include:

  • Unpleasant odors
  • Unpleasant tastes
  • Unpleasant texture

Meat may become slimy, sticky or fuzzy with mold. Dairy products often take on a slight yellow color and form clumps, and vegetables get mushy and slimy.

However, you can’t always rely on sight, smell and nibbles alone. The foul odor comes from the decaying food, not the bacteria themselves, which have no odor — and how sensitive is your sniffer? Those who lost their sense of smell due to COVID, have an active head cold or simply a less sensitive nose might not be able to detect when a food has gone bad.

What about expiration dates? Unfortunately, these have to do with food quality more than safety and don’t necessarily indicate a food is bad if past the labeled date.

The bottom line: When in doubt, toss it out. If the eco-guilt drives you to distraction, invest in a countertop compost bin and ease it. You can always donate the soil to a local community garden or friend with a green thumb if you don’t use it. 

Consequences of Eating Day-Old Rice

There are usually no consequences of eating day-old rice, assuming you stored it correctly. However, here’s what you can expect if you develop symptoms.

How Soon Do Food Poisoning Symptoms Appear?

You couldn’t resist the leftover homemade Chipotle-style rice you found in your fridge, but 15 minutes later, you dash to the bathroom. Is it a consequence of eating day-old rice?

It’s possible but unlikely. Symptoms of food poisoning sometimes appear almost immediately after eating, but they can take a week or more to materialize. That’s one reason that food poisoning lawsuits rarely prevail unless masses of people become sick from a singular, identifiable cause. It’s often impossible to pinpoint the culprit.

Symptoms of Food Poisoning

Symptoms of food poisoning include what you’d likely expect, such as:

  • Upset stomach 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

When to Seek Medical Attention

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should seek medical attention for gastrointestinal symptoms accompanied by a fever of 102° Fahrenheit or higher or which last three days or longer. 

Is That Leftover Rice Safe to Eat?

No one enjoys the tummy ache that accompanies eating food that’s gone bad. Fortunately, there are usually no consequences to eating day-old rice other than slaking your hunger. The trick is to put it in the refrigerator quickly after eating and consume it within three to four days.

While it’s generally okay to eat leftover rice, it’s also wise to avoid the cons. Follow the tips above and use your best judgment when deciding how to fill your dinner plate.

Next. Chipotle recipes: How to make Chipotle’s White Rice. Chipotle recipes: How to make Chipotle’s White Rice. dark