Meal preppers take note: USDA says leftover food only safe for 3 to 4 days after cooking

If you have a Sunday ritual of meal prepping for the entire week to save time or to set yourself up for success in your health goals, you may want to reconsider how much food you make in advance.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, prepared meals or leftovers aren't intended to stretch for as long as you may think.

"Cooked meals are only safe for up to four days in the fridge," the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, revealed in a post on Twitter.

So if you cook pre-portioned meals for the week through Friday, your prepared meals can be stored in the refrigerator for three to four days — or frozen for three to four months, the Food Safety and Inspection Service states on its website.

Spoilage bacteria can grow at low temperatures, such as in the refrigerator, if left for too long. This kind of bacteria is unlikely to make you violently ill (but might make you gag), according to experts.

Signs that your meal-prepped food has spoiled include all the usual suspects: a change in color, texture, an unpleasant odor — or it just downright tastes bad.

"Spoilage bacteria can cause meat or poultry to turn a dark color, develop an objectionable odor, and become slimy from the high bacterial numbers," explained Argyris Magoulas, a technical information specialist with the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Meat with these characteristics should not be used."

The other kind of bacteria found in refrigerated foods is pathogenic bacteria, which can grow rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. This kind of bacteria also causes food poisoning. Experts say to never leave perishable foods out of refrigeration for more than two hours.

As a rule of thumb, your refrigerator should be set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, and your freezer to 0 degrees or below. Magoulas said it's important to cool food rapidly to prevent bacterial growth.

"To do this, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers," Magoulas said. "A big pot of soup, for example, will take a long time to cool, inviting bacteria to multiply and increasing the danger of foodborne illness. Instead, divide the pot of soup into smaller containers so it will cool quickly."

Visit the Food Safety's Cold Food Storage Chart for reference on when to throw out certain types of food before the bacteria grows. Meal prep masters should also check out the USDA's leftovers and food safety guide for safe eating.

If your food looks questionable, a simple rule is: "When in doubt, throw it out."