Oatmeal is a common breakfast food that is enjoyed by many for its convenience, nutrition, and comfort food appeal. It’s often prepared ahead of time and left to sit on the kitchen counter or dining table before being eaten. But is it safe to eat oatmeal that has been sitting out for a while? Here’s a comprehensive look at how long oatmeal can be left out before it goes bad and becomes unsafe to eat.
How long can oatmeal sit out?
The shelf life of oatmeal depends on a few key factors:
- Container: Oatmeal stored in an open container will go bad faster than oatmeal in a sealed, airtight container. Exposure to air causes oatmeal to dry out and degrade faster.
- Ingredients: Plain oatmeal made with just oats and water will last longer than oatmeal with perishable mix-ins like milk, yogurt, fruit, nuts, etc. The mix-ins can spoil and cause the oatmeal to go bad faster.
- Temperature: Warm environments accelerate spoilage. Oatmeal left out on the counter or in hot environments will go bad faster than oatmeal kept refrigerated.
Taking these factors into account, here are some general guidelines for how long oatmeal can be left out before it is considered unsafe to eat:
- Oatmeal with milk or other dairy – 1 to 2 hours
- Cooked oatmeal in a sealed container – 3 to 4 days
- Dry oats in an open container – 1 to 2 months
- Dry oats in a sealed container – 6 to 12 months
The above timeframes are for oatmeal left out at room temperature. Refrigerating oatmeal can extend its shelf life. But regardless, oatmeal that has been left out beyond the timeframes above and shows any signs of spoilage should be discarded.
How can you tell if oatmeal has gone bad?
Here are some signs that indicate oatmeal has spoiled and is unsafe to eat:
- Smell: Oatmeal that has gone rancid will have a sour, bitter odor instead of its usual mild, grain-like smell.
- Appearance: Mold development, usually greenish or white fuzzy spots, is a clear sign of spoilage.
- Texture: Spoiled oatmeal may be dry and crunchy or overly slimy.
- Taste: Rancid oatmeal will have a noticeably unpleasant, sour taste.
- Discoloration: Oatmeal that looks grey, yellowish, or brown has oxidized and gone bad.
Trust your senses – if oatmeal displays any odd colors, smells, appearances or textures, it is best to discard it.
Can you get food poisoning from eating bad oatmeal?
Eating spoiled, out of date oatmeal that contains mold or bacteria can definitely cause food poisoning. Symptoms include:
- Abdominal pain and cramps
The effects can appear within hours of eating contaminated oatmeal and last for several days. In severe cases of food poisoning, hospitalization may be required.
To avoid food poisoning, it’s critical to watch for signs of spoilage in oatmeal. Rancid, moldy, foul-smelling oatmeal should always be thrown away.
What bacteria can grow in oatmeal?
Several types of dangerous bacteria can grow and multiply in oatmeal if left out too long, including:
- Bacillus cereus – This spore-forming bacteria is commonly found in grains and produces toxins that cause vomiting and diarrhea.
- Staphylococcus aureus – Produces a heat-stable toxin that can survive cooking. Can cause severe nausea, cramps, and diarrhea.
- Clostridium perfringens – Found in many foods and produces a toxin that causes abdominal cramps and diarrhea.
- Salmonella – Can contaminate oats and survives well in moist, starchy foods like oatmeal. Causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.
Proper food safety techniques reduce the risk of dangerous bacteria multiplying to unsafe levels. This includes refrigerating oatmeal leftovers, cooking oatmeal thoroughly, and avoiding cross-contamination of utensils and surfaces.
Should you reheat oatmeal that’s been sitting out?
It’s not recommended to reheat oatmeal that has been left out too long. The danger zone for bacterial growth is between 40°F and 140°F. So oatmeal that has been sitting out for more than 2 hours and is now in this temperature range could have high levels of bacteria and should not be reheated or eaten.
Even refrigerated oatmeal that is older than 3-4 days can be risky to reheat and consume if any spoilage signs are present. The best practice is to make a fresh batch of oatmeal instead of trying to reheat oatmeal that could potentially be contaminated.
How should you store cooked oatmeal properly?
To safely store cooked oatmeal:
- Transfer to an airtight container after cooking to prevent moisture loss.
- Allow oatmeal to cool to room temperature before sealing container.
- Refrigerate within 2 hours of cooking.
- Ensure oatmeal is kept at or below 40°F in the refrigerator.
- Discard any uneaten portions after 3-4 days.
Proper refrigeration is key for keeping cooked oatmeal safe from bacterial growth. For maximum freshness and shelf life, cooked oatmeal can also be frozen for several months.
Can you freeze oatmeal?
Freezing is an excellent way to preserve cooked oatmeal for future meals. To freeze oatmeal:
- Cool oatmeal completely before transferring to a freezer-safe container.
- Leave 1⁄2 inch headspace to allow for expansion.
- Seal container tightly.
- Label container with date.
- Freeze for up to 3-6 months.
Thawed frozen oatmeal should be heated thoroughly until steaming hot before serving. Do not refreeze previously frozen oatmeal.
How long does oatmeal last in the fridge?
Properly stored oatmeal can last in the refrigerator for:
- Dry oats – 6 to 12 months past printed date
- Uncooked oatmeal – 4 to 6 days
- Cooked oatmeal – 3 to 4 days
Keep oatmeal contained in an airtight container and ensure your fridge temperature is at or below 40°F. Check refrigerated oatmeal frequently for signs of spoilage like mold growth, sliminess, or an off smell or appearance.
Can you eat expired oatmeal?
Dry, uncooked oats keep for a very long time past their printed expiration date, up to 1 year in an unopened package. So expired dry oats are generally safe to cook and eat as long as they have been stored properly in a cool, dry pantry. Discard any expired oats that are moldy, smell rancid, or show other signs of degradation.
However, pre-made instant oatmeal or flavored oatmeal packets should not be eaten past the expiration date. The additional ingredients in these products generally have a shorter shelf life. So expired instant or flavored oatmeal should be thrown out.
As always, inspect oatmeal closely and rely on your senses. If expired oatmeal has an off appearance, smell or texture, it’s better to be safe than sorry and throw it away.
Does microwaving kill bacteria in oatmeal?
Microwaving oatmeal can kill bacteria, but may not eliminate toxins produced by bacteria. The key factors are:
- Temperature – Oatmeal needs to reach an internal temperature of 165°F to kill most bacteria.
- Time – To reach a hot enough temperature, oatmeal should be microwaved for at least 1 minute after boiling starts.
- Distribution – Stirring oatmeal helps distribute heat evenly and bring the entire pot to a high enough temperature.
So microwaving at full power for 1-2 minutes, with stirring, can significantly reduce bacteria levels in oatmeal. But microwaving cannot reverse spoilage that has already occurred. Oatmeal that is excessively old, smells bad, or contains mold should still be discarded.
Can reheating oatmeal make you sick?
Yes, eating reheated oatmeal that has been left out too long or kept past recommended storage times can potentially make you sick. This is because:
- Bacteria like Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus can form heat-stable toxins that are not destroyed by reheating.
- Some pathogens like Clostridium botulinum and Listeria monocytogenes can survive refrigeration and multiply to dangerous levels in stored, cooked foods.
- Reheating cannot reverse spoilage or remove toxins already present from bacteria overgrowth.
Only reheat oatmeal that has been stored for less than 4 days in the refrigerator. Oatmeal that has been left out for more than 2 hours or shows any signs of spoilage should always be discarded.
Should you add boiling water to oatmeal that’s been sitting out?
No, adding boiling water to oatmeal that has been left out at room temperature for several hours is not safe. Even if the boiling water heats the oatmeal sufficiently to kill some bacteria, it does not remove toxins that bacteria produce as they multiply. Oatmeal left out longer than 2 hours may contain dangerous levels of bacteria-produced toxins and should be discarded.
Can you eat overnight oats that weren’t refrigerated?
Overnight oats need to be refrigerated within 2 hours of preparation to prevent bacterial overgrowth. If overnight oats are left out overnight at room temperature instead of being refrigerated, they should be thrown away. The combination of moist oats and dairy or other perishable ingredients makes overnight oats the perfect breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. Leaving them out too long provides an opportunity for foodborne pathogens to multiply to unsafe levels and produce toxins that can cause illness.
What are the best ways to store oatmeal safely?
To safely store oatmeal:
- Keep uncooked oats in a cool, dry pantry in an airtight container. Use within 1 year.
- Store cooked oatmeal in the refrigerator in a sealed container for 3-4 days. Throw away if not eaten after 4 days.
- Freeze oatmeal in an airtight container for up to 3-6 months.
- Avoid leaving oatmeal out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
- Check for signs of spoilage like odor, appearance, and texture. When in doubt, throw it out.
Oatmeal left out on the counter or table for more than 2 hours should not be eaten. Leaving cooked oatmeal out too long gives bacteria a chance to multiply to unsafe levels and release heat-stable toxins that can cause food poisoning. Refrigerating oatmeal after cooking can prolong its shelf life to 3-4 days. But the safest way to enjoy oatmeal and avoid foodborne illness is to freshly make it and eat it right away. When reheating refrigerated oatmeal, inspect carefully for any signs of spoilage and contamination. Remember, your health is not worth risking over a bowl of oatmeal!