Handling Thanksgiving leftovers

Often when individuals cook for the Thanksgiving holiday, there are likely to be plenty of leftovers. To ensure that leftovers are safe to eat, make sure the food is cooked to a safe internal temperature and refrigerate the leftovers promptly within two hours after they are removed from an appliance. Bacteria grows rapidly between the temperatures of 40° F and 140° F. After food is safely cooked, hot food must be kept hot at 140° F or warmer to prevent bacterial growth. Cooking food at a safe temperature and leaving food out at an unsafe temperature are the two main causes of foodborne illness. Foodborne illness is caused by food or beverages that are contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, or toxins. Safe handling of leftovers is particularly important in reducing foodborne illness. Follow these 7 tips below to ensure your Thanksgiving leftovers are safe to consume.

  1. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of preparation to reduce the possibility of bacteria growing. Any food sitting out at room temperature for longer than two hours should be discarded. 
  2. When storing meat leftovers, cut large items of food into smaller portions to cool. For whole roasts or hams, slice or cut them into smaller pieces. Cut turkey into smaller pieces and refrigerate. Slice breast meat: legs and wings may be left whole.
  3. It is important to get the temperature of the leftovers down quickly to prevent any type of bacterial growth. To speed up the cooling process, try separating massive quantities of leftovers into smaller containers. Leave hot foods partially uncovered while cooling, and then cover them completely once they reach 40º F or freeze.
  4. Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator or be rapidly chilled in an ice or cold-water bath before refrigerating. Leftovers can also be immediately frozen for reheating later. While freezing stops the growth of bacteria, food quality can suffer if stored too long in the freezer.
  5. When reheating leftovers, make sure the internal temperature of the food reaches at least 165º F before eating it. If using a microwave, stir the food occasionally to help promote even reheating.
  6. Properly handled leftovers can usually be kept in the refrigerator for three to four days, while frozen leftovers can last up to three or four months. If not eaten within that time, they should be discarded.
  7. When covering leftovers, wrap them in airtight packaging, or seal them in storage containers. These practices help keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator. 

If you need help on Thanksgiving Day, the Meat and Poultry Hotline is available from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern Time. You can contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) to talk to a food safety expert or chat live at  ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.

Shakera Williams, M.P.H., Assistant FCS Nutrition Extension Agent – Nutrition, Webster/Claiborne Parish

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