If you’re like most people, the thought of Thanksgiving conjures up images of food, family, friends, more food—and lots of turkey. And because Thanksgiving is not the holiday to skimp on how much food you prepare (you never know if your family members are bringing a plus one) people tend to roll into Black Friday with more leftovers than they know what to do with. And while it might be tempting to let the leftover turkey and sides sit in the fridge and eat them until they’re gone, it turns out that might not be the best idea. We detail the ins and outs of how to store your Thanksgiving leftovers properly—from how long you should leave food out before storing it to which containers will best extend your leftovers’ lifespans.
How long can leftover turkey be left out?
Especially when it comes to turkey and other meat or food containing eggs or dairy, you’ll want to be extra careful about not only how you prepare the foods, but also how long you let them sit out before putting them away. “Proteins are the first to go bad and can cause food poisoning,” explains Josh Revoir, manager at Panera Bread and certified food safety expert.
“Basically, any protein (like turkey or other meat) can stay outside of the refrigerator for no more than 4 hours. The temperature danger zone is between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. After that foodborne bacteria can form which can cause food poisoning,” Revoir explains.
If you do realize that the turkey and ham have been left out for more than 4 hours, your best bet to avoid potential food poisoning is to toss the food (no matter how much you were looking forward to enjoying the leftovers).
Eat This! Tip:
If you know your Thanksgiving guests won’t get through that entire 20-pound turkey during dinner, consider setting some aside right off the bat to minimize the potential for contamination.
Also note that other foods like vegetable sides, or dishes prepared with milk are different, as is another food like say a tossed salad. Raw veggies and foods like bread or crackers also pose less of a risk if left to sit out on the container while your guests mingle or enjoy drinks.
The best way to store your leftovers for maximum freshness (and safety)
Once you decide to pack up and store the leftovers from your Thanksgiving feast, there are some other things you can do to ensure that the food stays safe and fresh while in the fridge.
If you have a large serving of food you’d like to store, like say, mashed potatoes and gravy or maybe a casserole that’s been kept warm in the oven, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service suggests to be sure that you cool the food down quickly to prevent bacteria from growing. If you do have large servings of some type of food, like turkey, or another dish it’s best to divide it up into smaller portions so it can cool faster in the refrigerator. (Plus, this will help you heat up exactly what you need when the time comes to eat it!)
And how you store your holiday leftovers is almost as important as how soon you put them away. To maximize freshness for your food, be sure to wrap all of the food tightly in BPA-free plastic or glass containers. The goal is to make sure all of your leftovers are wrapped well so no air (and therefore bacteria) can enter into the food. This will also make sure your leftovers taste good and don’t dry out in the fridge.
Don’t let your leftovers sit in the fridge for too long
Once you do have your food stored away in the fridge for later, you’ll want to be sure to note the date and consume within a safe window of time. This time frame can vary, but the USDA says you’ll only want to keep leftovers in your fridge for 3-4 days. So if you have more turkey and dressing than you think you can eat within 4 days, you’ll want to go ahead and freeze at least half of the leftovers. Once frozen, the leftovers can be eaten within 3-4 months.
Eat This! Tip:
This also applies to new meals you repurpose your leftovers into. Just because you use your leftover turkey four days after Thanksgiving to make turkey pot pie doesn’t mean that you now have four more days to consume that pie. Repurpose your leftovers to make one of these 30 Genius Thanksgiving Leftover Ideas Even Martha Stewart Would Be Jealous Of as soon as you can after Thanksgiving, and then freeze immediately if you don’t plan on eating within a couple days.
The holidays are a time for fun, relaxation, and quality time spent with loved ones. Don’t let the fun get interrupted by unexpected illness due to food poisoning. Now is the time to pay attention to the food safety guidelines so when the holidays come (and go) there’s no guessing on if something is ok to eat, and you won’t be caught having to throw out copious amounts of food unnecessarily.