Skip to Main Content

Apply Now to the University of Wyoming apply now

Appetite for Knowledge

Handling Thanksgiving Leftovers

Thanksgiving dinner is the main event, but the leftovers that follow are equally important when it comes to food safety. For many individuals, Thanksgiving leftovers are the best part of the meal. The proper handling of leftovers is an integral part of Thanksgiving food safety. To ensure that every serving remains safe, follow these United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines:

Remember the Two-Hour Rule: All perishable items should be refrigerated within two hours of coming out of the oven or refrigerator. After two hours, perishable food enters the Danger Zone (between 40 to 140°F), where bacteria can multiply quickly and cause the food to become unsafe. If foods have been left out for more than two hours, discard items to prevent foodborne illness.

Taking care to store leftovers correctly can help you avoid getting a bad case of foodborne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Clostridium perfringens is one bacteria that can grow in cooked foods that are left at room temperature for too long after cooking. It also produces toxins that cannot be inactivated by reheating the foods.

Use Small and Shallow Containers: A large container or whole turkey will take too long to cool down to a safe temperature, which gives bacteria a chance to multiply. Don’t store stuffing inside a leftover turkey. Remove the stuffing from the turkey and refrigerate it and the meat separately.

Store leftover food in small, shallow sealed containers in the refrigerator until the Monday after Thanksgiving Day or in the freezer for later use. Shallow containers help cool leftovers more quickly than storing them in large containers. Airtight packaging or sealed storage containers keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator.

Use a Fridge Thermometer: It is important to remember that even though refrigerators are supposed to be 36 to 40°F, their inside temperatures vary. Refrigerators have different temperatures in different locations. It depends on the design of the refrigerator, but as a general rule, they tend to be colder in the back and at the bottom. Keep a thermometer in your refrigerator and move it around from time to time to make sure the fridge is functioning and keeping your food at safe temperatures.

Consume or Freeze Within Four Days: Use the Monday after Thanksgiving as a reminder that it is the last day you can safely eat leftovers. If you want to keep leftovers longer, freeze them within those four days to enjoy later.

Some foods do not freeze well. Mashed potatoes and starchy vegetables will lose so much water out of their structure that they’ll be very dry and unappealing. The potatoes will be mealy. Foods made with cream, milk, or sour cream will separate, become watery, and may curdle.

Frozen food stays safe indefinitely, though the quality may decrease over time. If you store leftovers in the freezer, they will be of the best quality within two to six months. It’s a matter primarily of texture and flavor in terms of how long you can let something stay in the freezer rather than safety.

Reheating Leftovers: It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing, either in a saucepan, microwave, or oven. Reheating will take longer than if the food is thawed first. Make sure that when microwaving leftovers, the food is covered and rotates for even heating. The USDA recommends bringing all sauces and gravies to a rolling boil when reheating. Reheat leftovers to an internal temperature of 165°F using a food thermometer.

Microwave Food Safely: When reheating in the microwave, cover and rotate the food for even heating. Arrange food items evenly in a covered microwave-safe dish and add some liquid if needed. Because microwaves have cold spots, check the internal temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer after allowing a resting time. Cooking continues for a longer time in dense foods such as poultry or meat than in less dense foods like breads, vegetables, and fruits.

If you have additional questions about using your leftovers safely, you can call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854) or chat live with a food safety specialist at available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday, in English or Spanish.

No one wants to be sick, especially this time of the year. Following food safety guidelines will help keep everyone healthy. I would like to wish everyone a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving Holiday!


Written by Vicki Hayman, MS, University of Wyoming Extension Nutrition and Food Safety Educator


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
  • U. S. Department of Agriculture,
Thanksgiving meal

Contact Our Expert!


Extension Educator:
Vicki Hayman – (307) 746-3531

University of Wyoming Extension

Feedback Form

Follow UW Nutrition and Food Safety

Feel free to use and share this content, but please do so under the conditions of our Rules of Use. Thank You.

For more information, contact a University of Wyoming Nutrition and Food Safety Educator at or Ask an Expert.

Have a Question?

Contact Our Expert!


Extension Educator:
Vicki Hayman – (307) 746-3531

University of Wyoming Extension

Subscribe to UW Nutrition and Food Safety Newletters


Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelly Crane, Director, University of Wyoming Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

The University of Wyoming is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution.

1000 E. University Ave. Laramie, WY 82071
UW Operators (307) 766-1121 | Contact Us | Download Adobe Reader