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Safe Keeping of Thanksgiving Leftovers

While you could make just enough food to feed your friends and family on the big day, you’d miss out on one of the best parts of Thanksgiving: leftovers!

Many cooks actually plan to have food left over so they can send it home with guests or keep it for themselves to enjoy several satisfying post-holiday meals.

Avoiding Foodborne Illnesses

The last thing you want for yourself or your guests at Thanksgiving is a queasy stomach (or worse), thanks to improper food handling. Food safety is an important consideration any time of the year, but during the holidays, food tends to sit out a lot longer than usual as guests get distracted by watching football or partaking of other festive activities. However, observing safe handling and storage practices is important when dealing with Turkey Day leftovers.

Keeping Food Out of the Danger Zone

One of my pet peeves is seeing leftovers get wrapped up in containers so guests can take them home with them…then they sit at room temperature on the kitchen counter or table until guests are ready to leave. By the time guests make their way out the door and drive themselves home, the leftovers can be sitting out for at least four hours or more. This is horrifying!

How to Handle Leftovers

Leftovers need to be properly handled. Here are answers to Thanksgiving leftover questions, which will keep your Thanksgiving feast leftovers as safe as they are delicious!

How long can you leave your Thanksgiving dinner on the table before running the risk of it spoiling? The danger zone, where harmful bacteria multiply the fastest, is between 41°F and 135°F. If you are keeping some dishes hot while you wait for the turkey to be done or guests to arrive, the oven temperature has to be high enough to keep the internal temperature at 135°F or higher.

Bacterial Growth

Once food is cooked thoroughly and served, it has two hours at room temperature (1 hour in temperatures above 90°F) before bacteria can start to grow and make it less safe to eat. The USDA recommends discarding any leftovers that have been at room temperature more than two hours! This is because the temperature of the food has most likely been in the food danger zone for too long and allowed bacteria to rapidly reproduce and contaminate the food, so if it has been two hours since the Thanksgiving table was set and there’s still food on it, do not bother bagging it up and putting it in the fridge–just throw it away.

The Sooner the Better!

Should you let food come to room temperature before putting it in the refrigerator? No. The sooner you refrigerate leftovers the better. The faster leftovers can cool means they spend less time in the Food Danger Zone (41°F to 135°F).

Storing Leftovers

What’s the best way to store leftovers? Divide leftovers into smaller wrapped portions or in clean covered shallow containers. This allows the leftovers to reach cooler, safer temperatures more quickly. Avoid overstocking the refrigerator to allow cool air to circulate freely.

Consider Leftover Precautions

Sending leftovers home with guests is a great way to minimize the amount of refrigerator or freezer space needed by the host. However, the two-hour rule still applies, but travel time now needs to be factored into the situation. If guests taking leftovers will take a long time to get home and push food past the two hour mark, ask them beforehand to come prepared with their own cooler and ice packs.

How Long Will the Food Keep?

How long can leftovers keep in the refrigerator? A general rule of thumb is to use refrigerated leftovers within four days. This means you have until the Monday after Thanksgiving to eat all those delicious leftovers or place them in the freezer to enjoy later. The USDA food safety site, at, has a food safety chart with recommendations on how long specific foods can be kept in the fridge.

If you don’t remember how long food has been in the refrigerator, remember the old adage, “when in doubt, throw it out!” Never rely on your nose, eyes, or taste buds to judge the safety of food. Date leftovers to help identify the contents and to ensure they are not stored too long.

Freezing Leftovers

When freezing, use heavy-duty foil and freezer-appropriate containers and bags; wrap items tightly and in a double layer to maintain moisture and prevent freezer burn. In the freezer, leftovers should be eaten within six months. After this period, it is not safety that suffers; only quality as the food will become more susceptible to freezer burn.

Reheating Leftovers

It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing, either in a saucepan or microwave or in the oven or microwave. Reheating will take longer than if the food is thawed first, but it is safe to do when time is short.

When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165°F, as measured with a food thermometer. Soups, sauces, and gravies should be brought to a rolling boil for at least one minute. Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through.

Sometimes there are leftover “leftovers.” It is safe to refreeze any food remaining after reheating previously frozen leftovers to the safe temperature of 165° F., as long as it’s been properly handled.

A lack of understanding of proper food safety leads to many cases of illnesses each year during the holidays. After cooking, don’t be tempted to cut corners when storing leftovers. Preparing ahead of time can make safe storage of leftovers easy.


Thanksgiving Meal

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

University of Wyoming Extension

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Extension Educator:
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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.

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