A guide to storing Thanksgiving leftovers safely

October 3, 2017 in Food Safety, Leslie's Featured Content

A guide to storing Thanksgiving leftovers safely

Thanksgiving dinner is one of my favourite holiday meals, especially because of the leftovers. I usually have turkey and all the fixings for dinner the next day (in reasonable portions, of course), but I also repurpose leftover turkey and vegetables into new meals such as salads, soup, chili, even taco filling.  Doing so makes busy weekday lunches and dinners a no-brainer.

How long you can continue to enjoy your Thanksgiving leftovers depends on how you store them in the first place. When stored properly, foods remain safe and retain their quality, nutrients and flavour longer. 

Mind the "danger zone"

Your goal is to minimize the time foods stay in the so-called “danger zone”, a temperature range of 4 to 60 degrees Celsius (40 to 140 degrees F) in which illness-causing bacteria flourish.  To curtail bacteria from multiplying, store leftovers in the fridge within two hours after Thanksgiving dinner is finished cooking.  Foods that sit at room temperature longer than two hours should be thrown out.

Hot foods can be placed directly in the refrigerator. But first, divide large quantities of hot foods into smaller portions so they’ll cool quickly to a food-safe temperature. Store soups and casseroles in smaller shallow containers for quicker cooling. Cut a whole turkey into smaller pieces and slice or cut a roast or ham into smaller parts.  Store leftover turkey and stuffing in separate containers.  Make sure your fridge is set at 4°C (40°F) or colder to keep foods safe.

Wrap leftovers well in airtight packaging or storage containers to keep bacteria out and prevent leftovers from drying out.  And don’t overstuff your fridge. Cold air needs to circulate above and beneath food to keep it properly chilled. 

A timeline for storing leftovers

Most leftovers can be kept for three to four days in the fridge (see chart). If you have more food than you plan to eat within four days, freeze within two hours after it’s cooked.  When you’re ready to eat your leftovers, reheat them to an internal temperature of 74 degrees Celsius (165 degrees F), measured by a digital food thermometer.

Properly storing leftovers helps maintain their quality, nutritional value and safety. Use the following gauge to ensure safety and quality. If you have more food than you plan to eat within four days, store it in the freezer.

Turkey, cooked, Fridge: 3-4 days Freezer: 2-3 months

Meat (ham, beef), cooked, Fridge: 3-4 days Freezer: 2-3 months

Gravy, Fridge: 1-2 days, Freezer: 2-3 months

Cranberry sauce, Fridge: 10-14 days, Freezer 1-2 months

Stuffing, cooked, Fridge: 3-4 days, Freezer: 1 month

Mashed potatoes, yams, Fridge: 3-5 days, Freezer: 10-12 months

Soup, Fridge:  2-3 days, Freezer 4-6 months

Vegetables, cooked, Fridge: 3-4 days, Freezer: 2-3 months

Pumpkin pie, baked, Fridge: 3-4 days, Freezer: 1-2 months

Reheating leftovers to a safe temperature destroys bacteria that may have been introduced since last cooking. Bring soups and gravies to a rolling boil. If you reheat in the microwave, rotate or stir the food partway through to ensure the heat is evenly distributed.  

Final word

My tips assume you cooked your holiday turkey (or roast) properly in the first place. Use a food thermometer to ensure food is cooked to a safe internal temperature: turkey, 74 degrees C (165 degrees F); roast beef, 63 degrees C (145 degrees F) for medium rare; ham, 71 degrees C (160 degrees F).

All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.