Thanksgiving Leftovers: How Long Can You Safely Enjoy Eating Them?

Adriana Velez | Nov 4, 2014 Food & Party

thanksgiving leftovers

Ah, Thanksgiving leftovers. We look forward to them almost as much as the Thanksgiving dinner itself. That's why these special leftovers deserve to be treated with care -- well, that and you want to prevent any risk of food poisoning! Just to be on the safe side, check out these handy tips for safely storing your Thanksgiving leftovers.

food storage containers for leftovers

Which leftovers do you look forward to the most?


Images ©; © Bolyukh

  • Plan Ahead for Your Leftovers


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    Given the small window of time you have for storing leftovers and how sleepy all that delicious food makes us all feel, make it easier to do the smart thing. Stock up on storage containers and bags (if you need more) when you do your Thanksgiving food shopping. Then have those freezer bags and containers out and ready before you sit down for dinner.

  • Reduce the Temperature of Your Leftovers Quickly


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    Public health & safety organization National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International recommends reducing the temperature of your leftovers as quickly as possible. Cooling food quickly helps discourage bacterial growth. You can put hot food directly into the refrigerator as long as you put it into smaller containers first. So do that with any extra foods you're not serving at the table before dinner starts.

  • You Have 2 Hours


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    You have two hours to put away your leftovers, either in the refrigerator or the freezer. 

    Be careful with any leftovers you plan to send home with your guests. "The two-hour rule still applies," cautions Cheryl Luptowski, home safety expert at NSF International. "If possible, cool the food down to less than 40 degrees F before sending home, and make sure that the guests live within an hour or so of your home so that the food will stay safe on the journey home."

  • Keep the Heat On


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    "If you plan to have a lot of guests," suggests Luptowski, home safety expert at NSF International, "consider having a buffet line, which would allow you to use heated pans or ice dishes to help keep the foods you are serving at safe temperatures."

  • Toss Anything Left Out Longer Than 2 Hours


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    It's hard to say goodbye.

  • Refrigerate for 3-4 Days


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    The general rule of thumb is that leftovers are safe for 3-4 days in the refrigerator. Toss anything that goes uneaten after that point. Freezing will not undo whatever bacterial growth has already happened by then.

  • Freezing Is Forever But ...


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    Technically, you can keep food frozen indefinitely. But quality will suffer over time. Luptowski says most Thanksgiving foods will freeze well, but pumpkin and other custard-style pies don't. She recommends storing those pies in the refrigerator and eating within 3-4 days.

  • Store in Serving Sizes


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    For best results, divide your leftovers into serving-size portions before storing. If you're freezing, this will help thawing happen faster. And you won't run the risk of thawing large quantities you don't need and having to re-freeze the rest again.

  • Reheat to 165 Degrees


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    Reheat your leftovers to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. If you're microwaving, stir part-way through your cook time to heat more evenly.

    More from The Stir: 12 tips for Staying Sane When Hosting a Crowd for Thanksgiving

  • Serve Only What You'll Eat


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    Luptowski suggests this for smaller dinner parties: "Consider carving the turkey in the kitchen and only placing enough turkey on the serving platter for the amount of guests coming to dinner. The rest of the turkey can be kept in a warm oven (be sure to keep the temperature of the turkey above 165 degrees F) or placed in the refrigerator until you have a chance to finish cleaning it. You can also do the same with other dishes that you plan to serve." 

    Now that's a smart, easy way to plan for dinner the next night and the next too ...

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