Thanksgiving — it’s really the feast that keeps on giving. One of the best parts of this (or any) holiday dinner is having a fridge full of food to enjoy for days to come.
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But with a lot of leftover food comes a lot of responsibility. Foodborne illnesses commonly occur when leftovers aren’t stored properly or are left out for too long. To avoid making any post-Thanksgiving food mishaps, here’s what you should know.
Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, LD, tells us how to safely (and tastily) enjoy your leftovers after Thanksgiving.
Why is it important to store your leftovers properly?
Even though the most complicated part — getting that dang turkey cooked — is finished, taking care of leftovers should also be on your Thanksgiving to-do list. If your food isn’t stored properly, it could allow bacteria to grow. This could lead to a case of food poisoning, which, for some people, can be quite serious.
“Young children, the elderly and anyone who has an autoimmune disorder are always going to be more at risk,” says Czerwony. “This is because their immune function isn’t going to be as robust as somebody who’s healthy.”
Make a plan in advance for how you’ll pack away your leftovers, and you’ll be thanking yourself later when there’s no need to worry.
How long will Thanksgiving leftovers last?
The first thing you’ll need to decide is what goes where. Can your leftovers just live next to your milk and condiments or should they go in the freezer?
According to Czerwony, this will mainly depend on how much food you have left over and how long you want to hold onto it.
As a general rule, food can be frozen for up to six months, while food left in the fridge is good for about four days. So, if you have lots of turkey meat and stuffing left over, pack larger portions up to put directly into the freezer. Smaller side dishes that are sure to be gobbled up in the next few days can be kept in the fridge.
“An easy way to remember is that you have to have all those leftovers eaten by Cyber Monday,” says Czerwony.
How to properly store leftovers
Once you’ve decided what you want to freeze and what you want to leave in the fridge, there’s still some organizing left to be done.
Pay attention to timing and temperature
During your holiday dinner, your food will move through a lot of locations. From pan to the oven (to maybe another pan) to people’s plates and finally, your fridge. And it’s important to get the sweet spot of not storing your food too late or too early. This is because temperature is the biggest deciding factor if your food will stay good or go bad.
Czerwony says it’s crucial to not let food sit out for more than two hours. This is especially important if you’re planning to have a buffet-style dinner or if your meals have to be stored and get transported with you to the in-laws or friend’s house. It’s also important not to place your food into the fridge too soon. You need to allow it to cool down to room temperature first.
“Make sure you don’t put the food in the refrigerator while it’s still hot,” notes Czerwony. “There is a food temperature danger zone, which is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and this is where the food is most susceptible to bacteria. So, let it cool down quite a bit, and then you can put it in the refrigerator. This way it’s less likely to have any chance of bacterial overgrowth.”
Make the space in your fridge
In the same way, you prepare your home’s guest room for your relatives, you should clear some space in your fridge and freezer in anticipation of the avalanche of leftovers to come. This way, you’ll have easy access to the food and there will be less chance of any dishes getting forgotten. Plus, be sure any raw meat isn’t anywhere near leftovers, to avoid any cross-contamination.
“The other thing to remember is if you’re going to freeze something that has a little bit of liquid in it, give it enough space because it’s going to expand and you certainly don’t want it freezing and then breaking your container in the freezer,” Czerwony adds.
Use proper containers
The biggest enemy of your leftovers is air. Thanksgiving foods especially — think: gravy, grease, sauces and more — have a lot of moisture in them, and this can help create a hotbed for bacteria if not sealed properly.
“You really want to ensure that everything is in a sealed container so that the air doesn’t get to it,” explains Czerwony. “Not only will this avoid intermixing of flavors from the refrigerator, but it will also decrease the chances of that food getting spoiled.”
You can keep freezer burn from invading your leftovers in the freezer by making sure they’re tightly wrapped as well.
“I always recommend some sort of plastic wrap and then putting it in either the container or some aluminum foil because you really want to keep the moisture out of it to maintain the integrity of it,” states Czerwony.
Going for seconds? Make sure you’re reheating properly
Craving a turkey sandwich in the middle of the night? Just make sure to warm it up correctly. Sure, cold leftovers may taste fine to you, but it puts you at a higher risk for food poisoning. Trust us, you waited a full year for that turkey, you can wait a little longer while it’s in the microwave or oven. Or, you can even get creative and find other tasty recipes to bring your leftovers back to life.
Czerwony recommends having a good thermometer on-hand in the kitchen for whenever you’re reheating your leftovers. “Make sure that that food is reheated at 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius). And that doesn’t just go for the turkey, for all leftovers.”
So, make sure plastic wrap and aluminum foil are fully stocked in your kitchen, prep your Pyrexes® and clear out some space in your fridge and freezer in advance to make the post-dinner clean-up a breeze. And then, rest easy enjoying those leftovers for days — or weeks! — to come.