Healthy Holidays: How Long Are Those Thanksgiving Leftovers Good?

Despite your best efforts to foist Tupperware containers loaded with turkey, stuffing, and rolls upon your Thanksgiving dinner guests, you may still find yourself left with a mountain of leftovers that will both crowd you refrigerator and, in less than a week, could harbor bacteria that causes foodborne illness. You don’t want to waste food, but you also want to be cautious. Just how long can you count on the safety of those leftovers?

Take-out and other food that goes in the refrigerator directly after eating can usually last close to a week. But because most of us let our Thanksgiving food sit at room temperature (known to anyone in the restaurant trade as “the danger zone“–seriously!) for the duration of the meal, it may already be prone to potentially dangerous or sickening bacteria. A good rule of thumb when it comes to food that’s been allowed to linger un-chilled is to refrigerate after four hours. This is especially true with poultry (or items containing poultry), dense grains or carbs (stuffing counts), or daily-based items, which are warm and moist, and thus, breeding grounds for bacteria.

However, if you get them into the refrigerator promptly after the meal, the cool temperature (under 40 degrees for optimal safety), your leftovers should remain eatable and safe for up to 4 or 5 days. Which means that if you’ve still got leftovers once December rolls around, you may want to approach them with caution.

Cold salads, sandwiches, and appetizers should go into the refrigerator as soon as the actual meal is served. If at all possible, keep them cool with ice packs or refrigerated dishes while you’re serving them, to slow bacteria growth.

Thoroughly reheating food items can kill some bacteria–but not all. So even if you’re not chowing down on cold turkey sandwiches, your food may still contain some of the bugs that may cause food poisoning, which is a pretty unpleasant way to start the holiday season.

If you’re not sure that you’ll be able to eat that 37th helping of mashed potatoes, pop them in the freezer before they reach the “questionable” stage. Food that’s frozen at its prime will reheat the best–and can live in your freezer for as  long as you let it.

Finding creative ways to quickly and easily re-invent and re-search your leftovers is one of the best ways to avoid wasting food by keeping containers of your meal items around past their prime. And remember, the golden rule of food safety not be the perfect solution, but it is best for keeping you and your family from food poinsoning: when in doubt, throw it out.

Image: Brooke Becker / Shutterstock

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