Whether you build a “moist maker” sandwich a la Ross from Friends or just indulge in cold turkey straight from the fridge, feasting on Thanksgiving leftovers is a quintessential part of the holiday. Yet as exciting as the thought of extra helpings of stuffing, mashed potatoes and pie is, certain safety precautions are in order to make sure the repast leaves you feeling satisfied — not sick.
Make sure your food is fresh from the outset
While most people worry about leftovers spoiling after being in the fridge for a few days, the truth is that the food might already be on its way out before you put it in.
For starters, it’s important to make sure that food is not left between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for longer than two hours, as it’s within that temperature range that most foodborne-illness-causing bacteria thrive, says Leah Groppo, clinical dietitian with Stanford Health Care.
“If you were to go to a Thanksgiving buffet, you probably would see chefs come around with a thermometer in their pocket and testing everything on the line,” Groppo tells Yahoo Life.
It’s why, during a long family dinner, it’s important to make sure that the meal is heated properly throughout — such as with a heated chafing dish — or, alternatively, gets placed in the fridge before that two-hour mark.
This is especially important for animal proteins like turkey, which have a higher risk of growing dangerous bacteria than plant-based foods do.
“I think a lot of people will say, ‘Oh, my Aunt Susie always leaves the turkey out all night, and we’ve been fine,’” Groppo says. “That happens, but the problem with food safety is that sometimes it’s fine for family members, but if someone is immunocompromised or something like that, it becomes a bigger issue.”
As long as the food has been handled properly, Groppo says that these still-fresh leftovers should last about four days in the fridge — and even longer if you freeze them, ideally in a container with a vacuum seal.
“You can freeze things for a really long period of time because it really slows any type of growth of bacteria,” Groppo says. “Normally, we say, like, four months is fine in the freezer. After four months, it’s still safe, but that’s when you start getting freezer burn or dryness.”
How to safely store leftovers
Popping warm food into the fridge doesn’t mean it will reach the safe 40-degree mark immediately — and it can take an especially long time to cool down if it’s put into containers that don’t have a lot of surface area.
“It’s helpful to have whatever you store your food in not be very deep,” says Groppo. “With the increased surface area [of a shallow container], it cools down the whole product faster. If you put gravy in a very tall container, for example, the middle part would stay at an unsafe temperature range for longer than if you were to put it in a longer Pyrex dish, for example.”
It’s also worth noting that your fridge temperature can go up if you fill it with a lot of hot food, thus reducing the effectiveness of the refrigeration. Groppo says that you can turn down the temperature in your fridge if you have warm leftovers and also let really hot items (such as soup) cool a bit before putting them back in the fridge.
Be mindful of reheating
It’s also important to consider temperature when reheating leftovers.
Kathleen Moore, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, notes that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has guidelines for temperatures to heat different kinds of foods, and for leftovers, that magic number is 165 degrees. And that means the entire dish much reach that temperature, so beware if you’re microwaving and the center stays cold.
“It’s hard to reheat certain things, which may mean you need to chop things up into smaller pieces,” says Moore, noting that you can use leftovers for different purposes, such as turning turkey into filling for meat pies. “If people have questions about their leftover safety, there’s actually a hotline to call. It’s called the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, and the number is 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854).”
How not to waste leftovers
About a third of all food in the United States ends up in landfills or incinerators, goes down the drain or is left to rot in fields, says Roni Neff, an expert on food-waste prevention. Squirreling away leftovers actively works against the problem of food waste.
“Part of the theme and messaging of Thanksgiving is to appreciate your food,” says Neff. “Doing everything we can to preserve that is key. That may mean having a bunch of food-storage containers available so that people can take home leftovers. You can pack food right in those containers to make it easy for people to take it home afterwards.”
That also means not giving in to overly cautious fears that none of the food left after your Thanksgiving sit-down is “good” anymore.
“We need to pay attention to foodborne illness because foodborne illness is horrible,” Neff says. “But because there are concerns about food safety, many of us become really overly precautionary and throw out a lot more than we need to.”