Food Safety: Storing Thanksgiving Leftovers

Store your Thanksgiving leftovers safely and quickly with advice from our experts.
Related To:

World's Simplest Thanksgiving Turkey

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

How long can you leave Thanksgiving dinner out on the table?

A good rule of thumb for food safety is to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. But chances are your dining room isn't set up with restaurant-style warming trays and buffet servers. Take your time around the dinner table, but start packing up and refrigerating the leftovers within two hours.

The Best Way to Store Leftovers

Leftovers should be cooled down as quickly as possible. Pack them into several shallow containers rather than one large one, and make sure you don't stack the containers in the refrigerator (this can trap the heat). The more surface area that's exposed to the cold air, the faster your food will cool.

Remove any stuffing from the turkey cavity and store it in a separate container. Carve the meat from the bones or separate the turkey into smaller pieces and divide it among shallow containers or plastic bags. It may be tempting to keep any leftover sweet potatoes or green beans in the half-empty serving dish and just cover it with plastic wrap, but it's best to put everything in a clean, smaller container. It will also save a lot of space in the refrigerator.

How long can leftovers be kept in the fridge?

You can store your leftovers in the refrigerator for up to four days. Try to reheat only what you'll be serving at one time rather than reheating the entire portion. It's safe to heat it all and then re-store what you don't use, but the food will continue to lose flavor and moisture the more it's reheated.

Use a thermometer to make sure your leftovers are reheated to 165 degrees F. Sauces, soups and gravies should come to a full boil. If you're using the microwave, cover the food and rotate it frequently to make sure it heats evenly.

What’s the best way to freeze leftovers?

Freezing keeps food safe by preventing the growth of bacteria, which can cause the food to spoil. As long as your leftovers have been frozen at 0 degrees F, you can store them indefinitely. But they'll taste best used within two to three months.

Pack side dishes like stuffing and mashed potatoes into airtight freezer containers or plastic freezer bags. Slice the meat from the turkey and wrap it in freezer paper or foil, then seal in plastic freezer bags (make sure to press out all the air before sealing). Liquids, like soup or gravy, will expand slightly as they freeze, so leave a little space at the top of the container. It's fine to keep leftovers in the refrigerator for a few days before deciding to freeze them, but to preserve their freshness, the sooner they go in the freezer the better. If the food isn't cool already, refrigerate it for a few hours before moving it to the freezer, and avoid stacking the containers until they're frozen solid.

Don't forget to label and date your leftovers. Everything will look the same once it's wrapped.

Additional Storage Tips

1. Make room in your refrigerator and freezer ahead of time to avoid shuffling things around after dinner. Use up lunchmeats, cheeses, yogurt, drinks and condiments the week before.

2. Make sure you have plenty of small and large freezer bags, and freezer-safe containers. Organize them before the meal (make sure they all have a lid) so that everyone can pitch in with the cleanup soon after dinner is finished.

3. Round plastic pie storage containers help save space in the refrigerator. You can stack them, plus you won't worry about anything falling and crushing the pies.

4. Once your leftovers are packed away, avoid opening and closing the refrigerator door until the food has had time to cool down.

5. Have extra ice on hand in case you need it for cooling down soups and gravies (a pot of hot soup can warm up the fridge pretty quickly).

Should you let food come to room temperature or put it straight in the refrigerator?

Food never has to come to room temperature before storing it. In fact, the less time it spends at room temperature the better. Chances are that by the time you're finished eating Thanksgiving dinner, it will be close to cool anyway, so wrap it and refrigerate it immediately. If one of your dishes is still steaming hot, you may want to chill it uncovered until it cools down, then cover it (otherwise it will take longer to cool). It's even fine to send hot soup or gravy straight to the fridge; the only problem is that it may raise the temperature inside your refrigerator, causing everything to take longer to cool. You can quick-chill the soup or gravy first by setting the container in a bowl of ice water and stirring often until it cools down, then cover it and move it to the refrigerator.

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