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Playing It Safe With Thanksgiving Leftovers

Author: be well™ with Big Y® Registered Dietitian Team

The "how-tos" of getting the most out of your holiday leftovers.

When your cooking and eating is done and guests bid their farewell, what do you do with all the leftovers? Whether you repurpose the holiday bird in recipes like turkey strata and pot pie or simply enjoy a few more rounds of Thanksgiving’s bounty with all the trimmings, stay safe from foodborne illness with these tips:

Right from the Start

As soon as you prepare a dish, the food safety clock begins. For this reason, handle leftovers with food safety in mind from the very beginning.

  • Don’t pass the 2-hour mark when it comes to keeping foods displayed on a buffet. Throw away any food left out longer than 2 hours.
  • Serve small portions on buffets. Keep remaining cold foods stored in the refrigerator and hot foods hot in an oven or slow cooker set on warm.
  • Once guests have finished eating, quickly refrigerate leftovers. This helps minimize the amount of time leftovers are left out and guests graze on food simply because it’s in front of them.


Store Safely

Gone are the days of leaving large vats of leftovers like gravy, soup and casseroles on the countertop to cool down or stored directly in the refrigerator. Divide leftovers (including turkey!) into small, shallow food storage containers and store immediately in the refrigerator, so they reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below as fast as possible.

Large containers of leftovers, like large cooking pots and pans, can take a while before the food in the center cools down. The longer a food takes to fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the more time any bacteria that is present in the food, like Salmonella and Listeria, has to multiply and cause a foodborne illness.


Reheat Properly

When you’re enjoying leftovers, always reheat to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit as verified by an instant-read food thermometer. This means bringing liquids like soup, sauce and gravy to a rapid boil. Always mix leftovers during the reheating process to best distribute heat.


Know The End Game

You have three to four days to enjoy delicious delectables like mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and turkey after they are cooked. Eat or freeze leftovers in this window of time or give them a toss.

To bring attention to the seriousness of holiday food safety, November 29th is considered “Throw Out Your Leftovers Day” for any dish prepared on Thanksgiving. For any recipes prepared before the actual date of the holiday, your “throw out leftovers day” will be earlier.


Go Shopping

Don’t have a food thermometer? It’s time you get one! A food thermometer may be your life saver. Always use temperature to verify foods are properly cooked, cooled and reheated—not look, smell, feel or taste.

For more tips on holiday food safety, visit the Safe Holiday Meal Tips and Planning page from our partners at the Partnership for Food Safety Education.


Happy Thanksgiving!

Reviewed 11/21/2022