Turkey FUNdamentals: Leftovers
By Diane Van, Food Safety Education Staff Deputy Director, USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service
The Sad Case of the Leftover Thanksgiving Doggy Bag
“Would you like a doggy bag to take home?” asks the waiter. “That would be great” says the diner. Nearly half of her dinner remains on the plate and will make a quick second meal for another day.
But wait. Here’s the same diner calling the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Meat and Poultry Hotline the following day. “I put a restaurant doggy bag in the back seat of my car last night, and when I came out to drive to work, there it sat. Is it safe if I heat it up again?”
Sadly, no. The food safety expert at USDA explains that bacteria in food left out for more than two hours double in number every 20 minutes, and some bacteria make a poison or toxin that can make you ill, hence the term “food poisoning.”
Even if you were able to heat the food and destroy the thousands of bacteria present in the backseat doggy bag, the toxin can make you ill. It’s a lose-lose proposition. Toss that “puppy” out!
Handling Leftovers Safely
How could the doggy-bag owner handle the bonus meal safely? First of all, take the restaurant leftovers straight home – no running errands or visiting friends. Within 2 hours of being served, the leftovers should be safely tucked away at home in the refrigerator where they can safely remain for three to four days.
Leaving food out at an unsafe temperature is one of the main causes of foodborne illness. Safe handling of leftovers is very important to reducing foodborne illness. Follow these USDA recommendations for handling leftovers safely – whether from a restaurant or home cooked.
- Bacteria grow rapidly between the temperatures of 40° F and 140° F. After food is safely cooked, leftovers must be refrigerated within twohours.
- Throw away any hot or cold leftovers that have been left out for more than two hours at room temperature (one hour when the temperature is above 90 °F, such as at an outdoor event).
- To prevent bacterial growth, it’s important to cool hot food rapidly to the safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40° F. To do this, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. A big pot of soup, for example, will take a long time to cool, inviting bacteria to multiply and increasing the danger of foodborne illness.
- Cut large items of food into smaller portions to cool. For whole roasts, turkey or hams, slice or cut them into smaller parts.
- Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator, or it can be rapidly chilled in an ice or cold water bath before refrigerating.
- Cover leftovers, wrap them in airtight packaging, or seal them in storage containers. These practices help keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator. Immediately refrigerate or freeze the wrapped leftovers for rapid cooling.
Reheating Safely Stored Leftovers
- Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for three to four days or frozen for three to four months. Although safe indefinitely, frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times in the freezer.
- When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165° F. Use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the food. Reheat sauces, soups and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil. Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through.
- Thaw frozen leftovers safely in the refrigerator, cold water or the microwave oven. When thawing leftovers in a microwave, continue to heat it until it reaches 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
- Any leftover “leftovers” thawed by the cold water method or in the microwave should be reheated to 165 °F before refreezing.
- In a real hurry? It is safe to reheat frozen leftovers without thawing, either in a saucepan or microwave (in the case of a soup or stew) or in the oven or microwave (for example, casseroles and combination meals). Reheating will take longer than if the food is thawed first, but it is safe to do when time is short.
If you have any questions about turkeys and Thanksgiving, feel free to contact us at the Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) or online at AskKaren.gov.