Thanksgiving Day is for family and friends. But Thanksgiving weekend is all about you and those amazing leftovers! Before you dig in, keep these tips handy so that leftovers can stay safely stored in the fridge or freezer.
Handling food safely = safe and tasty leftovers
- Leftovers should be stored within two hours of cooking. Divide leftovers into smaller portions and refrigerate or freeze them in covered shallow containers so they cool quickly. A large container or whole turkey will take too long to cool down to a safe temperature, which gives bacteria a chance to multiply.
- The turkey should also be portioned to ensure quick cooling in the refrigerator.
- Seventy-six percent of respondents in a recent USDA study said they would refrigerate leftovers after letting them cool to room temperature first. This is not necessary and could actually make your food unsafe. Leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible, even if they still have steam or heat coming off of them.
How long do the turkey and trimmings stay safe in the refrigerator or freezer?
- The answer is simple: leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for three to four days. This means you have until the Monday after Thanksgiving to eat all those delicious leftovers or place them in the freezer to enjoy later. If you store leftovers in the freezer, they will be of best quality within 2-6 months.
- Not enough consumers know that food can become unsafe in the refrigerator after four days. In fact, 31 percent of participants in our recent research indicated they would eat leftovers kept longer than four days in the refrigerator. After four days, spoilage bacteria can cause food to develop a bad smell or taste.
For those who see themselves forgetting the Monday ‘use or freeze’ deadline, the USDA has a handy app, which triggers reminders to your smartphone or tablet; it’s called the FoodKeeper app.
But FoodKeeper isn’t just a source of helpful reminders. The app also includes storage guidelines for more than 600 food and drink items, tips for safe food preparation, and food product recalls, which were recently integrated into the app. With more than 150,000 downloads for Android and iOS devices, FoodKeeper has established itself as the quick go-to guide for safe food storage and food preparation.
Now, on to the dishes – reheat leftovers safely
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 one-pot meals). Reheating will take longer than if the food is thawed first, but it is safe to do when time is short. When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach 165°F, as measured with a food thermometer. Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through.
- Reheat sauces, soups and gravies by bringing them to a rolling boil.
- When reheating in the microwave, cover and rotate the food for even heating. Arrange food items evenly in a covered microwave-safe glass or ceramic dish and add some liquid if needed. Be sure the covering is microwave safe, and vent the lid or wrap to let the steam escape. The moist heat that is created will help destroy harmful bacteria and will ensure uniform cooking.
- Also, because microwaves have cold spots, check the temperature of the food in several places with a food thermometer and allow a resting time before checking the internal temperature of the food with a food thermometer.
If you have additional questions about using your leftovers safely, you can contact the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline to talk to a food safety expert. Call 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854), email at MPHotline@usda.gov, or chat live at ask.usda.gov from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.