One of the bonuses of preparing a Thanksgiving feast is having yummy leftovers to savor for a few more meals. Some people even enjoy Thanksgiving leftovers more than the main meal itself. Besides, who feels like cooking after all that holiday meal prep? But you want to prep those leftovers properly, so keep them for as long as possible.
So how long do Thanksgiving leftovers last? Prepared foods can grow unfriendly bugs pretty quickly. But you can take a few steps to ensure the food stays safe to eat. With a bit of planning, your Thanksgiving leftovers can last until you've enjoyed every last bite.
How Long Do Thanksgiving Leftovers Last?
Leftover cooked turkey lasts in the fridge for up to 3-4 days, as do most cooked foods from your Thanksgiving table. Decide what you can eat within 3-4 days and label that food with the date before putting it in the fridge or freezer. Then, be sure to reheat it safely. If the food becomes slimy, sticky, moldy or smelly during this time, toss it, as this can be a sign of spoilage.
Refrigerator Storage Times
For foods not listed here, see the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) refrigerator storage guidelines. If your refrigerated food has an expiration date, such as a package of lettuce, use this date as a guide.
Freezer Storage Times
If you're enjoying company after the big meal, your food is safe in the refrigerator for a few hours until you can do the fridge-to-freezer swap. Most foods freeze well. Anything that you don't plan to eat within 3-4 days needs to be frozen.
Ideally, your freezer registers 0 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temp, bacteria are dormant. Freezing doesn't kill bacteria, but it keeps them from multiplying.
Here are some guidelines for how long to keep food in the freezer for the best taste and quality.
Safety Tips to Make Thanksgiving Leftovers Last Longer
Believe it or not, the way that you prepare your Thanksgiving meal can play a role in how long Thanksgiving leftovers last. Following these smart food safety guidelines during food prep and when you serve and enjoy your meal can help to keep you and your guests healthy and happy.
Let's start at the beginning. Preparing food safely from the get-go is an important step to help reduce bacterial contamination. Taking these precautions can help to keep your food safer for a longer period so that you can enjoy your leftovers.
- Make sure the countertop, knives, utensils, and cutting boards are clean.
- Wash your hands before you begin and again after handling meat or raw foods.
- Scrub firm produce (think potatoes) under running water with a stiff brush. For more delicate produce, rinse under running water.
- Between meat and produce prep re-wash utensils and surfaces and use separate cutting boards. When possible, use paper towels for cleanup.
- Cook foods to the required temperature. Turkey needs to reach an internal temp of 165F degrees.
Stuffing needs to be cooked as soon as you prepare it. If you are stuffing the turkey, use uncooked stuffing, and stuff it immediately prior to cooking the turkey. Be careful not to overstuff the bird.
Also, be sure to marinate foods in the refrigerator, don't let them linger on the countertop where bugs can spread rapidly. Don't reuse plates that held raw food, put them in the dishwasher.
How long you can eat leftovers after the big day also depends on how you handle food while it's served and in the hour or so after the meal.
When food is between 40F to 140F degrees, bacteria flourish. The bacteria devour the food, lounge around happily and multiply in lukewarm conditions. If you're not serving food immediately, prevent bacteria from doing their thing by sticking food in the refrigerator as soon as it's prepared. Reheat the dish when you're ready to eat. The only exception is if you're serving food right away hot from the stove. If the food is in a deep container, divide it into shallow containers to allow it to reach a safe, cool temperature quicker.
Then, as you serve food, bacteria can make its way into the dishes. This is normal, but you need to handle recently-served food promptly to help ensure the food stays safe to eat later. Enjoy the meal and conversation but know that food needs to be refrigerated within two hours after serving. If you're having Thanksgiving outdoors in a hot climate of over 90F degrees (lucky you!), the food needs to be refrigerated within one hour.
After the Meal
You'll want to prepare your Thanksgiving leftovers for storage. Take a few minutes to package your food for the refrigerator or freezer to help ensure the best taste once you're ready to defrost and heat it.
When wrapping foods to store, your goal is to keep them free from air or moisture. Use plastic wrap, foil, airtight containers and zipper baggies for the refrigerator or freezer. Label each item with the food name and the date.
When you're ready to enjoy your leftovers, be careful to thaw and reheat foods properly. Always thaw your frozen leftovers in the refrigerator or defrost them in the microwave. Once thawed, don't dilly dally, food should be cooked and eaten promptly.
Gravy, sauce and soup should be brought to a boil when reheated. If you use the microwave rotate the dish at least twice during cooking. If your microwave has a turntable, let it do its thing. No matter how you reheat your food, use a food thermometer to be sure it reaches 165F degrees before eating.
Tips for Saving Thanksgiving Desserts
The aroma of a pie baking can put you in the holiday spirit. To save time, you can make a pie in advance, not bake it and take a few steps to ensure it will keep in the freezer and be ready for baking on Turkey Day.
- For pumpkin and fruit pies, add 1 ½ teaspoons corn starch or 1-2 tablespoons of flour to the pie filling prior to freezing. Sprinkle a small amount of corn starch or flour on the pie shell before adding the filling. When you're ready to bake, put it in the oven straight from the freezer, there's no need to thaw the pie.
- Once a pie is baked, you can freeze it if you package it tightly with plastic wrap and put it in a zipper baggie or airtight container. The crust tends to become soggy in the freezer, so you may opt to send guests home with a few slices of pie. Store in the refrigerator until they walk out the door.
- Most other bakery items such as cheesecake, cake and cookies freeze well when wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and placed in an airtight container.
Tasty Ways to Use Thanksgiving Leftovers
You don't have to plate up the same Thanksgiving meal over and over to use up leftovers. Try these creative ways to breathe new life into your delicious dishes.
- Brown rice harvest bowl - Fill a bowl with cooked brown rice, drizzle with a balsamic dressing, add sweet potatoes, turkey, vegetables and top with some crumbled goat cheese and warm in the microwave.
- Holiday wrap - Fill a soft whole wheat tortilla with turkey, vegetables and shredded cheese and warm up in the microwave. Serve with a side of cranberry sauce.
- Thanksgiving bruschetta - Slice a loaf of crusty bread, top with a little chopped apple and a dash of cinnamon, add shredded turkey and bake for a few minutes to warm through. Serve with a side of green beans or any leftover vegetable.
- Turkey cranberry salad - Make a green salad, add shredded turkey, toss with a touch of cranberry sauce and throw in a few dried cranberries. Whisk together white balsamic vinegar, a touch of sugar and olive oil for the dressing. Serve with a side of potatoes or stuffing.
A Note About Food Poisoning
Sometimes, the best laid plans can go awry. Maybe you've taken the precautions to make sure your food is safe, but you start to feel queasy. Go ahead and blame Aunt Martha's green bean casserole. Always discard any suspicious food right away.
See a doctor if you have any of these concerning signs: a fever over 102 F, bloody diarrhea or diarrhea that lasts more than 3 days, frequent vomiting preventing you from keeping down any liquids or signs of dehydration including dry mouth or throat, little or no urination and dizziness once you stand up.
Following these guidelines can help keep you and your guests safe on Thanksgiving Day, with leftovers to enjoy later. Sweet potato pie for dessert after your Black Friday shopping spree sounds like a plan.