Who doesn’t love Thanksgiving leftovers? Yes, spending time with family and getting a few days off work are nice too, but digging into leftover turkey and side dishes—or using them to make a fabulous post-Thanksgiving brunch—is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Still, leftovers can go bad if not stored properly or consumed within a safe window of time—and the last thing anyone wants to deal with during the holidays is a case of food poisoning.
Don’t think the risk of getting sick from holiday leftovers is an issue? Think again: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that food poisoning cases occur most often in November and December. Many of those cases have been linked to consumption of common holiday foods that were improperly stored and, as a result, contain harmful bacteria.
It’s important to be mindful of how long Thanksgiving leftovers are good for, and to be aware that guidelines for storage and eating vary depending on the ingredients. That’s why taking note of the following tips about food safety is the best way to make sure the holiday dinner is a happy and safe experience for everyone.
1. How to Store Thanksgiving Leftovers
The first step to keeping your Thanksgiving leftovers safe is to make sure you’re storing them properly. Here’s how:
- Don’t leave food unrefrigerated for more than two hours before storing it.
- Ensure your Thanksgiving leftovers aren’t still hot when you’re ready to store them, to avoid too much moisture that can lead to bacterial growth.
- Portion your leftovers into smaller servings—and slice up big cuts of meat, like a large turkey breast— to allow them to cool before storing and avoid bacteria build-up.
- Put away the leftover turkey, stuffing and other side dishes before everyone gathers for dessert.
- Use air-tight, leak-proof storage like Smart Seal Glass Containers.
- Avoid cramming too many foods in the fridge, which can make it harder to maintain the cooler temperature needed to keep food safe.
2. How Long Thanksgiving Leftovers Last in the Fridge
Even when properly stored, all food will eventually spoil if it’s not eaten or tossed in time. The general rule of thumb is to gobble up your turkey and fixings within 3-4 days after cooking or preparing them. But the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers more specific tips about how long Thanksgiving foods will last:
You should eat your cooked leftover turkey within four days of storing it in the fridge, preferably cut into small pieces and stored in air-tight glass containers. If you choose to freeze your turkey, make sure to eat it within four months after putting it in the freezer.
Your gravy’s lifespan is the same as your turkey’s: After making your gravy and serving it for the holiday, you should store it in glass containers and consume it within four days if it’s in the fridge or four months if you freeze it.
Homemade Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry sauce lovers, rejoice. You have up to 10 days to enjoy your tart-sweet sauce, as long as it’s properly stored in the fridge. If you are team canned cranberry, you get up to two weeks to savor the jelly goodness after you open the can and serve it up.
Potatoes and Yams
Whether you go for mashed or baked, russet or yam, cooked tubers last up to four days in the fridge and two months in the freezer.
Stuffing should be consumed within four days if stored in the fridge or within two months in the freezer. The same guidelines apply to meaty sausage stuffings as well as to meatless versions.
If you somehow happen to have a slice or two of homemade apple pie left after the Thanksgiving feast, you can keep them in the fridge for two days, loosely covered. You have a little more time with your pumpkin pie, since it will stay in good shape within four days of baking.
3. How to Reheat Your Leftovers
Once you’re ready to make your world-famous turkey soup or Pilgrim sandwich (or a squash grilled cheese), make sure you heat your ingredients properly before you dig in—and use a thermometer to doublecheck. The CDC recommends you heat your Thanksgiving leftovers to at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit to limit any risk. Note that this rule doesn’t apply to your leftover pie. If you prefer your pie cold instead of warm, there’s no need to reheat it before serving.
Now that you’ve got your leftovers plan all figured out, make sure you’re ready to start preparing the holiday meal and have all of the necessary turkey tools ready for the big day.