According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the simple answer to this question is that you should try to gobble up the remnants of your Thanksgiving feast within three to four days (if you're storing it in the fridge).
However, like many things in life, the expiration date of Thanksgiving leftovers is filled with nuances that are worth paying attention to for your health and well-being, says microbiologist Lisa Yakas, a consumer safety expert at the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that most outbreaks of a bacteria that causes food poisoning occur in November and December," she says. "Many of those outbreaks have been linked to common holiday foods such as turkey, chicken, and other poultry." Food poisoning can be particularly dangerous to the elderly, who are more likely to be hospitalized because of foodborne illnesses.
In order to bypass the food poisoning and head straight to the moment when you're enjoying your turkey-cranberry sandwich, we put together a helpful turkey day guide. Below, you'll find general tips for storing and reheating leftovers, as well as a breakdown of how to tackle each magnificent side (and, of course, the turkey). Happy leftover-eating, everyone.
How long are Thanksgiving leftovers good for? Food safety experts weigh in
Before we dive into the individual expiration dates for each (mouthwatering) Thanksgiving dish, let's run through some general tips to keep in mind whenever you're having a "should I stay or should I go now" moment with leftovers.
First, make sure that you refrigerate the turkey and other perishable leftovers within two hours of serving to reduce the chance of bacteria growth. If you slip up and end up leaving the feast out longer than that, Tamika Sims, PhD, Senior Director of Food Technology Communications of the International Food Information Council (IFIC), recommends tossing it to spare yourself the chance of foodborne illness. (Womp, womp.)
Next, make sure you're using your full stable of Tupperware containers to store those leftovers. "It’s important to get the temperature of the leftovers down rapidly to room temperature to discourage any type of bacterial growth," says Yakas. "To speed the cooling process, try separating large quantities of leftovers into smaller containers. It is okay to place hot leftovers directly into a properly operating refrigerator, provided large quantities have been divided into shallow containers for quicker cooling." Meat such as ham and turkey should be sliced before storing, so it cools more evenly. Yakas also recommends leaving the lids off the storage container until the food has cooled completely, then go ahead and cover it. Storing food in individual portions like this will also ensure you're not heating things up and cooling them down again—which can also lead to bacteria growth.
You can also repeat this same process in the freezer if you want to enjoy it past that three to four-day mark. (And don't worry, there's no evidence to suggest that food loses nutritional value in the freezer).
Phew, okay. Now, flash forward to when you're ready to enjoy Turkey Day, part two. "When reheating leftovers, make sure the temperature is 165 °F or above. If using a microwave, stir the food periodically to help promote even reheating. Make sure there are no cold spots in the food where bacteria can survive. You can bring leftovers out of the fridge to room temperature before warming up," explains Yakas. Frozen leftovers can be thawed in the fridge or microwave using the same instructions. Both Yakas and Dr. Sims are big fans of using a food thermometer when you're dealing with leftovers, particularly if they contain meat, to make sure you're hitting that 165 °F mark every single time.
With all that said, here's how long your Thanksgiving faves last and some best practices for storing, reheating, and enjoying them.
How long are Thanksgiving leftovers good for?
Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), refrigerated, sliced turkey can be eaten cold or hot within three to four days of storing the leftovers. However, if you store it in the freezer, you just need to eat within two to six months. When you're ready to enjoy your turkey, thaw it (if frozen)and reheat in the oven at 325 °F in the oven. Or, if you 're feeling impatient, cover the meat and microwave it until your food thermometer reads 165 °F.
Like turkey, stuffing lasts in the fridge for three to four days, or up to six months in the freezer. Reheat it to 165 °F in the oven or microwave and you're ready to eat.
3. Potatoes and other cooked veggies
All of your veggies stay good for three to four days in the fridge or eight to 12 months in the freezer. Reheat your potatoes, green beans, or creamed spinach to 165 °F in the oven or microwave.
4. Rolls and biscuits
While biscuits, rolls, and other Thanksgiving carbs don't need to be reheated, there are a few best practices to follow when it comes to storing them so you don't wind up with... mold. Store-bought breads can be stored for two to four days at room temp, seven to nine days in the refrigerator, or up to three months in the freezer. Preservative-free breads and biscuits that you bake at home will go bad much more quickly, so make sure you store them in the fridge and eat them within a few days.
Everyone breathe a sigh of relief: You have plenty of time to eat leftover pie. The USDA says that cream-based pies like pecan and pumpkin should be stored in the fridge immediately once they've had a chance to cool. Just make sure to polish the remaining slices within three to four days. Meanwhile, berry pies can be stored at room temp for one to two days, or up to seven days in the fridge. There's a bit of a debate when it comes to how long pies can last in the freezer, but the general consensus seems to be about four to six months.
Just make sure you follow those same reheating rules we talked about for the savory Thanksgiving dishes.
See how a dietitian fills her Thanksgiving plate:
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