Whether you’re creating a delicious “moist maker” sandwich a la Ross from Friends or simply diving into cold turkey straight from the fridge, enjoying Thanksgiving leftovers is an essential part of the holiday. But as thrilling as the idea of extra helpings of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie is, certain safety measures are crucial to ensure that the feast leaves you feeling content — not unwell.
Ensure Freshness from the Start
While most people worry about leftovers spoiling after being in the fridge for a few days, the truth is that the food may be on its way out even before you put it away. It’s crucial to ensure that food is not left between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for longer than two hours, as this temperature range is where most foodborne-illness-causing bacteria thrive, says Leah Groppo, clinical dietitian with Stanford Health Care.
“If you were to go to a Thanksgiving buffet, you probably would see chefs come around with a thermometer in their pocket and testing everything on the line,” Groppo tells Yahoo Life.
It’s important, during a lengthy family dinner, to make sure that the meal is heated properly throughout or placed in the fridge before the two-hour mark. This is especially crucial for animal proteins like turkey, which have a higher risk of growing dangerous bacteria than plant-based foods.
“As long as the food has been handled properly, these still-fresh leftovers should last about four days in the fridge — and even longer if you freeze them, ideally in a container with a vacuum seal,” Groppo says.
Safe Leftover Storage
Putting warm food into the fridge doesn’t ensure that it will reach the safe 40-degree mark immediately. It’s helpful to store your food in shallow containers with increased surface area to cool down the whole product faster. Moreover, be mindful of reheating leftovers at the appropriate temperatures.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has guidelines for temperatures to heat different kinds of foods, and for leftovers, that magic number is 165 degrees. This means the entire dish must reach that temperature, so be cautious if you’re microwaving and the center stays cold. It may be necessary to chop leftovers into smaller pieces for thorough reheating.
“If people have questions about their leftover safety, there’s actually a hotline to call. It’s called the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, and the number is 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854),” says Kathleen Moore, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Reducing Food Waste
About a third of all food in the United States ends up in landfills, goes down the drain, or is left to rot in fields. Savoring and storing leftovers actively works against the problem of food waste. “Part of the theme and messaging of Thanksgiving is to appreciate your food,” says food-waste prevention expert Roni Neff. Having food-storage containers available so that people can take home leftovers is a great way to reduce waste.
“We need to pay attention to foodborne illness because foodborne illness is horrible. But because there are concerns about food safety, many of us become really overly precautionary and throw out a lot more than we need to,” Neff adds.