How should I store my Thanksgiving leftovers?

Food Safety: Thanksgiving Leftover Storage - May 2021

Store your Thanksgiving leftovers safely and quickly with the advice and assistance of our experts.

The easiest harvest festival in the world in Turkey

Photo by: Tara Donne

Tara Donne

How long can you leave Thanksgiving dinner on the table?

A good rule of thumb for food safety is to keep hot and cold foods cold. However, there is a chance your dining room may not have restaurant-style warming bowls and buffets. Take your time at the dining table, but within two hours, wrap up the leftovers and cool them down.

The best way to store leftovers

Leftovers should be cooled as quickly as possible. Pack them in multiple flat containers instead of one large one, and make sure not to stack the containers in the refrigerator (this can trap heat). The more surface is exposed to the cold air, the faster your food will cool down.

Remove all fillings from the turkey cavity and store in a separate container. Carve the meat out of the bones or separate the turkey into smaller pieces and divide it into flat containers or plastic bags. It may be tempting to keep leftover sweet potatoes or green beans in the half-empty serving platter and simply cover them with plastic wrap, but it's best to put everything in a clean, smaller container. It also saves a lot of space in the refrigerator.

How long can leftovers be stored in the refrigerator?

You can keep your leftovers in the refrigerator for up to four days. Try to reheat only what you are serving at once rather than reheating the entire serving. It is safe to reheat and then put back anything you don't use, but the more food is reheated the more it will continue to lose taste and moisture.

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Use a thermometer to make sure your leftovers are reheated to 165 degrees Celsius. Sauces, soups and gravies should come to a boil. When using the microwave, cover the food and turn it frequently to make sure it heats evenly.

What's the best way to freeze leftovers?

Freezing keeps food safe by preventing the growth of bacteria that can cause food to spoil. As long as your leftovers are frozen at 0 degrees F, you can keep them indefinitely. But they taste best within two to three months.

Pack side dishes such as filling and mashed potatoes in airtight freezer containers or plastic freezer bags. Cut the turkey meat into slices, wrap it in freezer paper or foil, and seal it in plastic freezer bags (make sure to squeeze out all of the air before sealing). Liquids like soup or sauce expand easily when they freeze. So leave some space on top of the container. It's okay to keep leftovers in the refrigerator for a few days before freezing them. However, to keep their freshness, the sooner they are put in the freezer, the better. If the food hasn't cooled yet, refrigerate it for a few hours before putting it in the freezer, and don't stack the containers until they are frozen solid.

Don't forget to tag and date your leftovers. Once it's wrapped everything looks the same.

Additional storage tips

1. Make space in your fridge and freezer in good time to avoid messing things up after dinner. Consume lunch, cheese, yogurt, drinks and spices the week before.

2. Make sure you have enough small and large freezer bags and freezer-safe containers. Organize them before you eat (make sure they all have a lid) so everyone can start cleaning shortly after dinner.

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3. Round plastic containers for plastic cakes help save space in the refrigerator. You can stack them up and not worry about something falling and crushing the cakes.

4. When your leftovers are packed away, avoid opening and closing the refrigerator door until the food has had time to cool.

5. Have extra ice ready in case you need it to cool soups and sauces (a pot of hot soup can warm up the fridge pretty quickly).

Should you let food come to room temperature or put it directly in the refrigerator?

Food must never reach room temperature before storage. The less time it spends at room temperature, the better. By the time you're done Thanksgiving dinner, it's likely almost chilled anyway. So wrap it up and refrigerate right away. If one of your dishes is still steaming hot, you can let it cool uncovered until it cools, then cover it (otherwise it will take longer to cool). It's even okay to send hot soup or sauce straight to the fridge. The only problem is that it can raise the temperature in your fridge and it will take longer for everything to cool down. You can let the soup or sauce cool quickly first by placing the container in a bowl of ice water and stirring frequently until it cools. Then cover it and put it in the refrigerator.