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How to Safely Store and Use Holiday Leftovers

Give that extra food a second chance and keep it from spoiling

Maple glazed turkey dinner
Lauri Patterson/Getty Images

Sometimes the best parts of festive holiday meals are the leftovers. ​

It’s great to pull them out for a delicious meal later, to use that turkey carcass to make soup, or to let the surplus inspire a whole new dish. And of course, with rising food costs, it just makes sense to use that extra food instead of tossing it. ​

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But it’s important to store leftovers properly to make sure they stay safe to eat, to prevent bacteria from growing and to keep the food from spoiling quickly. ​

Here are some tips from chefs and food safety experts on the essentials of food storage. ​

More On What’s Safe to Eat and What’s Not

With so much going on around the holidays, it can be overwhelming to also have to worry about food safety. Fortunately, there are many resources to help.​

  • Download the USDA FoodKeeper app. It breaks down how long foods in different categories can be stored. You can even add a calendar alert to remind you when to discard leftovers.​
  • Food safety questions? Call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 888-MPHotline (888-674-6854) or chat live, in English or Spanish, with a food safety specialist at ask.usda.gov.

Don’t let it linger too long

​One of the biggest issues with holiday meals, especially Thanksgiving dinner, is that the food tends to sit out all day, making it risky to consume later. “It shortens the length of time it will stay good once you refrigerate it,” says Chicago chef and restaurateur Brian Jupiter. ​

After about two hours at room temperature, the quality starts to decline. The amount of potentially illness-causing bacteria in food can double in as little as 20 minutes. As a rule of thumb, bacteria grow rapidly between 40°F and 140°F — the danger zone, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).​

Even though it may be fun to watch football and graze all day, unless you are keeping your cold food on ice or your hot food consistently hot, you run the risk of getting sick.​

Leftovers will generally last in the fridge for three to four days, but that’s not the case if the food has been sitting out all day.​

“If anything sat out for hours or traveled long distances home with you after the meal, it is best to consume it within the next day or two,” says Olivia Roszkowski, chef-instructor of health-supportive culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education.​

Throw these items away

​Be especially suspicious of those grazing platters people nibble on all day long. Things like cheese plates, seafood platters, even crudités will have lots of hands touching them throughout the day, increasing the risk of contamination. Raw seafood and softer, more perishable cheeses like Brie or blue cheese should be disposed of, no matter what. Dips can oxidize or form a skin, and even if they are still safe to eat, they likely won’t taste as good as leftovers.​

Keep in mind that you can’t see or smell foodborne illnesses, so if in doubt, throw the food out.​

Refrigerator storage tips

​Storing your leftovers properly will ensure that they last, taste good and are safe to eat. Make sure your fridge is set at 40°F or below. If you aren’t sure, an appliance thermometer (many are built-in) can help.​

Put cooked proteins in the refrigerator as soon as the meal is over. “Generally, items that are high in protein, moisture or acid are more prone to bacteria growth and have the tendency to spoil quicker,” explains Roszkowski.​

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Don’t be afraid to start packaging up the turkey before the meal is over — it could make a huge difference in terms of food safety.​

It’s also imperative to cool down your food before putting it in the fridge. According to the FDA, “One of the most common causes of foodborne illness is improper cooling of cooked foods.”​

That’s because bacteria can be reintroduced even after the food is cooked. Cooling food down before refrigerating it “reduces the condensation that will form inside the container,” Roszkowski says, “which is helpful, because the added moisture can influence the amount of spoilage-causing bacteria that can grow in the coming days.” ​

What’s more, putting too many hot things in the refrigerator at once can warm it up. Temperatures inside the fridge need to stay at 40 degrees or below for safe food storage.​

To more quickly cool larger proteins, such as a whole turkey, ham or roast, break them into smaller portions and then refrigerate.​

“Slice breast meat; legs and wings may be left whole. You’ll want to slice roasts too,” says Brittany Saunier, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education.​

To cool vegetables faster, lay them on a sheet pan before packaging. Don’t worry about getting them to room temperature, because if they’re stored in small batches, they will quickly cool in the fridge.​

Food storage options

​Consider different storage options. A vacuum sealer is an excellent tool. Because it removes all the air from the bag, it deprives bacteria of the oxygen needed to grow and helps food last longer.​

If you are using glass or stainless steel containers, consider placing food into small, shallow, two-inch-thick containers for faster cooling. That’s better than, say, one huge container of mashed potatoes. It also helps you reheat leftovers evenly.​

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“Glass containers and ones made of stainless steel hold on to coldness better because of the conduction properties of these materials,” says Roszkowski.​

If possible, place your leftovers toward the back of the refrigerator and on a lower shelf, where it’s generally cooler (as hot air rises). Never store leftovers in the fridge’s doors — the temperature is warmer and inconsistent as people open and close them.​

Use the freezer for longer storage

​If you don’t think you’ll be eating the leftovers over the weekend, freezing is the best option. You can store food for up to three or four months in the freezer. ​

“A lot of pies actually freeze well,” says Jupiter. He advises wrapping food carefully to prevent freezer burn. Ziploc bags are fine, but add an extra layer of plastic wrap or freezer paper.​

Some items don’t freeze well:​

  • Gravy, which can get icy and gritty (unless it’s stored in a vacuum-sealed bag)​
  • Some desserts like fruit tarts​
  • Mashed potatoes, wich won’t retain their texture if frozen​
  • Some cooked casseroles, especially those with lots of vegetables, due to high water content​
  • Foods made with mayonnaise​

Repurposing leftovers 

If you are going to take the time to store your leftovers, have a plan for how to use them. Label leftovers with the name of the dish and the date to help you remember what you have and when you need to use it by.​

Many people don’t love simply repeating the Thanksgiving meal the next day. Chef Jupiter recommends researching creative repurposing options beyond turkey sandwiches, such as breading the mac and cheese and turning it into mac and cheese bites. Day-old pastries are great for bread pudding, and leftover dinner rolls can be used to make bread crumbs.​

How to reheat leftovers

Most leftovers dry out a bit when reheated, so you’ll want to add a little stock (or water in a pinch). Reheat leftovers to at least 140 degrees so they’re safe to eat. Your stove top or oven will usually yield the best results, but you can use the microwave if that’s most convenient. Just make sure everything is heated through consistently.​

If you own a sous vide, a tool for thermal immersion cooking, you can take your vacuum-sealed bags and reheat them to the exact proper temperature. Plus, with a sous vide you won’t have to worry about your leftovers drying out.​​

How to Store Leftovers
StockFood

How 6 Chefs Transform Leftovers​​

When life gives you lemons, you know what to do. But what about too much rice, pasta or chicken? Here are some smart solutions.

Rice becomes rice crackers

I pulse the rice with toasted sesame seeds, rice flour and salt in a food processor until it forms a ball. I roll this dough, then bake it on silicone mats. When cooled, I break up the flats and serve with dip.—Leanne Valenti, chef-owner at Bento Picnic in Austin, Texas ​​​

Cooked beans or grains become veggie burgers

I’ll pulse either with roasted vegetables. I bind that mixture with bread crumbs and beaten egg, form it into patties and pan-fry until golden. —Katie Reicher, executive chef at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco ​

Spaghetti becomes ‘bird in the nest’

I crisp cold, sauced pasta in a hot nonstick pan coated with olive oil, then flip it like a pancake. I make a hole in the center, crack an egg into the middle and season. A few drops of water around the “nest” poaches the egg. Great for brunch!—Lisa Dahl, chef-owner at Pisa Lisa in Sedona, Arizona​​

Grilled salmon becomes salmon tartine

I refrigerate it overnight, then flake, adding chopped capers, shallots, fresh dill, olive oil, lemon zest and lemon juice. I spread the mixture on a toasted slice of hearty bread, then top with tomato, crème fraîche and more dill.—Kaytlin Dangaran, executive chef at Bistro at the Sarasota Art Museum of Ringling College in Sarasota, Florida​​

Smoked chicken becomes chicken perloo

I pull the meat off the bones, then refrigerate. The next day, in a Dutch oven, I sauté celery, bell pepper, onion and garlic in olive oil. To this I add stewed tomatoes, salt and seasonings and reduce. I add chicken stock and bring to a boil, then I add uncooked rice and the chicken. I finish the casserole in the oven.—Pitmaster Rodney Scott, founder of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ in Charleston, South Carolina​​

French bread becomes pain perdu bread pudding

I layer day-old bread slices in a baking pan, soaking this with a custard mix of eggs, whole milk, heavy cream, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. Baked until golden brown, it’s wonderful served with berries.—Steve McHugh, executive chef at two restaurants, Cured and Landrace, in San Antonio ​​

Interviews by Kelsey Ogletree

Foods That Last Longer Than You'd Think