Safely Storing Thanksgiving Leftovers

By Jolyn Johnston-Myers
November 23, 2016

Turkey is the most common main dish for Thanksgiving. And in the days that follow, the leftover turkey can be used for sandwiches, soups and casseroles. However, before it can be repurposed for other meals, leftover turkey must be stored correctly.

K-State Research and Extension and University of Missouri Extension consumer food safety specialist, Londa Nwadike, says leftover food should be refrigerated within two hours of being served.

“You know you just don’t want things to be sitting at room temperature for longer than they need to be,” Nwadike said. “Two hours is kind of a good rule-of-thumb. You know you don’t want things to be in the temperature danger zone, which is 40 to 140-degrees. And then if you want to have sandwiches later that day, you can take it back out, but try not to leave it on the counter all afternoon.”

The key to safely storing leftovers is getting food cooled down quickly. Nwadike suggests cutting the turkey into smaller pieces or slices and using shallow containers.

“You know, you don’t want to put a huge turkey back in the fridge because it’s going to take a long time for that to cool down properly,” she said. “Putting them into shallow containers can help the heat to dissipate faster. You know if you put it into a big deep dish, the heat doesn’t have a chance to rise out as easily.”

Nwadike says refrigerated leftovers should be eaten within three to four days.

“This is in the refrigerator, so by about Sunday, it’s a good time to put it in the freezer,” Nwadike advised. “So, you can still freeze things, you know you just want to make sure that you’re not leaving it in the refrigerator for more than three to four days. And freezing things is a great way to maintain their safety and their quality.”

Leftover gravy is the exception to the three- to four-day rule. Nwadike says gravy should be eaten or frozen within one to two days.