Thanksgiving centers around a huge, decadent meal. And it's pretty much guaranteed that there will be leftovers. But while you're making your umpteenth turkey sandwich of the week, you might start to wonder: How long is it safe to eat Thanksgiving leftovers?
The leftovers from last week's meal might still be in your fridge or freezer, but just because they're being well-stored doesn't necessarily mean that they're still good to eat. But what kind of window of time are we talking about here? Turns out, there are a few things to consider before dipping into those Thanksgiving leftovers… again.
So, how long is it safe to eat your Thanksgiving leftovers?
Quick blanket rule: You should toss any food that was sitting out for more than two hours. Any food sitting out for that amount of time is automatically shifted into the “danger zone,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The “danger zone” is when food becomes unsafe to eat because the food’s temperature drops between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Perishable food, like turkey, stuffing, and pretty much everything else that was on your Thanksgiving table, only has a certain amount of time before it enters that zone. So if your Thanksgiving meal lasted those two hours or you left food sitting out past that timeframe, it should be thrown out.
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Got your food to the fridge before then? Awesome! The USDA recommends that you finish eating all your leftovers in the fridge within four days. So, sorry, but the leftover window from Thanksgiving has officially passed. After that time period, the risk of contracting a foodborne illness from them goes up.
"The Monday after Thanksgiving should serve as a reminder that this is the last day to safely eat leftovers," Darin Detwiler, associate professor of food safety at Northeastern University, tells Health. And Detwiler says that the four-day rule applies to all leftovers, including turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, roasted veggies, and desserts.
If you want to keep your leftovers a little longer, you can freeze them either right away or within that four-day period. (Just keep in mind that, while the USDA does say that frozen food stays safe indefinitely, it might not taste as great when they're defrosted.)
What can happen if you eat Thanksgiving leftovers past their prime?
So back to this concept of the “danger zone.” There’s a reason it’s called that: Bacteria multiplies most quickly in that temperature range. In fact, the USDA says that in the “danger zone,” bacteria can double in number in as little as 20 minutes. So once food cools down to those temps, there’s a higher risk that you develop a foodborne illness. There are a bunch of potential bacteria that can thrive and make you sick, but the USDA lists Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella Enteritidis, Escherichia coli O157:H7 (a strain of E.coli), and Campylobacter as some of the biggies.
If you got at least some of your leftovers into the fridge before their temperatures cooled at room temperature, there's still room for cross contamination from those that didn't make it in on time, says Detwiler. If people keep going in and out of food containers, it raises the risk that they'll introduce new bacteria to the mix.
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How to be as safe as possible with your Thanksgiving leftovers
Again, we're already past the safe zone of eating Thanksgiving leftovers that were in your fridge. But in the future, there are a few things you can do to make your leftovers even safer:
- Store them in shallow containers. "This will help cool leftovers more quickly than storing them in large containers, as the somewhat insulated interior areas of the food are able to cool rapidly as well," Detwiler says. "This also reduces the repetitive going in and out of larger containers."
- Make sure you reheat your leftovers to at least 165 degrees. Sauces, soups, and gravies should come up to a boil before you eat them, the USDA says. If you really want to be safe, check the temperature. "When reheating leftovers, make sure they are reheated to 165 degrees using a food thermometer," Ellen Shumaker, PhD, director of outreach for Safe Plates at North Carolina State University, tells Health.
- Cover and rotate food in the microwave for even heating. Otherwise, areas in the center of your dish may not be heated properly, per the USDA.
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Apple pie and other fruit pies are OK to be kept at room temperature during that four-day window, according to Shumaker. "The sugar and pH keep bacteria from growing in these pies," she says. "But other pies, such as custard pies, sweet potato, or pumpkin pies should be stored in the refrigerator because, even though they have a high sugar content, their pH is not low enough to prevent bacterial growth."
As for the idea of giving foods a sniff test… Bruce Ruck, managing director of New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Health this isn't a safe method to rely on. "Obviously, if something smells bad, throw it out, but you can't usually tell if there is bacterial growth," he says.
If the idea of pitching a lot of leftovers has you minorly freaking out, Detwiler recommends just doing a little pre-planning the next time around. "Plan for re-use of foods within the next 48 hours," he says. "Use the meat in a chili. Use mashed potatoes to make potato pancakes for breakfast. Use vegetables in a soup. So many great ideas are out there. Why cook new foods when you have a refrigerator full of leftovers?"