How Long Will This Last? Handling Thanksgiving Leftovers

— Written By Susan Condlin and last updated by Kay Morton

Thanksgiving is a time for families and great food to come together. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation an average Thanksgiving feast for 10-people will cost $49.04 this year, down 44 cents from last year.  I am sure you will have all your favorites and more to share with friends and family at you dinner table.  But once the Thanksgiving dinner is over you may find your refrigerator is stuffed full of leftovers.

Many of us look forward to the leftovers as much as we do to the holiday meals. Whether you’re planning to use your leftovers for a casserole, sandwich, or soup, leftovers should be stored correctly to prevent a foodborne illness. Here are a few hints to keep your family safe and prevent someone from getting sick.

First and utmost, remember the two‑hour rule. Food should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. This includes preparation and serving time. If your food was at room temperature through the long hours of holiday festivities, throw it out. The food may look okay and smell okay, but the bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses can be in the food in large enough amounts to make you sick. Don’t risk it.

Use leftovers quickly. When storing in the refrigerator make sure that the temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Cooked meat and poultry should be used within three to four days. Use gravy and meat broth within one to two days. Reheat all foods to 165 degrees or until steaming. Gravy and broth should come to a boil. If reheating in a microwave, use a microwave-safe dish, covered with a lid or paper towel, and turn the dish and stir the food to make sure it is hot all the way through. Your dish should indicate if it is microwave-safe.

Casseroles and cooked vegetables should be used within two to three days. Reheat them to 165 degrees or until steaming. If you can’t use all your leftovers in a safe period of time, you can freeze most foods. With some foods, you may notice a slight change in texture, and if the food is safe when you put it in the freezer, it will be safe when you take it out.

Freeze leftovers in single serving packages. Be sure to date and label all freezer packages. Meat and poultry dishes can be frozen for three to four months. If these get pushed to the back of the freezer, don’t worry. They will be safe for longer periods, but the quality will deteriorate.

Freezing leftovers brings up the question “What can I safely freeze?” Meat, poultry and meat dishes and even ham, which may change slightly in texture, and casseroles, freeze well. When freezing vegetables you may notice a change in texture, but the vegetables can be used in soups and casseroles. Cakes and pies can be frozen; just keep in mind the texture of the icing may change. Fruit pies and pecan pies can be frozen; however; pies with a custard base do not freeze well. Cookies freeze great. Package them in small amounts and you’ll have a ready‑made treat for later in the year.

“How long will this last?” is another question that I often receive. The Food Marketing Instituteand Cornell Cooperative Extension have developed  “The Food Keeper”, a publication that contains valuable storage advice to help you maintain the freshness and quality of foods.  We have posted this publication on our web at If you prefer an interactive version, The Food Keeper is also located on line at and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there is an “app” out there also.

While our food supply is among the safest in the world, each year an estimated 48 million Americans still contract foodborne illnesses and some – mostly the very young, elderly, and the chronically ill – may die as a result. Foodborne illness is nearly 100% preventable if safe food handling practices are applied from the time food is purchased until the time it is served and stored.

I hope your Thanksgiving holiday is filled with fun, family, friends and some relaxation.

Susan C. Condlin is County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.

Updated on Nov 27, 2013
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