What to do with your leftover holiday food

Read to find out about food safety tips for handling your leftovers safely.

Did you know that November 29 is National Throw Out Your Leftovers Day? This event can bring recognition to a food safety issue that occurs in many homes. The holiday season, beginning around Thanksgiving and continuing until the start of the New Year, brings with it many celebrations centered on food. This year, Thanksgiving falls on November 23, six days prior to this event – which technically is beyond the recommended period for using leftovers (3-4 days in most cases). However, it does bring to attention what you should do with food if it isn’t all consumed.

I love leftovers, I love the idea of not having to prepare another full meal, and there are some dishes that I really only prepare during certain times of the year. Turkey casserole made with leftover turkey and dressing is one example, and I usually prepare it the day or two after Thanksgiving. Many people travel or have multiple days of festivities, and may not have the ability to consume leftovers immediately. Or sometimes we intentionally make more food than is needed so we will have leftovers.

Whatever your situation, the following tips will make sure you are safely consuming leftovers:
  • Chill your leftovers promptly. While sometimes it’s tempting to let the food sit out as we graze all day, this creates the perfect environment for foodborne pathogens to grow and multiply.
  • Place food in food grade, re-usable containers. Usually the food cools down considerably by the time the meal has ended and is cool enough to place in the refrigerator, but section food into smaller containers if necessary and chill in an ice bath if there is a large amount of hot food.
  • If you are not going to be able to eat the food within 3 days, freeze food that can be frozen (turkey, dressing, rolls).
  • If you are unsure about whether or not food is still good to eat, check out the Food Keeper App, created by The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is a great resource for knowing when to eat or throw out a wide variety of food. This is an online resource or it is an app for your smart phone as well.
  • Best practice is to only reheat leftovers one time, so don’t warm up the entire plate of leftover turkey for just one sandwich, only warm up what you will eat.
  • Reheat leftovers to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • After 4 days, throw out all remaining leftover food to prevent the growth of certain bacteria like listeria, which can survive in the refrigerator, and clean your refrigerator as needed.

Michigan State University recommends practices and procedures to make sure you are healthy and safe during the holiday season. For questions about food safety, contact your local Extension office.

Did you find this article useful?