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When Should You Toss The Turkey?

The question: How long can I store Thanksgiving leftovers in the fridge?

The answer: Thanksgiving dinner is one of my favorite holiday meals, mainly because of the leftovers. I usually have turkey and all the fixings for the next day (in reasonable portions, of course), but I also repurpose leftover turkey and vegetables into new meals such as salads, soup, chili, even taco filling. Doing so makes a busy weekday lunch and dinners a no-brainer.

How long you can continue to enjoy your Thanksgiving leftovers depends on how you store them in the first place. When stored properly, foods remain safe and retain their quality, nutrients, and flavor longer.

Your goal is to minimize the time foods stay in the so-called “danger zone,” a temperature range of 4 C to 60 C (40 F to 140 F) in which illness-causing bacteria flourish. To curtail bacteria from multiplying store leftovers in the fridge within two hours after Thanksgiving dinner is finished cooking. Foods that sit at room temperature longer than two hours should be thrown out.

Hot foods can be placed directly in the refrigerator. But first, divide large quantities into smaller portions so they’ll cool quickly to a food-safe temperature. Store soups and casseroles in smaller shallow containers for quicker cooling. Cut a whole turkey into smaller pieces and slice or cut a roast or ham into smaller parts. Store leftover turkey and stuffing in separate containers. Make sure your fridge is set at 4 C (40 F) or colder to keep foods safe.

Wrap leftovers well in airtight packaging or storage containers to keep bacteria out and prevent leftovers from drying out. And don’t overstuff your fridge. Cold air needs to circulate above and beneath food to keep it properly chilled.

You can keep most leftovers for three to four days in the fridge. If you have more food than you plan to eat within four days, you should freeze within two hours after it’s cooked. When you’re ready to eat your leftovers, reheat them to an internal temperature of 74 C (165 F), measured by a digital food thermometer.

You can destroy bacteria by reheating leftovers to a safe temperature since last cooking. Bring soups and gravies to a rolling boil. If you warm in the microwave, rotate or stir the food partway through to ensure the oven distributes the heat evenly.

One last word: My tips assume you cooked your holiday turkey (or roast) correctly in the first place. Use a food thermometer to ensure food is a safe internal temperature: turkey, 74 C (165 F); roast beef, 63 C (145 F) for medium-rare; ham, 71 C (160 F).

Enjoy your healthy Thanksgiving feast!