Don't Want to Throw Out Your Leftovers? Do This Instead, CDC Says

You can still keep your holiday feast safe to eat for a little while longer.

The build-up for Thanksgiving dinner can make it feel like the most anticipated meal of the year is over in a flash. Fortunately, there's a good chance there's plenty of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes left over to turn into snacks and meals throughout the following long weekend, even if your guests brought their healthiest appetites to the table. But if you're still helping yourself to sandwiches, soups, or other inventive dishes made with remnants from your holiday feast, the time is running out to eat them safely. However, there's still one way to salvage your leftovers for a little bit longer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Read on to see how you can save your favorite mains and sides from the trash for now.

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It's essential to make sure you got your extra food into the fridge soon enough in the first place.

Closeup of multi generation family having Thanksgiving dinner. There are two senior couple and a mid 20's couple having a big feast, sharing food and love.

There's no shortage of excitement on Thanksgiving Day. Besides preparing and serving the meal itself, the holiday usually brings crowds of friends and family together, which can turn the meal into a daylong affair. But if you took a little extra time watching the game, catching up with relatives, or taking a much-needed post-feast nap, your remaining food might not be safe to eat right now.

Even though it might feel wonderful to graze on potatoes and green bean casserole throughout the afternoon, it's crucial to get any prepared foods into a refrigerator that's 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder within two hours of cooking, according to the CDC. The agency warns that leaving leftovers at room temperature any longer allows for Clostridium perfringens bacteria to grow as it sits out. The potentially dangerous microorganism is the second most common bacterial cause of food poisoning, causing symptoms such as vomiting and abdominal cramps anywhere from six to 24 hours after it's eaten.

But even if you were fortunate enough to get your food stored away promptly, the time you have to enjoy them safely is dwindling. Fortunately, there's still one way you can save it from the trashcan.

There's one thing you should do right now if you don't want to throw out your Thanksgiving leftovers today.

Top part of a fridge handle comes detached when pulling the door open

Whether you love a freshly carved turkey sandwich or you just can't get enough stuffing, it can be hard to say goodbye to the seasonal staples that make up a Thanksgiving meal. Unfortunately, the time to open the fridge and pick at your favorite foods is about to pass. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Monday after Thanksgiving is typically the last day it's safe to eat any Thanksgiving leftovers still in your refrigerator.

But even if you were too busy over the weekend to put a dent in your pile of mashed potatoes, you can still enjoy the items later. The agency says it's safe to move your Thanksgiving leftovers from the fridge and into the freezer if you don't want to throw them out—so long as you do it today.

And while your favorite items might still seem like they pass the "sniff test" days from now, it's still important to be careful. Even though some spoilage can create strange odors and tastes in food, the bacteria that causes food poisoning might not be detectable to the senses until it's too late, according to Mayo Clinic.

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Choosing to freeze your Thanksgiving leftovers will buy you plenty of extra time to enjoy them.

Woman looking in the freezer

Your freezer is a vital kitchen tool that makes it possible to have everything from frozen veggies to personal pizzas on hand at any given moment. Fortunately, the same goes for the remnants of your holiday feast.

According to the USDA, it's perfectly safe to freeze your Thanksgiving leftovers "indefinitely" to be eaten later. However, if you're looking for optimal freshness, the agency says it's best to eat the items within three to four months as they can "lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times."

If you're looking to ensure things will taste their best no matter how long you wait, make sure to place items like stuffing or mashed potatoes into airtight containers or freezer bags, according to Food Network. It's also best to label and date any containers with a marker and tape so you can still identify your Thanksgiving leftovers once you freeze them.

All frozen foods must be reheated to the appropriate temperature before they're safe to eat.

woman cooking food on gas stove
goodbishop / Shutterstock

One of the conveniences of frozen prepared foods is that you'll always have a meal on hand ready to go for those days you don't feel like preparing a dish from scratch. But even though taking your leftovers out of the freezer is easy, a few steps are still needed to ensure they're safe to consume.

After thawing in the refrigerator, microwave, or cold water, it's essential to reheat your food to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before serving them, the USDA cautions. The agency advises using a food thermometer to check each item, probing multiple areas to see that it's been warmed through evenly. Any soups or gravies should be covered and brought to a rolling boil.

The agency points out that covering your food while you reheat it is also one of the best ways to ensure leftovers will warm up all the way through. It will also help them retain moisture and create steam, which will help kill any dangerous bacteria in the process.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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