Thanksgiving dinner leftovers in clear glass containers

Even if your holiday gathering is smaller this year, chances are you're going to have leftovers. Many people look forward to Thanksgiving leftovers as much as the feast itself—perhaps more. In fact, sometimes leftovers taste even better than the original meal because the chemical reactions in the food that continue after cooking may result in more flavor, according to the Institute of Food Technology. 

It's important to be aware of proper food safety practices, though. The results of a survey published in the journal Foods found that while half of respondents said they always save leftovers, many make significant errors with food they want to keep for future meals. Some let it sit out too long before refrigerating or let it linger in the fridge longer than advised, for example. And that results in food that’s unappealing or just plain unsafe to eat.

November and December are the peak months for food poisoning caused by the bacteria Clostridium perfringens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Called “the cafeteria germ,” it grows in cooked foods such as turkey and beef kept at room temperature. The CDC says it’s the second most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S.

More on Healthy Holiday Eating

But it’s possible to keep almost all of your leftovers tasty and safe to eat for at least a few days. And the majority of them can be frozen if you won't eat everything within that time. The trick is to do it well. Poor storage can lead to less-than-tasty leftovers, but different kinds of food require different treatment. Here’s what you need to know.

Consider Your Leftover Profile

Are you someone who eats a big turkey sandwich on Friday and then quickly gets over the leftover thing? Or do you love to stretch out the feast as long as possible?

“Think back to how much food you ended up throwing away last year,” says Consumer Reports nutritionist, Amy Keating, R.D. “Food waste is a big problem in this country every day, but especially on Thanksgiving.”

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), nearly 200 million pounds of turkey meat is tossed during the holiday week. And not everyone at the holiday table is going to have a serving of every side dish you prepare, Keating adds. 

“You may need enough of the popular sides, such as stuffing or mashed potatoes, to serve everyone, but otherwise, count on about half of the people at your table eating each side,” she says. The NRDC’s Guest-timator calculator can help you figure out how much food you need, taking into account how long you’re willing to eat leftovers. 

As you make this year's dinner, Keating also suggests taking notes on what you served, how many people were there, and how much food was left. "Keep the notes where you store your Thanksgiving recipes," Keating says. "They'll come in handy next year."

Think Ahead

If you figure out in advance what you’d like to do with your leftovers, you can minimize the waste. You might make a rice side dish for the holiday that would pair well with a piece of chicken or fish later in the week. And you can use up leftover turkey by making a turkey soup.

Follow the Two-Hour Rule

Nearly 80 percent of people in a USDA survey said they let leftovers cool down before refrigerating them. It might sound practical to wait until food’s not steaming hot to put it in your hardworking fridge, but it’s a bad idea. That leaves it out in what’s known as the temperature danger zone between 40° F and 140° F, where bacteria can thrive. Leftovers should be refrigerated within 2 hours of cooking, at most, regardless of their temperature. (And your fridge should be set to 40° F or lower; CR recommends 37° F.) 

Turkey carcasses in particular shouldn’t be left out. A whole turkey takes a long time to cool down, and its moist, warm interior is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. You can store wings or legs on the bone, but slice the meat off the breast.

“Time in the danger zone is cumulative,” says Elizabeth Andress, Ph.D., a professor and food-safety specialist at the University of Georgia and director of the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Even if food is out for just 5 or 10 minutes at a time, once those minutes add up to a total of 2 hours in the zone, throwing it out isn’t waste—it’s protecting yourself from potential food poisoning.

Store Strategically

Three to four days in the fridge—that’s the max for cooked foods. After that, their taste and safety may suffer. This is true of desserts, too, though in that 2016 study published in the journal Foods, nearly half of Americans guessed closer to a week.

Know What Freezes Well

If you find you have more than you could possibly eat in four days, you can freeze many holiday staples. They’ll be good for two to six months. Some good options are stuffings or dressings, green bean casseroles, sweet potato casserole, and, surprisingly, cooked turkey, according to Andress.

Freezing may make the onions, bell peppers, and celery in vegetable dishes a little softer than they would otherwise be, Andress says. “Creamed vegetables may lose flavor, so it's best if they are frozen for short periods of time.” And, she adds, dishes with cream or creamy soup-based sauces may separate and be a little watery upon thawing, but they’ll still be usable. Note that for safety, most frozen leftovers should be reheated completely to at least 165° F before eating, according to the CDC.

Divide and Conquer

Whether you’re putting leftovers in the fridge or freezer, break them down into portions of one or two servings each—about what you’d use for a single meal—and store them in shallow, covered containers. This helps ensure that the leftovers will cool more quickly, makes it easier when you’re reheating them, and means you don’t have to thaw more than you need.

Wrap It Up Right

“Use air-tight, moisture-proof wrapping material, such as heavy-duty foil, freezer paper, or freezer-weight bags,” Andress says. Do your best to keep excess air out of the package. “Air around food in the freezer is an enemy of quality,” she explains. “It promotes drying out as well as quicker flavor loss. With some light-colored fruits and vegetables, that retained air also causes some browning while the food is getting frozen as well as during thawing."

Don't Refrigerate All Pies

If you’re planning to eat it within the next couple of days, you can store fruit pies, like apple or cherry, loosely covered on the counter.

But pies with a filling that contains dairy or eggs (like pumpkin) should be refrigerated. And for any pie, if you’re not planning to serve it in the next few days, it’s fine to freeze it. Just be aware that custard and meringue don’t freeze well, so you may be better off eating the dessert instead.

Freeze Within the Four-Day Window

If you’ve put several portions worth of, say, stuffing in the refrigerator and later realize there’s no way your family is going to get through them all before the four-day fridge limit, you can still freeze them. If a food is safe to eat, it's safe to freeze, Andress says. But food you've frozen after it has been sitting in the fridge for a while may not have the same quality it would if you froze it earlier. 

Don't Assume You Need to Defrost

It’s not necessary for safety, and Andress says it can sometimes be better in terms of quality if you don’t. “Plain or just-seasoned vegetables (as opposed to complex casseroles) are best reheated without thawing,” she says. “Many other dishes that will be heated or cooked are best not thawed first, either.” When you’re portioning out stuffing or dressing, baked beans, or casseroles for freezing, consider using foil pans (again, small and shallow) so you can put them right in the oven.

When you do want to thaw leftovers, don’t do it out on the counter; defrost in the fridge. For faster defrosting, you can put the food in a sealable, water-tight bag and immerse it in a container of cold water. Change the water every half hour. And finally, you can use the microwave following the defrosting directions in your model’s manual.

Microwave With Care

Heating in a microwave isn’t always even, which means that not every part of the food you’re reheating may get hot enough to kill bacteria. The government site recommends adding some liquid and putting the food in a microwave-safe dish with a cover to create steam. It also suggests rotating the food (if your microwave doesn’t already do that) and then letting it sit for several minutes before serving to allow the heat to distribute throughout. Using a food thermometer in several places will also help you make sure the food is thoroughly and evenly reheated. And don't reheat turkey in the microwave—it may dry out. Use the stovetop instead and warm it in a little broth or gravy.