So we’ve got a lot of food leftover from yesterday’s Thanksgiving feast. How long can we safely eat them?
I’m happy to tell you that you can eat turkey sandwiches, turkey casserole, turkey omelets, turkey soup, turkey pot pie, turkey salad, turkey quesadillas, turkey tetrazzini and many other fun, tasty turkey-based dishes safely for up to four days after the big meal if you stored your leftover turkey in the refrigerator within two hours of cooking.
And, if you choose to store the leftover turkey in the freezer, you can feast on that turkey, well, forever. While the taste and texture of the frozen meat will decline after about four months, turkey that is correctly prepped for frozen storage is safe to eat indefinitely, says the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The federal agency recommends that you remove the turkey from the bone, slice it into smaller pieces and store it in small containers if you plan to eat it within four days. If you want to store the turkey longer, you should pack it into freezer bags or other airtight containers and place it in the freezer.
For the other leftover foods, you should cover and wrap them in airtight packaging, or seal them in storage containers for storage in the refrigerator. This helps to keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator, USDA says. Leftover food refrigerated this way is also safe to eat up to four days.
Taking care to store leftovers correctly can help you avoid getting a bad case of foodborne illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Clostridium perfringens is one of the bacteria that can grow in cooked foods that are left at room temperature for too long after cooking. It also produces toxins that cannot be inactivated by reheating the foods.
In fact, C. perfringens is the second most common bacteria causing foodborne infections. As many as one million individuals are affected by C. perfringens each year, according to the CDC. Perfringens food poisoning symptoms include severe abdominal cramps and pain, diarrhea and flatulence within six to 24 hours after eating foods that contain high numbers of bacterial cells.
Another interesting fact: Clostridium perfringens outbreaks occur most often in November and December, with many of the outbreaks linked to turkey and roast beef.
Other tips from USDA for Thanksgiving leftovers include:
- Keep leftovers in a cooler with ice or frozen gel packs if the food is traveling home with a guest who lives more than two hours away.
- Don’t store stuffing inside a leftover turkey. Remove the stuffing from the turkey and refrigerate the stuffing and the meat separately.
- When reheating cooked foods, be sure to use a food thermometer to make sure they have been heated to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remember, while you are getting creative in how to serve up those Turkey Day leftovers, keep food safety in mind so that you, your family and any guests who want to feast on grandma’s special recipe green bean casserole or other traditional holiday favorites, can do so safely.
Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, Food Safety State Specialist, Ohio State University Extension.