I think the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers, but last year our leftover turkey didn’t last very long, and we had to throw a lot of it away. What’s the best way to make leftovers last?
Generally, leftovers stored in the refrigerator last only three or four days. That surprises a lot of people, who think they might be good for a week or longer.
This year, refrigerate only the turkey you think you’ll use in the next few days and store the rest in the freezer, where it should be fine for two to six months.
Here are some detailed leftover and storage tips for holiday foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:
- Make sure perishable foods are left at room temperature for no longer than two hours before you refrigerate or freeze them. Bacteria can multiply rapidly between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F, so limit the amount of time food is in that “danger zone.”
- If the leftovers you’re storing are very hot, take steps so they’ll cool rapidly to reach the safe temperature of 40 degrees or below as quickly as possible. For example, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. Slice turkey off the bone into smaller pieces.
- After cooling, wrap leftovers well, in airtight packaging or in sealed storage containers. Not only will it keep bacteria out, but it helps the leftovers retain moisture, whether they’re stored in the refrigerator or the freezer. It also prevents leftovers from picking up odors from other foods in the refrigerator.
- When freezing leftovers, mark the package with a date. Although freezing temperatures of 0 degrees F or below cause microbes to become dormant, preventing the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness, keeping foods frozen for too long can affect their quality. If your home freezer has a “quick freeze” option, use it, as rapidly freezing foods prevents undesirable large ice crystals from forming. If you have a free-standing freezer in addition to your refrigerator-freezer, use it, as it likely stays colder because it’s not opened as often.
- When reheating leftovers, be sure they reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Use a food thermometer.
For more, see the website with the USDA’s Safe Food Handling Fact Sheets athttp://bit.ly/sf_food. Scroll down to “Leftovers and Food Safety.”
We ate out this weekend, and I got a take-home container for my leftovers. On the way home, we stopped at a store and were there much longer than we anticipated. By the time we got home, it was three hours since we had been served at the restaurant. We refrigerated the leftovers, but should we throw them away instead?
Yes, it’s a good idea to pitch them.
Food safety authorities recommend throwing away food items that have been left out for more than two hours, or for more than one hour if the surrounding air temperature is 90 degrees or above.
At those temperatures, harmful microorganisms can multiply rapidly and can easily get to a point where they can cause illness. Reheating the leftovers would kill bacteria, but some types of organisms that cause foodborne illness can actually produce toxins that don’t go away even if you thoroughly heat the food.
Some people are more susceptible to foodborne illness and need to be especially careful, including:
- Seniors, because the immune system weakens with age, making it more difficult to combat illness from bacteria and other pathogens. Also, stomach acid tends to decrease with age, which means less is available to reduce bacteria in the intestinal tract.
- Young children, whose immune systems are still developing.
- Pregnant women, whose immune systems are altered by the pregnancy. Foodborne illness during pregnancy can not only make the mother ill but can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth, or sickness or death of the newborn baby.
- People with chronic illnesses, including diabetes. They also have weakened immune systems that could exacerbate problems from foodborne pathogens. People with diabetes are also more likely to have problems with their kidneys, which may hold onto harmful bacteria and other pathogens longer than normal. People with cancer or HIV/AIDS and transplant recipients also need to be especially vigilant.
Even when properly handled, use leftovers within three or four days. It’s always a good idea to label the container with the date to help you remember. When reheating leftovers, make sure they get steaming hot — 165 degrees F throughout. Use a food thermometer. Soups, sauces, gravies and other liquids should be reheated to a boil.