4 Tips for Storing and Reheating Holiday Leftovers
How to make sure your day-after turkey sandwich doesn't come with a side of bacteria
What’s the best gift
you can give yourself this season? A break from the kitchen after the
festivities by serving leftovers from your holiday feast. Don’t let the remains
of the big day spoil the few days after, though. If not handled properly,
leftover food can harbor bacteria. Even the nasty bug
listeria can thrive in a
refrigerator that’s not kept at 40 degrees F or lower, so use these tips for
storing and reheating holiday leftovers safely.
Tip #1: Don’t leave leftovers to linger
Tempted to put off clearing the table so you can chat with visitors (or take a nap if your day began at the crack of dawn)? Don’t. Nearly any food left out at room temperature for two hours or more can begin to grow bacteria, according to the Partnership for Food Safety Education. Get leftovers into the fridge promptly, especially perishables like meat, poultry, eggs and casseroles. The only exceptions are cookies, crackers, bread and whole fruit.
Related: Quiz: Toss It or Eat It?
Tip #2: Be savvy about storage
- Divide and conquer. Slice whole roasts and hams before storing. Do the same with turkey breast meat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), you can leave legs and wings whole.
- Wrap it up. Cover food tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil, place in plastic storage bags or divide it into shallow containers. These should be no more than two inches deep, according to the Institute of Food Technology (IFT), so food can chill quickly. If you use plastic bags, press as much air out of each bag before zipping it closed.
- Write on. Label and date each leftover you put into the fridge or freezer, recommends the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Cool it. While it’s OK to put still-warm (or even hot) food straight into the fridge, doing so may cause the temperature inside to rise. According to the IFT, food can go in the fridge when it’s around 90 to 100 degrees F — “just warm to the touch.” If you need to cool food down, the IFT recommends chilling it in an ice bath or setting it in front of a fan.
Tip #3: Reheat leftovers safely
Check the date. This is where labeling comes in handy: Leftovers will be safe to eat for limited amount of time in the refrigerator or freezer. According to the USDA Cold Storage Chart, here’s how long some typical holiday foods can be in the fridge or freezer without going bad:
- Fully cooked poultry or ham slices: 3 to 4 days in fridge/1 to 2 months in freezer
- Gravy: 1 to 2 days in fridge/2 to 3 months in freezer
- Stuffing: 3 to 4 days in fridge/1 month in freezer
- Cooked meat-and-cheese casserole (such as lasagna): 3 to 4 days in fridge/2 to 3 months in freezer
Turn up the heat. Most leftovers should be heated to 165 degrees F in the center, according to the IFT. You can leave whole cuts of beef or lamb a bit rare when you reheat them as long as they were seared at a high temperature when first cooked. Bring sauces, gravies and soups to a rolling boil. Never warm leftovers in a slow cooker.
It’s safe for most people to eat a sandwich made with cold turkey (as long as the meat hasn’t been in the fridge more than three or four days). The exceptions: young children and folks who are over 50, pregnant or have a compromised immune system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises these folks to steer clear of cold cuts, hot dogs and other deli meats unless they’ve been heated to 165 degrees F.
Tip #4: Be creative
Transforming leftovers into a new dish altogether will make them more appealing, so you may be less likely to let them languish until they’re no longer safe to eat. Toss roasted veggies into a salad, for example, or create a hash out of cubes of sweet potatoes and leftover ham or turkey. You can even use the turkey carcass, as in this delicious soup from allrecipes.com.
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