Leftovers Food Safety


What’s the life of your holiday leftovers? Whether it’s turkey or ham that was served at your dinner table this year, find out the safest methods and information for leftovers food safety. Data for this post came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) 2014.

After the holidays our bellies and our refrigerators are full. We want to save every bite-whether it is a few slices of salami, creamy deviled eggs and of course the main dish. Here’s some really valuable information to help you figure out leftovers food safety.

Before you even get to the point of having leftovers, you should know about the Danger Zone. No, not the Kenny Loggins’ song.

Wow. Just wow. I completely forgot about the Tom Cruise hotness from Top Gun.

Ok, back to the food Danger Zone. According to the USDA FSIS, the Danger Zone is a range of temperatures between 40° and 140° Fahrenheit. This Danger Zone is a time in which bacteria grow significantly and potential for illness grows. So why am I sharing information about the Danger Zone? At most holiday gatherings, food is prepared, especially appetizers and left to sit out while people socialize, drink their cocktails, open presents, help kids put toys together, watch holiday movies-see where I am going here? Food sitting in the Danger Zone is dangerous.

Leftovers Food Safety During the Holidays

  • Foods should only be left out for 2 hours (if you are lucky enough to be celebrating the holidays in a warm climate 90+, reduce the time to 1 hour)
  • Hot foods should be kept hot at 140° Fahrenheit or above. This means storing hot dips or those yummy jelly meatballs in a Crock-Pot Slow Cooker or a covered dish that will keep foods warm.
  • Cold foods should be kept cold at 40° Fahrenheit or below, so this means keeping items like cocktail shrimp on ice and cold-serving items like trout dip chilled.

Leftovers Food Safety Tips

  • The biggest takeaway when it comes to leftovers is that leftovers need to be refrigerated within two hours at 40° Fahrenheit or below. Now, this “refrigerated” means after being removed from that safe heating temp of 140° Fahrenheit. So for example, don’t let the food sit out all afternoon or evening and then wrap up leftovers. Do it within two hours of removing the food from the heat. A big challenge, I know, when it isn’t your house but offer to help do the clean up right after the meal and take home the best leftovers! Also keep in mind this safe mantra when you are out holiday shopping and stop for lunch or dinner. Those leftovers need to hit the fridge within two hours-not walking around for hours with you at the mall and then to a movie.
  • When you are ready to dig into those leftovers heat the food until the temp reaches 165° Fahrenheit that means the food should be hot and steaming.

Leftovers Food Safety Packaging and Storage

  • If you are hosting, encourage people to bring their own small reusable storage containers. Trust me, if this means they get to take home leftovers, they will remember and you won’t lose all your storage containers. You can also wrap in small  resealable bags. You can even make up some turkey and ham sandwiches with leftover rolls and just pack them up in bags and store in the refrigerator until people are ready to go home.
  • As the host, ask people to help you wrap up the holiday meal after everyone is done eating. Or as a guest, offer to help wrap up the meal and pack up leftovers. The cook hates to do all the cleanup work and you get the top picks for leftovers!
  • Use small containers and divide into smaller portions or meals. This will help the food cool to the proper temp faster when refrigerated. So don’t store all the ham, turkey, etc. into one large and deep storage container or large bag-divide it up. This is also really great for meal planning too. I find when we store large containers of meals we often find it overwhelming and tire of the meal faster, if we just had a smaller 4-portion meal we are more likely to enjoy it and not waste it.
  • Holiday leftovers like turkey, ham and side dishes can be stored in your refrigerator safely, just follow the USDA FSIS timelines for safe refrigerator storage. For example, cooked slices of ham can be stored for 3-4 days, fish and shellfish 1-2 days and casseroles 3-4 days.
  • Not sure if you’ll get through the leftovers in time, just freeze it! With freezing you just worry about product quality and taste versus safety when determining how long to freeze.  The USDA FSIS has a great resource on their web page with freezing tips, including a great chart on food quality recommendations for freezing here. For example, they recommend freezing cooked poultry for 4 months, cooked meat for 2-3 months, gravy for 2-3 months and casseroles for 2-3 months.
  • Keep a nice sharpie and blue painter’s tape in your kitchen.  This makes labeling food really easy. Put the painter’s tape on food for the freezer or refrigerator and label with the food type and an “eat by” date.

The data source for this post came from the Food Safety and Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture 2014. I highly recommend checking out their web page for any questions you may have year-round about safe food preparation and storage. One of the coolest features they have on their web page is called “Ask Karen” this is an interactive forum that allows you to read common questions, submit your own question and even have a live chat! Looking for some ideas on reusing holiday leftovers, checkout my post on creative ways to resuse Thanksgiving leftovers.

Leftovers-Food-Safety-Tips Dining with Alice

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24 thoughts on “Leftovers Food Safety

  1. This is so important – it’s easy to get caught up in entertaining that you forget that the leftovers aren’t safe to eat anymore. We just had to dump a ton of leftovers that just weren’t safe anymore and my husband was devastated, but I’d rather be safe that sorry!

  2. Thanks for sharing this reminder on food safety. I’m a freak about letting food sit out for too long and I don’t tend to keep leftovers for very long, unlike my hubby, who refuses to toss anything 🙂

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