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Got Holiday Leftovers? Here’s How to Safely Store and Reheat Them

It’s holiday time! Time to put on your stretchy pants, because there will be some good eating happening this time of year. But the joyful (and maybe a little gluttonous) indulgence of a holiday meal doesn’t just end when everyone clears the table. Maybe the best part of eating a delicious holiday meal is the leftovers later.

Leftovers, however, don’t last forever. And this year, with so many families separated during COVID-19, you may even have more leftovers than you know what to do with. How do you properly store all that food?

“Leftovers are definitely popular this time of year, but it’s important to be aware of proper food safety practices,” said Isabel Jacobs, a clinical dietitian at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix. “Many people make mistakes when it comes to packaging, storing and consuming them, which can be very unsafe.”

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both recommend consuming or freezing leftovers within three to four days and have specific recommendations for how long those frozen leftovers should be kept. With good safety practices it is possible to enjoy your tasty leftovers without regrets later (i.e., food poisoning).

From the turkey to the cranberry sauce and all the foods in between, Jacobs shared these tips for safely storing and heating holiday leftovers.

Tips for Storing Holiday Meal Leftovers

Follow the 2-Hour Rule

Always avoid the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F, because bacteria can grow most rapidly within this range. Refrigerate or freeze items within two hours of being served or kept warm via a roasting pan or warmers.

Plan Ahead

Cool hot food down first before freezing and don’t store an excessive amount of room temperature food at once as this can affect your appliance’s ability to maintain temperatures. You may want to consider decreasing the temperature the day before you know you’ll be storing food.

Don’t Put the Whole Turkey in One Bag

Store smaller portions in several bags or containers. This will help ensure your leftovers cool quickly and makes it easier when you reheat them later.

Find the Right Container for the Job

Ziplock bags are good for freezing food, because it’s easier to get them airtight before storing and they don’t take up as much space as other containers. Glass containers are more airtight than plastic containers as plastic containers won’t hold a seal as well in the freezer.

Remember COVID-19 Recommendations

Gathering with a large group outside of your immediate household for extended periods of time places you at higher risk of COVID-19 infection. But if you choose to gather, check out “How to Share Gratitude Not COVID-19” for helpful tips. For more information on holiday meals and gatherings, check out the CDC website.

Invest in a Vacuum Sealer

This pulls all the air out of the package for storage and decreases freezer burn.

How long are your holiday leftovers good for?

Like anything, your holiday leftovers have an expiration date. Before you toss them in your fridge or freezer, make note on the bag or container when you store them. Then follow the reference guide below for how long the leftovers are good for.

Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Recommendations for Holiday Leftovers
Food  Fridge Freezer
 Turkey, ham or beef  3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
 Gravy  1 to 2 days 2 to 3 months
 Cranberry sauce  10 to 14 days 1 to 2 months
 Cooked stuffing  3 to 4 days 1 month
 Mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes  3 to 5 days 10 to 12 months
 Soup  2 to 3 days 4 to 6 months
 Cooked vegetables  3 to 4 days 2 to 3 months
 Pumpkin pie  3 to 4 days 1 to 2 months


Tips for Reheating Holiday Meal Leftovers

Mind the Glass

If you froze food in glass containers, consider defrosting in the fridge first before placing in the oven or microwave. If you go directly from cold to hot, the container may burst!

Follow Defrosting Recommendations

If stored in plastic bags, thaw either in the fridge or warm under running water before reheating. For further reheating tips, check out “A Guide to Freezing (and Defrosting) Food.”

Remember Danger Zones

Leftovers should be heated to 165°F to kill bacteria and ensure the food is properly and evenly reheated.

Although your holiday meals may not be with your entire family and friends, you definitely can put those leftovers to good use. Here’s wishing you and your family a happy and healthy holiday season.

For more holiday cooking tips, check out:

Safety Infographics