Read Before You Eat

How Long Are Leftovers Good For, Anyway? The Verdict On That Week-Old Turkey Dinner

Spending the holidays with food poisoning would be a real buzzkill.

Written by Deirdre Kaye
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Shutterstock

Leftover season is here! Of course, most of us deal with leftovers all year long. Especially if your family is on the smaller side, you often end up making too much for dinner. A small cup of mac and cheese or a leftover burger gets eaten the next day. But once you get into the holidays, leftovers reach new levels. Thanksgiving means that suddenly you're left with pounds and pounds of carved turkey, a giant crock of delicious stuffing, and roughly a bathtub full of gravy. And for many families, especially those with thrifty relatives who are vocal that you should "waste not, want not," the only answer is to eat myriad variations of a turkey dinner for the next two weeks. Is that really healthy, though? How long are leftovers good for? Inquiring stomachs need to know.

Before you head into the holidays, it's good to find out when it's safe to eat leftovers and when you should toss 'em instead — especially since food safety experts say the leftover safety window is much shorter than most of us probably think.

How long do meat and poultry leftovers last?

Since bad leftovers can make you sick, the FDA has made an official safety chart to keep you safe. As you'll see, it varies depending on the foods you're storing and how you store them. Here are their guidelines:

In the Fridge

  • Meat (including poultry), cooked: 3-4 days
  • Fish, cooked: 3-4 days
  • Fish, smoked: 14 days
  • Shrimp, scallops, crawfish, squid: 1-2 days

In the Freezer

  • Meat, cooked: 2-3 months
  • Poultry, cooked: 4-6 months
  • Fish, cooked: 4-6 months
  • Fish, smoked: 2 months
  • Shrimp, scallops, crawfish, squid: 3-6 months

Note: In most instances, you can actually store uncooked meat and poultry in the freezer for much longer. Refer to the FDA's chart for more specific information.

How long do vegetable and fruit side leftovers last?

While the FDA's chart doesn't include sides, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also offers leftover tips. They say food cooked and stored properly can be safe to eat from the refrigerator for 3-4 days and can be kept in the freezer for 3-4 months.

How can you keep leftovers safe?

Aside from making sure to gobble up those leftovers as quickly as possible, there are other steps you can take to ensure your leftovers are safe for consumption.

Start by making sure you always cook the food properly. For meats, make sure the center of your bird, roast, or other meat portion reaches a safe internal temperature, as follows:

  • Red Meats: 145° F
  • Ground Meets: 160° F
  • Poultry: 165°

Then:

  1. Keep cooked food out of the "danger zone" of 40° F and 140° F. If you're leaving your food to sit out for your guests to grab seconds or thirds, your food needs to be kept hotter than 140° F at all times. FSIS warns to throw away food that sits out at room temperature for longer than two hours.
  2. Cool rapidly. Most of us know it's not ideal to put hot food into a cool fridge or cold freezer. Fill a large bowl with ice and set your serving dish (or leftover container) into the ice. Give your leftovers a good stir while they're surrounded by ice. It will help them cool faster before you place them in their final destination.
  3. Store properly. Wrap tightly. Use containers made for the task at hand. And consider storing in more shallow containers, as that allows the entire contents to be kept at the same temperature.
  4. Only refrigerate what you can eat in the next couple of days. As the FDA and FSIS have shared, leftovers only last for a few days in the fridge. Consider only leaving enough for one or two meals in your fridge and then freezing the rest.
  5. Thaw properly. Those frozen leftovers? It's just as important to thaw them properly as it is to cook and store them properly. FSIS suggests thawing slowly in the fridge to keep your food at a safer temperature. For faster thawing, use cold water baths. If you're set on using the microwave, you'll want to ensure your food reaches an internal temperature of 165° F again.

More Leftover Tips

Staring at that hulk of a ham or giant crock of potatoes and wondering how you're ever going to eat or store them? You're in luck.

Buy "carry-out containers" and distribute leftovers to guests.

Did you know you can hop on Amazon and buy the same flat containers you get from your favorite Asian food takeout restaurant? These thin containers are perfect for leftovers because (as long as you don't stack them) they keep everything cooled evenly. They're also easier to transport, so you can pawn off food with relatives, too.

Store some leftovers as full meals.

Using those same carry-out containers, divvy up some of your leftovers into your own holiday "TV dinner." Instead of making full containers of just potatoes, corn, or cranberry sauce, fill your containers like you'd fill a plate. Then, whether you freeze or refrigerate, it's easier to heat up precisely what you need for the next meal.

Look for new ways to eat old food.

You probably already know the wonders of a "Thanksgiving Sandwich." Have you tried those same leftovers on a pizza? Do iiiiiit. *heart eyes* Look at your leftovers and consider what can be done with each item. Perhaps you can turn the mashed potatoes into potato pancakes and serve 'em with a new side. Maybe you should run your ham through the dicer and make soup or ham salad? Craving chili? Corn goes excellent in chili. As long as you store them properly, you can use them for anything when you're ready.