Which Thanksgiving Leftovers Should You Eat First?

<p>Photo Illustration by Michela Buttignol for Verywell Health; Getty Images</p>

Photo Illustration by Michela Buttignol for Verywell Health; Getty Images

Fact checked by Nick Blackmer

Key Takeaways

  • Thanksgiving meals often end with a lot of leftovers.

  • Storing leftovers properly and knowing how long the food will keep in the fridge are key to avoiding food poisoning or stomach upset.

  • When in doubt, throw it out.

The only thing better than the actual Thanksgiving meal is all the leftovers you get to enjoy after.

However, it might take you days to work through all the leftover dishes. So which dishes should you eat first? And which ones can last longer in the fridge?

“Food safety is important every day, but it’s even more important during the holidays because people are cooking more, eating more, and entertaining more,” Janet Bourbon, a senior strategic chef at Cargill Protein, told Verywell.

There's a lot of food preparation during the holidays, which means a higher chance of cross-contamination, undercooking, and improper storage that can lead to foodborne illnesses. If food gets left out too long during and after a meal, bacteria can quickly start to grow and make those tasty leftovers a food poisoning risk.

Even at a safe temperature in the fridge, leftovers can spoil. Some bacteria love cold environments, so they can keep growing in the fridge. While the bacteria do not always cause food poisoning, they can affect the quality of the food and make it taste, smell, or look off. Certain types of harmful bacteria like Listeria can also grow in the fridge, though at a slower rate.

Storing food properly is the first step to keeping it safe, but you also want to make sure that you eat up leftovers within the right timeline to avoid foodborne illness.

Learn More: Is It Food Poisoning? How to Tell and What to Do

Thanksgiving Leftovers You Should Eat Right Away

“Most Thanksgiving leftovers will last three to four days in the fridge if stored properly, so you can safely enjoy your leftovers until the Monday after Thanksgiving,” Melissa Mitri, MS, RD, nutrition writer and owner of Melissa Mitri Nutrition, told Verywell.

In terms of eating up the food that’s most likely to go bad first, start with gravy and salad.

“You should consider finishing your gravy first, as some sources suggest gravy only lasts one to two days after Thanksgiving,” Mitri said, adding that salad “tends to wilt or become soggy in your fridge after one or two days, so eat these up sooner rather than later.”

If you have uncooked or raw turkey in your fridge, cook and eat it within one or two days as well.

Learn More: Here's Why You Can't Trust Food Expiration Dates

Leftovers That Can Last 3-4 Days

Cooked turkey, green bean casserole, fruit pies (like apple and pumpkin), rice, and stuffing should ideally be consumed within three to four days of cooking.

The USDA does not recommend refrigerating a whole, cooked turkey with the stuffing inside.

You also need to pay attention to cooked rice, as it could develop a bacteria called Bacillus cereus if it was left at room temperature for more than two hours.

“It can be reheated only once to an internal temperature of 165 F to ensure its safety,” Melissa Azzaro, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian, told Verywell.

Learn More: You May Want to Think Twice About Reheating Leftover Rice

Leftovers That Can Last Up to 5 Days

Foods like mashed potatoes and bread rolls can stay safe for up to five days after you cook them.

While you can’t always tell if a food is spoiled just by looking and smelling it, if leftovers do change taste, smell, or texture, it's safer to skip them.

Food Storage Tips for Your Thanksgiving Leftovers

Storing your leftovers properly is just as important as eating them before they go bad.

Freezing leftovers can be a great way to keep them safe to eat for longer. Properly stored, leftover Thanksgiving turkey can last in the freezer for two to six months. That said, keep in mind that while some leftovers can be safe in the freezer, freezing them may change their texture by the time you thaw and reheat them.

“Whatever you do, remember that air and oxygen are not your friends—and neither are leftovers sitting at room temperature. Wrap leftovers well and refrigerate promptly,” Bourbon said.

Here are a few tips for storing Thanksgiving leftovers safely:

  1. Cool properly: Don’t leave leftovers out for longer than two hours. Put them in shallow dishes and pop them in the fridge or freezer to help them cool quickly.

  2. Refrigerate ASAP: If you’re going to keep food in the fridge, make sure the temperature is set at 40F or colder. Get leftovers into the fridge as soon as possible after your meal.

  3. Use small containers: Store leftovers in small, airtight containers to help them cool faster and stay fresh.

  4. Reheat thoroughly: When it’s time to eat the leftovers, make sure they are reheated thoroughly to an internal temperature of at least 165 F (74 C).

If you’ve followed all the food safety “dos” but find yourself unsure about a plate of leftovers, follow the adage: “When in doubt, throw it out!”

Read Next: How to Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner Living With Diabetes

What This Means for You

Thanksgiving leftovers are great, but they can become a food poisoning risk. Practicing proper food handling and storage can help prevent spoiled food from spoiling your leftovers.

Read the original article on Verywell Health.