There’s nothing quite as joyful as gathering with the people you love around a table piled high with scrumptious dishes. But after the celebration ends, you have a dilemma on your hands: What should you do with all those leftovers?
They might make for tasty lunches for a couple of days—but they can also make you sick if you don’t take the right precautions. Here’s what you need to know about the lifespan of leftovers and how you can safely savor every last bite.
Before digging into dessert…
Pack up those leftovers! Food-borne illnesses strike 48 million people every year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cooked food shouldn’t sit out for more than two hours in the “danger zone”—which is marked by temperatures between 40° F and 140° F and is a breeding ground for bacteria. So before you dish out the pie, plan to put what remains of dinner in the fridge or freezer.
Foods should be stored in shallow, air-tight containers, preferably portioned into single serving sizes, which will allow for easy reheating and encourage timely consumption. Label each dish with a Post-it that includes the name of the food and the date it was prepared so that there’s never a question about the age of your leftovers.
How long is too long?
You’ve been reliving that holiday meal through lunches of leftover turkey and mashed potatoes for a couple of days. But the joy of leftovers can soon turn into a nightmare if you eat them past their prime.
Most foods like mashed potatoes, side dishes, and desserts are safe for three to four days, assuming they’re reheated to at least 165° F. Some foods, especially meat and dairy, don’t last quite as long. Here’s a more specific breakdown of how long the Food and Drug Administration recommends keeping holiday leftovers in the fridge:
3 to 4 Days
Cut meat into serving-size portions and remove it from the bone before packing it up to reduce the risk of bacterial contamination.
1 to 4 Days
Be aware that this depends on the type of fish and how it’s prepared. Leftover sushi, for example, should be discarded after just 24 hours.
1 to 2 Days
Bring that luscious leftover gravy to a full boil when reheating.
3 to 4 Days
Like fish, stuffing’s sustainability will depend on how it was prepared. Was it a separate dish, or prepared inside a bird? Does it contain meat or oysters? The details make a difference.
Feed the community.
Being surrounded by so much food serves as a reminder that others aren’t as fortunate, and some of us wish we could donate holiday leftovers to a local food bank or homeless shelter. The reality of food donation is complicated, though. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about legal liability—the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects food donors from lawsuits (except in cases of gross negligence).
However, most soup kitchens and shelters won’t take donations of homemade food. Call around to organizations in your area to check on their policies, and consider grabbing canned goods or finding out if you can donate fresh produce while you’re at your favorite grocery store. If you have a tendency of making way too much, pare down and donate the money you would have spent on surplus groceries or use it to buy donation-eligible food items instead. After the holidays, if you have unopened cans, jars, or boxes of food you don’t anticipate using in a timely manner, donate them to a local food bank sooner rather than later.
You can also simplify your life and lessen food waste by encouraging your guests to bring a clean container to your feast. They’ll leave with leftovers to enjoy, less food will be thrown out, and fewer disposables like plastic bags and cling wrap will wind up in landfills.
Give your leftovers an encore.
The best way to use up leftovers is to transform them into new meals. You can throw almost any meats and veggies into a hearty stew or soup. Breathe new life into spuds by whipping up potato pancakes, dumplings, or breakfast hash.
Shepherd’s pie was practically invented to make use of leftover meat and mashed potatoes. And why not get a little experimental? Turkey tacos with cranberry “salsa,” savory waffles with ham and cheese, and fried rice studded with the remains from your green bean casserole are sure to be a hit and will empty your fridge in a flash.